The Digital Humanist

Fiormonte_DH_Cover_Front_CP_WEB

On Thursday I was part of a conference here in Verona (see my conference notes) that celebrated the seminar I led at the University of Verona and the English publication of The Digital Humanist by Domenico Fiormonte, Francesca Tomasi, and Teresa Numerico (with a Preface by me). This is the English adaptation/translation of their 2010 Italian book which has finally come out in English. Here is the edited text of my presentation. (Thanks to Domenico for helping me with the Italian!)


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Today we are here to celebrate the end of a laboratory on digital humanities and a beginning with the publication of the The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico and Francesca Tomasi.

Oggi si celebra la fine questa laboratorio che abbiamo creato insieme e una la publicazione in Inglese del libro L’umanista digitale che è stato pubblicato per la prima volta in Italiano nel 2010 e poi aggiornato e tradotto in inglese da Desmond Schmidt e Christopher Ferguson.

The English publication of this book is important to the book because part of what makes it “A Critical Inquiry” is that it questions the universality of English. I use the word universality in two senses, both of which are to be questioned:

First, that there is an assumption that we need a universal language or metalanguage – a dream of philosophers, a dream that can be said to have led to the idea of a universal machine or computer,

E secondo, uso la parola universale per il modo in cui l’Inglese invade l’informatica, dai motori di recerca ai linguaggi di programmazione, come abbiamo sentito oggi nelle presentazioni degli studenti.

Il filosofo della scienza e della tecnologia, Langdon Winner, ha scritto un bel testo dal titolo: “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In questo articolo Winner cerca di navigare tra due posizioni opposte – quella del determinismo tecnologico che sostiene che ogni messaggio è determinato dal tecnologia–

And, he argues that neither can technologies be said to be neutral – the argument of so many technologists that relieves them of the need to take responsibility for what they develop.

Instead Winner argues that we have to attend to the artefacts themselves – some bring baggage or structure experience and some less so.

One of the great contributions of this book is just such a critical attending to the digital artefacts themselves – especially those like search engines or electronic texts that are important to us in the humanities.

Questo libro, invece di parlare dell’informatica in generale – parla delle tecnologie che usiamo come umanisti e ci aiuta a capire l’importanza del nostro lavoro – infatti direi che ci aiuta capire come dobbiamo assumerci la responsabilità per le nostre technologie.

As Heidegger and others point out, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to notice technologies that we use every day like the glasses on the end of our nose. We need to find ways back to noticing the systems of ready-to-hand in which we navigate our desires and dreams. That includes for Heidegger also noticing the way language itself structures our thinking.

But how can we do that? How can we attend? What practices can we draw on from the humanities?

Lev Manovich in an online essay talks about the comedy of breakdowns as an interruption that forces us to notice technology – something that was normal in Russia, but isn’t normal in the West.

Siegfried Zielinski – in Deep Time of the Media proposes an archaeology that pays attention to the failed technologies – the branches that have been left out of the origin myths.

This book provides, I think, three other, uniquely humanities ways into thinking again about technology:

First, it is written from the margins – at least the linguistic margins of an Anglophone discourse of technology (and digital humanities.) It was first written in Italian and draws on an Italian humanities computing tradition. The book reminds us to pay attention to language, so important to the humanities and technology too.

Second, it historicizes the technologies we take for granted – looking, for example, at key figures who imagined our cybernetic future.

Terzo, questo libro non soltanto guarda agli artefatti e ai sistemi in un modo critico, ma guarda anche ai modi in cui noi organizziamo il discorso accademico sull’informatica umanistica – direi che tratta le digital humanities come artefatto umano che deve anche essere criticato, specialmente perché siamo ciechi ai modi nei quali l’organizzazione della disciplina segue la cultura anglo-sassone. The digital humanist ci chiede di criticare come siamo e potremmo essere dei digital humanists. Questa è un questione di ethos – come viviamo con la tecnologia, come ci organizziamo per porre attenzione alla tecnologia

E’ per questo che raccomando questo libro specialmente a voi dotorandi.

