13.0035 humanities computing discussion

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sun, 23 May 1999 22:06:28 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 35.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sun, 23 May 1999 22:11:29 +0100
From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk3k@jefferson.village.virginia.edu>
Subject: Re: 13.0031 humanities computing discussion

> --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------
> Date: Sun, 23 May 1999 06:31:50 +0100
> From: Luigi M Bianchi <lbianchi@yorku.ca>
> >

[ . . .]

> Much more puzzling to me is the silent welcome with which
> McCarty's article has been greeted.

[ . . .]

> "My intention is to provoke discussion among computing humanists
> across the disciplines, so that they may ask, each of his or her own
> speciality, what current problems are most productively susceptible
> to computing."
> I am indeed looking forward to such a debate.

I don't think the "silence" surrounding Willard's paper is any
reflection of a lack of interest or appreciation; no doubt many people
are hard at work on their upcoming ACH/ALLC presentations. ;)

Some months ago I had occassion to articulate my own view of humanities
computing and wrote these sentences:

"In a paper entitled "How Much Information is There in the World?"
(answer: "a few thousand petabytes"), Michael Lesk is able to estimate
that within the next two years the efficiency of computer memory will be
such that we will be able to digitally save all information comprising
any part of the human record -- even (theoretically) everything that
everyone remembers ("for a single person, this isn't even hard").
Calculations of this sort are carried out in units like terabytes (1000
gigabytes), petabytes (1000 terabytes) and exabytes (1000 petabytes).
The very existence of such units of measurement calls upon us to
contemplate something like a technological sublime, a simultaneous
ecstasy and oblivion immanent in our encounters with the virtual. But
these figures also underscore the necessity of introducing structure and
material perspective into our information and data objects. If
materiality inheres in medium, in media, and in mediation, then I would
argue that the materiality of electronic objects must consist in such
matters as the choice of a certain Document Type Definition to represent
text in accordance with some particular intellectual and editorial

"For me, humanities computing is not about objectivty and totality, the
stuff of Lesk's calculations. It is not about sublime fantasies of data
and access, the vertigo of William Gibson's "lines of light" and "city
lights receeding." Humanities computing is about choices and
compromises, decisions and interventions leveraged against the terabytes
and petabytes of the data flow. We achieve this leverage through
attention to what we in the humanities have always understood best:
matters of representation. Computers allow us to build working models of
those representations, models informed by our knowledge and imagination
of images, texts, and cultural memory."


Some additional thoughts on Willard's paper, which by and large I read with admiration. But if I have criticisms, it is that it devotes too few words to the accomplishments the field has seen already. I can think offhand of as many as half a dozen major electronic editing/textbase projects whose promise has, for many years (since the early nineties), been discussed largely in speculative terms, but which are now gradually coming to fruition -- the time line here would range from perhaps late 1997 on through the coming year. (This period may come to be seen as something of a watershed.) The importance of including such work in a broad-based discussion of humanities computing does not lie simply in creating an occassion for celebratory prose; rather, the intellectual and technical agenda of the field, in materially significant ways (grant funding, for example) will in large part be driven by just such a track record of successes (and failures).*

It's noteworthy that rhetorically, many of the projects I have in mind make the claim that they will serve as "models" for future efforts. In other words, they are self-consciously attempting to contribute to an agenda for humanities computing as a field. Moreover, we should recognize that a critical mass of large-scale electronic editions/textbases will bring into focus an additional "meta" dimension of research: cross-collection searches are a single obvious example, which we can anticipate leading to new work in data standards, metadata, and digital libraries (the digital library community is also, I think, neglected in Willard's piece, but in many ways this seems to me the most vital site humanities computing has today). So in short, I think the various trajectories individual projects set in motion "from below" have _tremendous_ bearing on humanities computing as a whole, and we would do well to acknowledge and record these more explicitly when surveying the field. The institutional conditions within which we work are too complex (and too often, too volatile) for clear distinctions between how an individual project is framed, funded, and supported and how the agenda of the field as a whole might be impacted.

Anyway: some rough thoughts. Certainly I hope this is a conversation that will continue not only here on Humanist but also next month in Charlottesville. Best, Matt

* For a discussion of "The Importance of Failure," a minor theme in Willard's essay, see John Unsworth's article of that same name at <http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/03-02/unsworth.html>.

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Matthew G. Kirschenbaum Department of English Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities University of Virginia

mgk3k@virginia.edu or mattk@virginia.edu http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/

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