Edoardo Ferrarini on the Digital Humanities in Italy

Edoardo Ferrarini gave a talk yesterday on “Lo statuto disciplinare dell’Informatica umanistica” or “The Status of Humanities Informatics” (with a possible pun on status/statute). Ferrarini works in the area of Latin Literature of the Middle Ages and Humanism at the University of Verona. The talk was interesting and important in three ways:

  • First, he gave an Italian history of humanities computing which both looked at what happened (and is happening in Italy) and looked at what could happen given the current regulations around programs. The second part I didn’t quite follow as it assumed a knowledge of the statutes that govern the academy here, but my sense was that they are constrained by national definitions of what is allowed. In particular they are dealing with a changing, but rigid definition of what is allowed in the way of programs.
  • Second, he provided a definition of Humanities Informatics (IU) that drew on a long Italian tradition that we (in the English speaking world) are largely ignorant of. His definition draws on definitional work of Tito Orlandi, though I’m not so sure how closely. More on the definition below.
  • Third, he used this definition as a lens with which to review what IU should be and what it could be in the face of the statutes and status of the field in Italy. He argued for it being an interdisciplinary field available across humanities disciplines.

One aspect of the talk that made it interesting to me was how alien it was, in the good sense that it made the field strange to me. The history of humanities computing in Italy was not the one I was familiar with except at points like its Busa origin myth. Ferrarini discussed critical Italian events like the report in the news in 2002 that the then Minister Letizia Moratti was questioning the value of various programs like the study of flowers and humanities computing. This led to a petition and, I sense, a coming together of the Italian community. Perhaps more important is that many programs in Italy have closed, a trend that runs counter to the folk view that the digital humanities is expanding. Because the history of the field in Italy is different, the epochs or phases of the field are also different.

Ferrarini also made the general, and to my mind, very important point that in Italy the history of IU is more or less co-extensive with that of computer science. If anything Busa’s work precedes Computer Science as a discipline. This isn’t necessarily true in all countries, but it is point worth making.

In sum,  I won’t be the first person to say this, but we could all learn more about the different stories being told about humanities computing. It reminds us that what we take to be a canonical history is neither.

Defining the Digital Humanities

Also alien was the definition of IU which I translate as:

Humanities informatics is the study of the application of the model of computation to humanities disciplines.

This translation has some problems, so don’t blame its awkwardness on Ferrarini, but it gives us three key ideas to unpack: “application”, “model”, and “computation”. In so far as this draws on Tito Orlandi’s work we can see a focused variant of it in the chapter he led on European studies on formal methods in the humanities:

[W]e will attempt to define the core in terms of the traditional combination of data structures and algorithms, applied to the requirements of a discipline:

  • The methods needed to represent the information within a specific domain of knowledge in such a way that this information can be processed by computational systems result in the data structures required by a specific discipline.
  • The methods needed to formulate the research questions and specific procedures of a given domain of knowledge in such a way as to benefit from the application of computational processing result in the algorithms applicable to a given discipline.

I believe Ferrarini would unpack the model of computation as Orlandi has in terms of data structures and algorithms. I’m also struggling with definition as a move – how useful is defining to a field? Does it limit or open possibilities? I suspect it is a move necessitated in Italy because of the questions and stress about the very legitimacy of the field, something we don’t really face any longer. Certainly established fields like Philosophy or Literary Studies don’t spend as much time as we do on definitions.

Anyway, I want to speculate the three terms in reverse order.


Key to the definition is that this is not about computing in the broad sense of anything having to do with the culture or industry of computing. This Ferrarini would consider the history, sociology, or cultural studies of computing. Instead by computation they mean the logical processing of formal data. More precisely he talks about the model of computation, which is a formal model(s) theorized about and within computer science. I think the point for Ferrarini and Orlandi is that there is a lot to be learned by thinking about models of computation and how they can be applied to the content and questions of the humanities. In so far as the model of computation is a mathematical model of a machine that allows one to model operations on data, it should be possible to reason abstractly (or mathematically) about what computers can and can’t do with the stuff of the humanities. In particular we can study how computational data structures and algorithms can be applied to our stuff. There is rich terrain here for philosophizing about the mapping of the humanities onto an abstract model of a machine and the very idea of mapping (or modelling) itself. In this way IU would be a form of applied philosophy of science and technology.

In addition, there are some interesting problems with this word in the definition triggered by the instability of our ideas about computation. If we turn to philosophers of mind and cognitive science we find debate about exactly what computation is and whether models do what computing is doing. I am reminded of Hume’s critique of the argument from design for God’s existence. See for example, this talk by Brian Cantwell Smith. For the purposes of the definition it works for Ferrarini to limit IU to a more formal consideration, but the moment we question computation then definition no longer serves in the way I think Orlandi and Ferrarini want it to.