For those of you just discovering the digital as a subject for humanities attention I recommend this book – it is a way in for humanists.

Voglio concludere con un commento sulla presentazione dei libri – se un libro e come una neonato – un natio come ne parlava Vico –è anche importante come il libro viene educato insegnato e interpretato.

Remember the lesson of Frankenstein. The tragedy is not that he was made of parts, but that he was abandoned at birth. The same can be said of the digital humanities – a field made of parts.

Questa e la seconda volta che aiuto a presentare questo libro. La prima volta è stata la settimana scorsa a Roma. Direi che addesso sono diventato un presentatore con esperienza nell’ allevamento. Posso annuciare il tour?

As I was just saying in Italian, this is the second time I present this book – and I’ve chosen to do it in two tongues – English and Italian. In this I’m drawing on a Canadian political tradition of bilingual presentations which I have always admired. Such bilingual talks weave two languages to make something that is not a universal language but is free of the particular blindness of a particular language.

My reason for switching is that if we are to avoid the universalizing tendency of technologies of thinking like language we have to habituate ourselves to travel back and forth translating and thinking across. That used to be obvious to the humanities, but we seem to have forgotten that discipline.

Attraversare le lingue è qualcosa che voi Italiani dovete fare per forza – per noi anglo-sassoni è una nuova esperienza – troppo volte aspettiamo che l’atro venga da noi invece di incontrarci a metà strada.

Nel frattempo, The Digital Humanist è un importante tentativo che attraversa Italiano e Inglese per invitarci tutti a dialogare.

 

The Malware Museum

There are a number of stories about The Malware Museum on the Internet Archive. This archive gathers a number of 1980s and 1990s viruses (just the animated parts) with emulators so you can run them and see their visual effects. The Toronto Star story has a quote from Hyponnen on the art of the early viruses,

“You could call it an art form,” he said in an interview. “These early virus-writers were expressing themselves with animations and sounds.”

It wasn’t until later that viruses started encrypting things and blackmailing you to decrypt them or doing other things to make money.

There is an extended talk (50 minutes) by Mikko Hypponen, the security specialist who gave this collection, on The History and the Evolution of Computer Viruses. The talk starts with the first PC virus BRAIN that he traced back to two brothers in Packistan to Stuxnet. (For a good book on Stuxnet see Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day.)

Big computers, big hair: the women of Bell Labs in the 1960s

Picture of Bea

The Guardian has posted a set of pictures by Larry Luckham who took a camera into work in 1967 to take pictures of life at Bell Labs, see Big computers, big hair: the women of Bell Labs in the 1960s. That the collection is entirely of women raises some questions. As the Slashdot article post that pointed me to this collection puts it:

What’s noticeable about the pictures, is that they are of woman. I don’t think this is a result of the photographer just photographing “eye candy”. I think it’s because he was surrounded by women, whom from his comments he very much respected and hence photographed.

In those times, wrangling with a computer was very much seen as “clerical work” and therefore the domain of woman. This can be seen as far back as Bletchley Park and before that Ada Lovelace.

Yet 50 years later, the IT industry has turned full-circle. Look at any IT company and the percentage of women doing software development or similar is woeful. Why and how has this happened? Discuss.

Mina S. Rees and Early Computers

Reading Thomas P. Hughes book Rescuing Prometheus I came across a reference to Dr Mina S. Rees who, in different senior roles at the Office of Naval Research in the late 1940s and early 50s, played a role in promoting early computing research. This led me to her 1950 Science article The Federal Computing Machine Program (December 1950, Vol. 112, No. 2921, pp. 731-736), a terrific survey of the state of computing at the time that is both a pleasure to read and nicely captures the balance/promise of analogue and electronic machines at the time. I was particularly struck by the wry humour of the overview. For example, in the opening she talks about what she will not talk about in her overview, and jokes that,

For an adequate discourse on the military applications of automatically sequenced electronic computers, I direct you to recent Steve Canyon comic strips in which a wonderful electronic brain that could see and shoot down planes at great distances was saved from the totalitarian forces of evil. (p. 731)

The Steve Canyon comic in question is a “Mechanical Brain” story her audience would have recognized. (See this review of the Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1950 compilation.) Interestingly (perhaps because she had read Jay Forrester’s reports about air defense), Whirlwind, one of the computers she mentions, went on to be developed into the SAGE system which was designed to semi-automatically, “see and shoot down planes at great distances”.

