The New York Times has a video series called the Retro Report. One story is about Dungeons & Dragons: Satanic Panic. It looks at the media fed moral panic that eventually lost steam. It ends by praising all the “leadership” and “moral” skills learned. Now experts are recommending “free play” and … ironically … role playing games are now the solution!
I just found out that a paper we gave in 2014 was just published. See The Rise and Fall Tool-Related Topics in CHum. Here is the abstract:
What can we learn from the discourse around text tools? More than might be expected. The development of text analysis tools has been a feature of computing in the humanities since IBM supported Father Busa’s production of the Index Thomisticus (Tasman 1957). Despite the importance of tools in the digital humanities (DH), few have looked at the discourse around tool development to understand how the research agenda changed over the years. Recognizing the need for such an investigation a corpus of articles from the entire run of Computers and the Humanities (CHum) was analyzed using both distant and close reading techniques. By analyzing this corpus using traditional category assignments alongside topic modelling and statistical analysis we are able to gain insight into how the digital humanities shaped itself and grew as a discipline in what can be considered its “middle years,” from when the field professionalized (through the development of journals like CHum) to when it changed its name to “digital humanities.” The initial results (Simpson et al. 2013a; Simpson et al. 2013b), are at once informative and surprising, showing evidence of the maturation of the discipline and hinting at moments of change in editorial policy and the rise of the Internet as a new forum for delivering tools and information about them.
This is a story from early in the technological revolution, when the application was out searching for the hardware, from a time before the Internet, a time before the PC, before the chip, before the mainframe. From a time even before programming itself. (Winter 1999, 3)
Father Busa is rightly honoured as one of the first humanists to use computing for a humanities research task. He is considered the founder of humanities computing for his innovative application of information technology and for the considerable influence of his project and methods, not to mention his generosity to others. He did not only work out how use the information technology of the late 1940s and 1950s, but he pioneered a relationship with IBM around language engineering and with their support generously shared his knowledge widely. Ironically, while we have all heard his name and the origin story of his research into presence in Aquinas, we know relatively little about what actually occupied his time – the planning and implementation of what was for its time one of the major research computing projects, the Index Thomsticus.
This blog essay is an attempt to outline some of the features of the Index Thomisticus as a large-scale information technology project as a way of opening a discussion on the historiography of computing in the humanities. This essay follows from a two-day visit to the Busa Archives at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. This visit was made possible by Marco Carlo Passarotti who directs the “Index Thomisticus” Treebank project in CIRCSE (Centro Interdisciplinare di Ricerche per la Computerizzazione dei Segni dell’Espressione – Interdisciplinary Centre for Research into the Computerization of Expressive Signs) which evolved out of GIRCSE (Gruppo not Centro – or Group not Centre), the group that Father Busa helped form in the 1980s. Passarotti not only introduced me to the archives, he also helped correct this blog as he is himself an archive of stories and details. Growing up in Gallarate, his family knew Busa, he studied under Busa, he took over the project, and he is one of the few who can read Busa’s handwriting.
Original GIRCSE Plaque kept by Passarotti
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The tiny figure crawls out from under the sands. It’s dead.
“You win,” it says. “Okay, my turn again.”
Nothing left to do. Time passes.
The sun crawls higher.
*** SHADE ***
I just finished playing the interactive fiction (IF) Shade (2000) by Andrew Plotkin. A poetic work that plays with the genre without playing for the sake of playing. The meditation on life and the end of the game is for real and fiction. You can see other fictions by Plotkin at Zarf’s Interactive Fiction and/or read a nice review Enlightening Interactive Fiction: Andrew Plotkin’s Shade by Jeremy Douglass (electronic book review: 2008). I also recommend the review as a nice introduction to IF in general.
If you need some hints (as I did) see the comments here (and then enjoy his other posts).
The NPR show Planet Money aired a show in 2014 on When Women Stopped Coding that looks at why the participation of women in computer science changed in 1984 after rising for a decade. Unlike other professional programs like medical school and law school, the percent participation of women when from about 37% in 1984 down to under 20% today. The NPR story suggests that the problem is the promotion of the personal computer at the moment when it became affordable. In the 1980s they were heavily marketed to boys which meant that far more men came to computer science in college with significant experience with computing, something that wasn’t true in the 70s when there weren’t that many computers in the home and math is what mattered. The story builds on research by Jane Margolis and in particular her book Unlocking the Clubhouse.
This fits with my memories of the time. I remember being jealous of the one or two kids who had Apple IIs in college (in the late 70s) and bought an Apple II clone (a Lemon?) as soon has I had a job just to start playing with programming. At college I ended up getting 24/7 access to the computing lab in order to be able to use the word processing available (a Pascal editor and Diablo daisy wheel printer for final copy.) I hated typing and retyping my papers and fell in love with the backspace key and editing of word processing. I also remember the sense of comradery among those who spent all night in the lab typing papers in the face of our teacher’s mistrust of processed text. Was it coincidence that the two of us who shared the best senior thesis prize in philosophy in 1892 wrote our theses in the lab on computers? What the story doesn’t deal with, that Margolis does, is the homosocial club-like atmosphere around computing. This still persists. I’m embarrassed to think of how much I’ve felt a sense of belonging to these informal clubs without asking who was excluded.
Stephen Wolfram has written a nice long blog essay on Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace. He tackles the question of whether Ada really contributed or was overestimated. He provides a biography of both Ada and Babbage. He speculates about what they were like and could have been. He believes Ada saw the big picture in a way Babbage didn’t and was able to communicate it.
Ada Lovelace was an intelligent woman who became friends with Babbage (there’s zero evidence they were ever romantically involved). As something of a favor to Babbage, she wrote an exposition of the Analytical Engine, and in doing so she developed a more abstract understanding of it than Babbage had—and got a glimpse of the incredibly powerful idea of universal computation.
The essay reflects on what might have happened if Ada had not died prematurely. Wolfram thinks they would have finished the Analytical Engine and possibly explored building an electromechanical version.
We will never know what Ada could have become. Another Mary Somerville, famous Victorian expositor of science? A Steve-Jobs-like figure who would lead the vision of the Analytical Engine? Or an Alan Turing, understanding the abstract idea of universal computation?
That Ada touched what would become a defining intellectual idea of our time was good fortune. Babbage did not know what he had; Ada started to see glimpses and successfully described them.