18.760 wired solitaire or games of many hands, as suits

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 3 May 2005 07:09:33 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 760.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois (57)
         Subject: networked and solitaire

   [2] From: Wendell Piez <wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com> (172)
         Subject: Re: 18.752 beyond being dubious and gloomy

         Date: Tue, 03 May 2005 07:00:35 +0100
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: networked and solitaire


In Humanist 18.752, Vika takes up Wendell's invocation of the topos of the
solitary scholar. I would like to emphasize the "preserve" in what she
quotes. The object of Wendell's discourse is not so much persons as spaces:

> Hello, Wendell!
> You write:
> > Rather, I think the blind spot is much closer to home, in that
> > humanities disciplines have long been constituted, and structured
> > institutionally (as has been observed many times on HUMANIST), as
> > for solitary scholars, while our work shows more than ever how
dependent we
> > are on the various talents of many. Accordingly, nominal and actual


> I guess I had taken it as a given that the "collaboration is good"
> message was sort of preaching to the choir, on Humanist. But hadn't
> the discussion started as one about academe as a whole, whose
> mindstate on this (as you've pointed out) is markedly different from
> that of humanities computing? Maybe I was projecting. :)


Vika goes on to make the plea for greater communication. Somehow the
discourse has shifted from collaboration to communication. I think there
is some advantage in considering how the spaces for solitary reflection
and experimentation inform the shape of collaborative environments,
institutional preserves open to sharing privilege.

It is an insufficiency of solitary space for thought that hampers the
academy and the disciplines in the communicative enterpise posited by Vika
and others. This is not just a baby and bath water situation. It is about
being aware of what you berate -- you may be undermining core values that
sustain not institutions but civilizations.

What will garner the social capital to support the institutions not only
of higher learning but educational institutions offering to all,
regardless of merit, ability or wealth, opportunities to participate in
collective intellectual and cultural life?

A counter-intuitive, perhaps, response is to boldly suggest that what the
academy, including the discipline of humanities computing, requires is
more space for the solitary practice of thinking and tinkering. In such
spaces Tyche sometimes has a role equal to that of Techne.

Innovation: Essays by Leading Canadian Researchers
Ed. by James Downey and Lois Claxton
Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2002 p. 15

While researchers may use highly sophisticated machines, they themselves
are subject to the same vagaries of chance experience as the rest of us.
Their discoveries are often a unique and unpredictable mix of curiousity,
circumstance, skill, and personal reflection.

If you knock the image of that solitary scholar at play, you risk
destroying the chances of enlarging the preserve or at least making it
more permeable.

Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
Skill may be the capacity to manipulate perceptions of knowledge.
Magic is.
         Date: Tue, 03 May 2005 07:01:26 +0100
         From: Wendell Piez <wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com>
         Subject: Re: 18.752 beyond being dubious and gloomy
Hi Vika,
At 02:15 AM 4/29/2005, you wrote:
 >I guess I had taken it as a given that the "collaboration is good"
 >message was sort of preaching to the choir, on Humanist.  But hadn't
 >the discussion started as one about academe as a whole, whose
 >mindstate on this (as you've pointed out) is markedly different from
 >that of humanities computing?  Maybe I was projecting.  :)
Oh no, I think I'm only guilty of bringing us around in circles. Part of my
difficulty is I can hardly presume to know, judge or compare. I hear and
acknowledge that there may be differences in the approaches of humanities
depts vs others, but have no especial first-hand knowledge of it, and can
hardly speak even of humanities programs these days. (As you know I haven't
had an academic job since 1997.)
But I think what's at issue here is not simply to rehearse the theme,
Collaboration is Good. Rather, it's to recognize and envision *how* a new
discipline can approach these questions, as part of the examination of how
HC relates to the humanities. The narrower question of structuring and
rewarding collaborative work is perhaps an instance of the general problem
of relating or "fitting" HC to (say) English, area/cultural studies,
History, Italian, Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophy, Post-structuralist
Literary Critical Theory, Classical Chinese, or any other sector or
subsector of whatever the "humanities" are. And not merely theoretically,
but in very practical ways.
 >But yes, to be clear:  realizing that this may mean different things
 >for readers of this list, the pain I want to ease is that of The
 >System.  Specifically, the view of the humanist as a solitary scholar
 >has two damaging effects.  It makes questioning the humanities'
 >usefulness to society easy:  an individual scholar is easier to
 >dismiss than a group of collaborators.  Perhaps more importantly, the
 >assumption of solitude (and the career-related interpersonal politics
 >that follows close behind) is such a pervasive view that it has become
 >the truth.  Hence all the dire warnings to graduate-students-to-be:
 >don't go into it unless you can't imagine doing anything else.
 >Graduate school in the humanities will kill your love for the subject.
 >   Worse:  when you do achieve the coveted goal, your troubles are just
 >beginning.  And on and on, endless rants about the tenure system, the
 >cut-throat before and the complacency after, bitterness etc.
Thankfully I can breathe easy -- there are many things I miss about the
academy, but what you describe isn't among them. The question to me is, if
not this, then, what? if the assumption is that you do it alone, or you're
not doing anything at all, how to undo that assumption? Somehow the scope
and scale of other kinds of contribution have to be made visible and
There are of course pioneers of HC who have Done It Alone. (Many of them
read this list, and if only they were accorded more of the honor they
deserve, we might not have such a problem, since these rare people do
understand.) But I think there's good reason to think that going forward,
HC will have to adapt itself increasingly to more of a collaborative model.
That there can be a very effective and powerful "core collaboration"
between a scholar and another person -- call it Lead Developer if you like
-- has actually been recognized for some time within HC:  Susan Hockey, for
example, has reflected on this. I am thinking of more far-flung projects as
well, but it might have been Susan who first alerted me (we're talking
mid-90s) to how the Developer role (we had no name for it) is a *different
thing* from the role of the scholar, making its own demands and
constituting a very special kind of contribution. (The primary job
requirement for this job was/is listening and communicating skills -- but
that's too much to go into here.) And how the most successful projects are
often based on a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between
these lead collaborators, both of whom have sufficient understanding of the
other ("cross-over" knowledge, if you like -- the mutual cultivation of
which is part of the fun) to be able to respect fully the contribution of
the other. The developer learned about early Classical epigraphy (say)
while the scholar was learning about how digital media work. Part of what
this implies is that what the developer brings is recognized as having an
*intellectual* dimension -- which of course it has.
The danger of this kind of arrangement goes a bit beyond ordinary
collaborations, because the skills required to do the development work
(including but not limited to "programming", and increasingly, perhaps, not
even demanding much if any "programming" at all, per se) are far afield and
remote from what Humanists are commonly called on to do (what does a
student of 20th-century French cinema know from MIME-types?). So they are
often regarded as being rather magical and scary, or alternatively
discounted for being somehow menial and undemanding, just button-pushing.
On the contrary, such a collaboration works well when prejudices and
misconceptions about the unknown are set aside, challenging the ego but
opening the mind ... another reason those of us who have been "bit by the
bug" of such work like it so much. It's a refreshing change from living
entirely in the stacks (mind you, I love the stacks) and receiving only
mystified looks from your friends when you try to explain the strange