Rees’ humour, humility and prescience can also be seen in her concession that visual displays and interface are important to certain problems,

As one who has suspected from the beginning that all oscilloscope displays were manipulated by a little man standing in hiding near by, I am happy now to concede that in several of the problems we are now attacking the introduction of visual display equipment has substantial merit. (p. 732)

She recognized the value of a “broad point of view” that looked at computing as more than efficient number crunching. This article reminds us of how computing was understood differently in the 1940s and 1950s and thereby helps us reacquire a broad point of view on computing with some humour.

For a memorial biography of Dr Rees see the memorial here (PDF).

Snowden Surveillance Archive

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and partners have announced and released a searchable Snowden Surveillance Archive. This archive is,

a complete collection of all documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked in June 2013 to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and subsequently were published by news media, such as The GuardianThe New York Times, The Washington PostDer SpiegelLe MondeEl Mundo and The Intercept.

It is dynamic. As new documents are published they will be added.

You can hear the announcement and Snowden in CBC’s stream of Snowden Live: Canada and the Security State.

One thing I don’t understand is why, in at least one case, the archived document is of lower quality than the one originally released. For example, compare the Snowden Archive of the CSEC Document about Olympia and the version from the Globe and Mail. The Snowden one is both cropped and full of artefacts of compression (or something.)

One of the points that both Snowden and the following speakers made is that the massive SIGINT system set up doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks, it can be used retrospectively to look back at some event and figure out who did it or develop intelligence about a someone targeted. One of the speakers followed up on the implications of retrospective surveillance – what this means for citizens is that things you do now might come back to haunt you.

The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925)

From Geoff I learned about The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925). The Isolator was developed in 1925 by Hugo Gernsback a science fiction pioneer (and editor of Science and Invention magazine.) The idea is to force you to focus on your writing (with lots of oxygen.)

One wonders if it works? Could it be even more useful now?

Truth and Reconciliation

Yesterday we went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event here in Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton is the last national event before the commissioners start working on a report for 2015.

No blog entry can capture the learning and emotions of attending just a small part of the event. In the end I could only listen to some of the testimony before being overcome. I will never forget a survivor of a residential school here in St. Albert (outside of Edmonton) talking about how he and other boys would be sent out into the cold to dig graves for those who died. Imagine boys of 9 to 13 in minus 30 degree weather burying their classmates with no support from anyone.

I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” which she uses to describe the character of a different evil. This evil unfolded with educational intentions, something we educators should remember. This evil unfolded with the complicity of the major churches who set up and ran the schools, something those of us who belong to churches should remember. Here is a map of the residential schools run by the Anglican church to which I belong. This evil affects the survivors and their families still. Homelessness, (is) one lasting impact of Indian residential schools.

In his closing address, Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair, talked about how, now that we have heard truth, we need to turn to reconciliation. As one of the final speakers put it, “The Journey is On!”

Cynthia Ide Rockwell (1936 – 2013)

They also serve who only stand and waite.

Beloved mother, wife and friend Cynthia (Cinny) Ide Rockwell passed away on Sunday, April 28th, 2013 at home in Rome, Italy. Born in 1936 in Hollywood Hospital she went to The Putney School in Vermont where she met her future husband and then to Cornell University. She and Peter Barstow Rockwell were married in 1958 in New London Connecticut. In 1961 she, Peter and her two year-old son Geoffrey went to Italy for what was going to be a 6-month stay and never left, moving from Liguria to Rome in 1962 where they lived in series of apartments before settling in Monteverde.

