14.0653 black-box vs glass-box methods

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Fri Feb 09 2001 - 01:53:42 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 653.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 09 Feb 2001 06:51:16 +0000
             From: "David L. Hoover" <david.hoover@nyu.edu>
             Subject: Black-box vs glass-box methods

    Several responses to Willard's interesting black-box question have been
    enlightening. I'd like to respond to Willards scenario of the two
    A uses a transformation without being interested in or understanding its inner
    workings, and B goes to a computer scientist, learns about the transformation
    and creates a new one. I guess I'd be inclined to agree that the first is at
    best only marginally humanities computing, and is not very interesting from the
    point of view of computing. The second seems more interesting from a computing
    point of view.

    Let's look at a couple of other scenarios.

    1. Suppose researcher A gets access to an important medieval literary
    manuscript, digitizes it, creates a web site at which a searchable PDF version
    of the document resides, along with links to related materials, and creates and
    moderates a listserve devoted to discussion of the manuscript's importance and
    implications. There is nothing particularly revolutionary here, and the
    researcher is not writing primarily about the computer techniques or software,
    but rather using them to create a significant scholarly literary resource that
    would be impossible without the technology. Is the project valuable? To
    whom? Is it humanities computing? If not, what is it?

    2. Suppose researcher B selects a cutting-edge computer technique normally used
    in the business world and applies it to a set of well-known texts.
    Collaborating with one of the programmers who wrote the software, B writes
    an article in
    which he explains how the technique works and the modifications that were
    required to
    apply it to literary texts. By using the new techniques, B also is able to show
    that Faulkner couldn't have written _The Sun Also Rises_. Here B is writing
    about the technology primarily, and even making a contribution that might be of
    interest in other fields that use the technique, but the results might not be
    very interesting to literary scholars. Is this project valuable? To whom? Is it
    humanities computing? If not, what is it?

    Willard seems to be suggesting that achieving disciplinarity for Humanities
    Computing may require that work recognized as belonging to the discipline be
    focused on the implications or theory behind the computer application. I'm not
    sure what I think about this, but I do wonder whether it doesn't create a
    precariously narrow definition for a discipline. If the work moves too far
    toward the computer techniques, it risks becoming marginal computer science. If
    it moves too far toward one of the established humanities disciplines, it risks
    becoming marginal history, musicology, literary study, or whatever.

    David L. Hoover, Associate Chair & Webmaster, NYU Eng. Dept. 212-998-8832
                david.hoover@nyu.edu      http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/english/

    "Adolph slid back into the thicket and lay down behind a fallen log to see what would happen. Not much ever happened to him but weather." Willa Cather

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