flowers you are dutifully cultivating in your brain.
(FWIW it's precisely because this kind of exchange can itself be valuable
that there is a market for certain kinds of technical consulting in the
private sector. Not every corporation, government agency or non-profit is
as well-prepared even as are academics to enter into such exchanges -- but
those who do can find it an extremely worthwhile investment.)
Accordingly, I think we have happened on a central question when we wonder
whether mainstream humanities will become more, or less, open to
collaborative models of work. Many HC projects have been initiated by
scholars in a more-or-less traditional mode, who bring on a developer or
even build teams of developers to contribute on the technical side.
Typically the scholar is a tenured professor who commands some measure of
resources, while the developer is a hot-shot grad student living on a
shoestring; in any case many of these are very fine projects, yet it is
readily apparent how they fit relatively well into the "solitary scholar"
system, as such a hierarchy is not very unlike other kinds of
mini-hierarchies (sometimes called "fiefdoms" or even little "empires" --
or just, TAships) that routinely spring up within the university system.
Thus, scholar/developer is masked as a more traditional master/apprentice
relation -- something the institution already knows how to support, at
least up to a point. Sadly, however (and like all such), this arrangement
can have a dark side, as the technical work can be taken for granted and
the very creative people who do it (who are nevertheless dependents
economically and institutionally) are discounted and patronized (in the
sense that they may be praised, but not rewarded -- see
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-04/ps-pbc042705.php for a
discussion of similar lapses of fairness along gender lines) -- or at any
rate sidelined when the money runs out. Many readers could tell stories
about this kind of thing -- and would acknowledge, I think, how even in the
best of cases it goes only one step towards the more equitable and
mutually-supportive collaborative framework we are trying to envision.
Thus the best indicator of progress may be watching where you young
super-developers, who are not really Lone Wolf pioneers but rather masters
in collaboration, will find work in the years going forward. Will you find
places in the academy where your work and contributions are understood,
valued, and rewarded with advancement and first-class status? Or will your
choices be limited to either the few hotly-contested jobs secured by
entering the (increasingly marginal) paper-based publish-and-perish cycle
(where you compete also with peers who are non-technical), or jobs with
uncertain security, marginal compensation (especially in comparison to
market rates for your skills) and poorly defined (yet still considerable)
responsibilities -- or will you leave the academy altogether, and discover,
as I have, that no, one's intellectual life is not over?
What would a far-seeing dean or provost do when confronted with this
situation, I wonder? In what department does the Chair of Humanities
Computing sit, and how will the work be structured, if not in the old
invidious way, so that full credit can be granted for the intellectual work
of development as well as, and in tandem with, an HC project's purely
scholarly contribution? I suppose a program or department could be set up
in which what I've called "development", the programming, meta- and
para-programming (by which I mean all the design and organizational work as
well as the more persnickety aspects of production and operation), could be
recognized, encouraged, framed and formalized, even while "Humanities
Computing" continues to be regarded as the *fusion* of this contribution
with more properly "scholarly" work whatever you consider that to be
(whether history, literary criticism, linguistics or what have you). The
center of gravity here is probably digital electronic media, not Humanities
Computing as such. But maybe neither of these is best thought of without
the other.
 >Perhaps I misspoke when using the word "polymath".  In science fiction
 >terms, when it comes to preserving our cultural essence, computing and
 >the network are moving us towards a hive mind.  Having a less
 >hierarchical and more distributed network of knowledge containers
 >(which is not to imply that all of the nodes would have an *equal*
 >amount of knowledge) would make it less important who has which bits.
 >But it would make it crucial for us to be able to communicate with
 >each other much more effectively than we can get away with now.
 >Hopefully, such an approach to storing knowledge would encourage us to
 >re-juggle the ways in which we communicate it, and make it easier to
 >advance in a collective understanding of who we are.
I share the sentiment -- but I don't anticipate the hive mind. There will
be broader distribution (there already is, and it considerably overlaps the
boundaries of the academy), but nodes will differentiate not only by how
much they know, but also what they know and how they work with it. There
will be differences in style as well as substance, and more of a range of
choices and available directions -- with the result that sometimes it will
matter more, not less, who has which bits. A hive mind works as one, and
has an even texture. This will be very bumpy, and in layers. To intertwist
this theme into the "Brittany" thread, culture will not be lost in this
unkempt carnival of collaboration. It will just be contested -- as it
always has been.
Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
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Received on Tue May 03 2005 - 02:18:44 EDT

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