I’m immensely proud to write that the Zampolli Prize Awarded to Voyant Tools. The Zampolli prize is one of the most prestigious in my field. I’m proud to have been part of the team that developed and sustained Voyant. Alas, Stéfan Sinclair, its genius, is not with us to share this.
A short essay I wrote with Stéfan Sinclair on “Recapitulation, Replication, Reanalysis, Repetition, or Revivification” is now up in preprint form. The essay is part of a longer work on “Anatomy of tools: A closer look at ‘textual DH’ methodologies.” The longer work is a set of interventions looking at text tools. These came out of a ADHO SIG-DLS (Digital Literary Studies) workshop that took place in Utrecht in July 2019.
Our intervention at the workshop had the original title “Zombies as Tools: Revivification in Computer Assisted Interpretation” and concentrated on practices of exploring old tools – a sort of revivification or bringing back to life of zombie tools.
The full paper should be published soon by DHQ.
But despite data science’s exciting possibilities, plenty of other academics object to it
The Economist has a nice Christmas Special on the Digital humanities – How data analysis can enrich the liberal arts. The article tells a bit of our history (starting with Busa, of course) and gives examples of new work like that of Ted Underwood. The note criticism about how DH may be sucking up all the money or corrupting the humanities, but they also point out how little DH gets from the NEH pot (some $60m out of $16bn) which is hardly evidence of a take over. The truth is, as they note, that the humanities are under attack again and the digital humanities don’t make much of a difference either way. The neighboring fields that I see students moving to are media arts, communication studies and specializations like criminology. Those are the threats, but also sanctuaries for the humanities.
SHAPE is a new collective name for those subjects that help us understand ourselves, others and the human world around us. They provide us with the methods and forms of expression we need to build better, deeper, more colourful and more valuable lives for all.
From an Australian speaker at the INKE conference I learned about SHAPE or Social Sciences, Humanities & The Arts For People & The Economy. This is an initiative of the London School of Economics, the British Academy and the Arts Council of England. It is trying to complement the attention given to STEM fields. I like how they use the word shape in various assets as in:
The shape of then.
The shape of now.
The shape of if.
The shape of when.
You can read more in this Guardian story on University and Arts Council in drive to re-brand ‘soft’ academic subjects.
A peer-reviewed, open resource filling the gap between platform-specific tutorials and disciplinary discourse in digital humanities.
From a list I am on I learned about Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Project Handbook. This is a highly modular text book that covers a lot of the basics about project management in the digital humanities. They have a call now for “case studies (research projects) and assignments that showcase archival, spatial, narrative, dimensional, and/or temporal approaches to digital pedagogy and scholarship.” The handbook is edited by Beth Fischer (Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Williams College Museum of Art) and Hannah Jacobs (Digital Humanities Specialist, Wired! Lab, Duke University), but parts are authored by all sorts of people.
What I like about it is the way they have split up the modules and organized things by the type of project. They also have deadlines which seem to be for new iterations of materials and for completion of different parts. This could prove to be a great resource for teaching project management.
Un manuale ampio ed esauriente che illustra tra teoria e prassi il tema dell’informatica umanistica per l’insegnamento e l’apprendimento universitario.
The publisher (Vita e Pensiero) kindly sent me a copy of Guido Milanese’s Filologia, letteratura, computer (Philology, Literature, Computer), an introduction to thinking about and thinking through the computer and texts. The book is designed to work as a text book that introduces students to the ideas and to key technologies, and then provides short guides to further ideas and readings.
The book focuses, as the title suggests, almost exclusively on digital filology or the computational study of texts. At the end Milanese has a short section on other media, but he is has chosen, rightly I think, to focus on set of technologies in depth rather than try a broad overview. In this he draws on an Italian tradition that goes back to Father Busa, but more importantly includes Tito Orlandi (who wrote the preface) and Numerico, Fiormonte, and Tomasi’s L’umanista digitale (this has been translated into English- see The digital humanist).
Milanese starts with the principle from Giambattista Vico that knowledge is made (verum ipsum factum.) Milanese believes that “reflection on the foundations identifies instruments and operations, and working with instruments and methods leads redefining the reflection on foundations.” (p. 9 – my rather free translation) This is virtuous circle in the digital humanities of theorizing and praxis where either one alone would be barren. Thus the book is not simply a list of tools and techniques one should know, but a series of reflections on humanistic knowledge and how that can be implemented in tools/techniques which in turn may challenge our ideas. This is what Stéfan Sinclair and I have been calling “thinking-through” where thinking through technology is both a way of learning about the thinking and about the technology.