It is interesting that Ferrarini uses the word “model” in his definition. What is modeling and how could it be related to computing? One model is McCarty’s from Humanities Computing. Modeling is how Willard McCarty believes we should think about what we are doing in humanities computing. McCarty defines it thus:

By “modeling” I mean the heuristic process of constructing and manipulating models’, a “model” I take to be either a representation of something for purposes of study, or a design for realizing something new. (McCarty, W. “Modeling: A Study in Words and Meaning“. A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.)

This is not, however, how Ferrarini is using the word model. He is not saying that IU is modeling with computers for the humanities, though I suspect he would be quite sympathetic to this model of IU as a pragmatic description of what we do. Instead he has IU as the application of the model – the using of a particular model of computing from computer science and I take it that this is because he, like Orlandi, is trying to exclude from the definition all the trendy computing fads that sweep the industry. The idea is partly to anchor a scientific core to IU in what is taken to be the scientific core of informatics (or computer science.) This then provides a more stable definition that can be used for long term disciplinary purposes. It is also a matter of finding a theoretical core in a model as formal theory. After all, everyone respects theory more than fads in the humanities. They legitimize a field within the academy in ways that current trends can’t.

Again, we have a problem with the stability of the model, especially one inherited from a different discipline that may have moved on. Does computer science really have one stable model or are there competing ones? For that matter does Computer Science really explore the model in ways that we can borrow or is it a point of departure for what they want to do? Or, have they moved on to do other things like software engineering or teaching programming and give only lip-service to the models. For that matter, does it really matter to us? One can tell a story about Computer Science as a field that questions the place of the model of computation, but that doesn’t stop us from using it. Certainly in cognitive science and philosophy models of the mind and computation are open questions.

Above all, I wonder about basing anything on a model of computation rather than computation itself. It commits IU to playing with a surrogate. The model, after all, is not the thing, but an attempt to abstract it in a way that can be manipulated usefully. It commits IU to being a field that doesn’t actually have to do any computing, but only plays with the model to see if it will work for us. This may look like a nice theoretical core with which to anchor the field, but I worry about anchoring a field to a surrogate when we have the real thing. Or, to put  it another way, I worry about committing a field to a particular theory when part of what the humanities mean for me is an orientation to questioning all theories, especially those grounding our fields.

Orlandi’s more pragmatic definition doesn’t, depending on how your read it, suffer from this problem. It is defines the field in terms of methods that will work on computers for another field. It could be that Ferrarini is using the model of computation as a short hand for data structures and algorithms.

I should also note that McCarty’s model of the field doesn’t suffer this problem of surrogacy either. He sees HC as including the making of working models, their manipulation, and their evaluation.


The last word I want to look at is “application.” This is where the humanities come in. IU is a form of applied computer science the way bioinformatics is. In this case it is about the application of insights from CS to the fields called the humanities. Actually, for Ferrarini IU is the study of application, which I take to mean that there is a broader field like “digital humanities” that is simply the application of computing, while IU concerns it itself explicitly with thinking about application – asking questions about data structures and algorithms. While anyone might do digital humanities when they use computing in their research or teaching, you are doing IU when you think about the possibilities and limitations of application. Further, we need people thinking about application and communicating that to guide those who just use the technologies.

The nice thing about having the word application in the definition is that is opens the definition up to studying the process of applying, the ethics of applications, and so on, though I’m not sure that is what Ferrarini meant. All of a sudden the definitions sounds a lot closer to what most of us do which is experimental in the sense that apply computing and see if it works. I take it that studying the application could include ethnographic methods for understanding why some projects work or not. For that matter we can stretch to definition to include the study of applications – ie. the study of the tools, resources, archives and so on that have applied computing. What were they supposed to do? Did they work? Can we care and repair them, to use Jentery Sayers’ phrase for a recent MLA session. I prefer this more inclusive sense because it doesn’t privilege the theory, but puts it in dialogue with the application. I recognizes the art to the digital computing where one is experimenting as a way of fiddling. Or, as I have like to describe what we do, “thinking-through” application.

In conclusion, Ferrarini’s rich definition opens up a dialogue about what the digital humanities could be across different histories, languages and contexts. What I didn’t get a chance to ask Ferrarini was how he would feel about some alternative and evolving definitions like:

  • the application of computing in the humanities
  • the modeling of the humanities using computers
  • the study of computer modeling in the humanities

I would end by warning readers that I may very well have misunderstood and/or mistranslated parts of definition. That said, it is precisely when thinkers make strange what you thought you knew that you can think about it afresh. This would be thinking-through translation. This is the message Domenico Fiormonte returns us to when arguing for multiculturalism in the digital humanities.