Continue reading Cynthia Ide Rockwell (1936 – 2013)

Tory 1908 Address to First Convocation of U of Alberta

Voyant Word Cloud of 1908 Address

Here at the University of Alberta we return for inspiration to the founding President’s words at the 1908 Address to the First Convocation. In particular we have taken to heart Henry Marshall Tory’s words about “uplifting the whole people.” Here is the relevant paragraph,

In many of the older universities men of merit were deprived of the privileges which they offered sometimes by creed or class legislation. The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal. This should be the concern of all educated men, it be never be forgotten.

The phrase “uplifting of the whole people” has become the promise of the University though I doubt many of us think about it more than casually. In Tory’s address it is connected with nation building and civilization. Every state in the USA has a university, now every province in Canada will get one. The state university has a special responsibility to the people. There is also a strong thread of praire populism to the address. He recognizes that universities have excluded people and been sites of privilege, something to be corrected in the “modern state university” that lists to the demands of the people and relates to them.

Tory touches on a number of other issues in his talk that we should also think through. He talks about the importance of pure intellect to the university. He connects this with “the highest ideals of life.”

[Universities] have arisen as a result of the demand of the intellect pure and simple. Quite apart from practical results, the restless energy of the human mind, slow to accomplish results, but never resting in its efforts, has demanded that a place should be found where men may be given an opportunity to fit themselves by rigid training to solve the problems of life. Thus it has become the task of the university to hold up the highest ideals of life; to help create in the hearts of men and to sustain in them a love for those things which are higher than food and raiment; to emphasize the teaching of the greatest of all teachers that man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesses. It has become a part of their recognized responsibility to instill a love of those things which really constitute greatness; to emphasize the things of the mind above those of the body; in relation national life to place patriotism above party; in our relations to others to place love above hate; in our relation to knowledge to choose truth and not error; in our relations to ourselves to be men not things.

He returns later to these high ideals which turn out to be echoed in the “moral and spiritual sense of the Christian world” which has triumphed over materialism. The university is to be a place that fosters ideals that are consistent with the Christian world and not a “materialistic philosophy.”

Did I say materialism was dead? I say it again! Man knows that he is greater than the clod and in that knowledge lies his supremacy. The age of thought has only begun. In spite of the practical and materialistic philosophy which expresses itself still [in] the commercial spirit of the age I assert the deepest conviction of my being that thought and mind are still supreme. We who teach may be called idealists. Let me say to you that the idealist still lives and lifts his head to the stars and declares the impossible can be accomplished. All the ages of progress have been his ages and when the spirit of a material age is dead and the philosophy of materialism is forgotten the idealist will still be conquering the world.

Tory touches on the importance of faculty and admonishes that faculty not be treated as “state officers.”

The members of the university staff must not be thought of in the ordinary way as state officers. They must rather be regarded in the light of independent thinkers and scholars who are to bring us into that appreciation of those higher things about which I was speaking a moment ago.

He then goes on to talk about teaching and giving faculty the freedom to teach well. He trusts us to handle this freedom with discretion.

Our professors are first of all teachers. To them the largest freedom must be given. It is their duty to push into the heart of things that the truth and nothing but the truth may be, discovered. I am sure they will temper freedom with discretion.

While on the whole the address is remarkably current there are two dated and distasteful aspects. First of all is the sexism of the language that talks only of men and manhood. There is no recognition that women might be part of the whole people. I hear the echo of muscular and rational Christianity in this address. Secondly there is a race consciousness or pride in Alberta’s youth and mingling of peoples that strikes me as vanity.

We are not a degenerate race, we are a race produced by the mingling of the best blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey. We are rich in the inheritance of honour bequeathed to us through a thousand years of noble history and we may make it our daily thirst to increase it with splendid service, so that if it be a sin to covet honour, Canadians should be the most offending souls alive.

Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation – YouTube

The kind folks at the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin have put up the video of the “conversation” I participated in on the 6th of March. The event was called Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation. Curtin Wong is now at Microsoft Research, but worked for some time at the Voyager Company back in the days when they were developing some of the most interesting multimedia works.