An interesting example of this move from theory to praxis is in chapter 7 on “The Markup of Text.” (“La codifica del testo”) He moves from a discussion of adding metadata to the datafied raw text to Minsky’s idea of frames of knowledge as a way of understanding XML. I had never thought of Minsky’s ideas about articial intelligence contributing to the thinking behind XML, and perhaps Milanese is the first to do so, but it sort of works. The idea, as I understand it, goes something like this – human knowing, which Minsky wants to model for AI, brings frames of knowledge to any situation. If you enter a room that looks like a kitchen you have a frame of knowledge about how kitchens work that lets you infer things like “there must be a fridge somewhere which will have a snack for me.” Frames are Minsky’s way of trying to overcome the poverty of AI models based on collections of logical statements. It is a way of thinking about and actually representing the contextual or common sense knowledge that we bring to any situation such that we know a lot more than what is strictly in sight.
Frame systems are made up of frames and connections to other frames. The room frame connects hierarchically to the kitchen-as-a-type-of-room frame which connects to the fridge frame which then connects to the snack frame. The idea then is to find a way to represent frames of knowledge and their connections such that they can be used by AI systems. This is where Milanese slides over to XML as a hierarchical way of adding metadata to a text that enriches it with a frame of knowledge. I assume the frame (or Platonic form?) would be the DTD or Schema which then lets you do some limited forms of reasoning about an instance of an encoded text. The markup explicitly tells the computer something about the parts of the text like this (<author>Guido Milanese</author>) is the author.
The interesting thing is to refect on this application of Minsky’s theory. To begin, I wonder if it is historically true that the designers of XML (or its parent SGML) were thinking of Minsky’s frames. I doubt it, as SGML is descended from GML that predates Minsky’s 1974 Memo on “A Framework for Representing Knowledge.” That said, what I think Milanese is doing is using Minsky’s frames as a way of explaining what we do when modelling a phenomena like a text (and our knowledge of it.) Modelling is making explicit a particular frame of knowledge about a text. I know that certain blocks are paragraphs so I tag them as such. I also model in the sense of create a paradigmatic version of what my perspective on the text is. This would be the DTD or Schema which defines the parts and their potential relationships. Validating a marked up text would be a way of testing the instance against the model.
This nicely connects back to Vico’s knowing is making. We make digital knowledge not by objectively representing the world in digital form, but by creating frames or models for what can be digital known and then apply those frames to instances. It is a bit like object-oriented programming. You create classes that frame what can be represented about a type of object.
There is an attractive correspondence between the idea of knowledge as a hierarchy of frames and an XML representation of a text as a hierarchy of elements. There is a limit, however, to the move. Minsky was developing a theory of knowing such that knowledge could be artificially represented on a computer that could then do knowing (in the sense of complete AI tasks like image recognition.) Markup and marking up strike me as more limited activities of structuring. A paragraph tag doesn’t actually convey to the computer all that we know about paragraphs. It is just a label in a hierarchy of labels to which styles and processes can be attached. Perhaps the human modeller is thinking about texts in all their complexity, but they have to learn not to confuse what they know with what they can model for the computer. Perhaps a human reader of the XML can bring the frames of knowledge to reconstitute some of what the tagger meant, but the computer can’t.
Another way of thinking about this would be Searle’s Chinese room paradox. The XML is the bits of paper handed under the door in Chinese for the interpreter in the room. An appropriate use of XML will provoke the right operations to get something out (like a legible text on the screen) but won’t mean anything. Tagging a string with <paragraph> doesn’t make it a real paragraph in the fullness of what is known of paragraphs. It makes it a string of characters with associated metadata that may or may not be used by the computer.
Perhaps these limitations of computing is exactly what Milanese wants us to think about in modelling. Frames in the sense of picture frames are a device for limiting the view. For Minsky you can have many frames with which to make sense of any phenomena – each one is a different perspective that bears knowledge, sometimes contradictory. When modelling a text for the computer you have to decide what you want to represent and how to do it so that users can see the text through your frame. You aren’t helping the computer understand the text so much as representing your interpretation for other humans to use and, if they read the XML, re-interpret. This is making a knowing.
Milanese, G. (2020). Filologia, Letteratura, Computer: Idee e strumenti per l’informatica umanistica. Milan, Vita e Pensiero.
Minsky, M. (1974, June). A Framework for Representing Knowledge. MIT-AI Laboratory Memo 306. MIT.
Searle, J. R. (1980). “Minds, Brains and Programs.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 3:3. 417-457.
Sean Gouglas shared these memories of Stéfan Sinclair with me and asked me to post them. They are from when they started the Humanities Computing programme at the University of Alberta where I am lucky to now teach.
In the summer of 2001, two newly-minted PhDs started planning how they were going to build and then teach a new graduate program in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. This was the first such program in North America. To be absolutely honest, Stéfan Sinclair and I really had no idea what we were doing. The next few months were both exhausting and exhilarating. Working with Stéfan was a professional and personal treat, especially considering that he had an almost infinite capacity for hard work. I remember him coding up the first Humanities Computing website in about seven minutes — the first HuCo logo appearing like a rising sun on a dark blue background. It also had an unfortunate typo that neither of us noticed for years.
It was an inspiration to work with Stéfan. He was kind and patient with students, demanding a lot from them but giving even more back. He promoted the program passionately at every conference, workshop, and seminar. Over the next three years, there was a lot of coffee, a lot of spicy food, a beer or two, some volleyball, some squash, and then he and Stephanie were off to McMaster for their next adventure.
Our Digital Humanities program has changed a lot since then — new courses, new programs, new faculty, and even a new name. Through that change, the soul of the program remained the same and it was shaped and molded by the vision and hard work of Stéfan Sinclair.
On the 6th of August, Stéfan died of cancer. The Canadian Society for Digital Humanities has a lovely tribute, which can be found here: https://csdh-schn.org/stefan-sinclair-in-memoriam/. It was written in part by Geoffrey Rockwell, who worked closely with Stéfan for more than two decades.
Sadly, last Thursday Stéfan Sinclair passed away. A group of us posted an obituary for CSDH-SCHN here, Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam and boy do I miss him already. While the obituary describes the arc of his career I’ve been trying to think of how to celebrate how he loved to play with ideas and code. The obituary tells the what of his life but doesn’t show the how.
You see, Stéfan loved to toy with ideas of text through the development of software toys. The hermeneuti.ca project started with a one day text analysis vacation/hackathon. We decided to leave all the busy work of being an academic in our offices, and spend a day in the TAPoR lab at McMaster. We decided to mess around and try the analytical equivalent of extreme programming. That included a version of “pair programming” where we alternated one at the keyboard doing the analysis while the other would take notes and direct. We told ourselves we would just devote one day without interruptions to this folly and see if together we could take a project from conception to some sort of finished result in a day.
Little did we know we would still be at play right until a few weeks ago. We failed to finish that day, but we got far enough to know we enjoyed the fooling around enough to do it again and again. Those escapes into what we later called agile hermeneutics, to give it a serious name, eventually led to a monster of a project that reflected back on the play. The project culminated in the jointly authored book Hermeneutica (MIT Press, 2016) and Voyant 2.0, both of which tried to not only think-through some of the potential of the play, but also give others a way of making their own interpretative toys (which we called hermeneutica). But these too are perhaps too serious to commemorate Stéfan’s presence.
Which brings me to the dialogue we wrote and performed on “Reading Tools.” Thanks to Susan I was reminded of this script that we acted out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in June of 2007. May it honour how Stéfan would want to be remembered. Imagine him smiling at the front of the room as he starts,
Sinclair: Why do we care so much for the opinions of other humanists? Why do we care so much whether they use computing in the humanities?
Rockwell: Let me tell you an old story. There was once a titan who invented an interpretative technology for his colleagues. No, … he wasn’t chained to a rock to have his liver chewed out daily. … Instead he did the smart thing and brought it to his dean, convinced the technology would free his colleagues from having to interpret texts and let them get back to the real work of thinking.
Sinclair: I imagine his dean told him that in the academy those who develop tools are not the best judges of their inventions and that he had to get his technology reviewed as if it were a book.
Rockwell: Exactly, and the dean said, “And in this instance, you who are the father of a text technology, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not study the old ways; they will trust to the external tools and not interpret for themselves. The technology which you have discovered is an aid not to interpretation, but to online publishing.”
Sinclair: Yes, Geoffrey, you can easily tell jokes about the academy, paraphrasing Socrates, but we aren’t outside the city walls of Athens, but in the middle of Urbana at a conference. We have a problem of audience – we are slavishly trying to please the other – that undigitized humanist – why don’t we build just for ourselves? …
Enjoy the full dialogue here: Reading Tools Script (PDF).
I just read Dr. Bethan Tovey-Walsh’s post on her blog about why she is Leaving Humanist and it raises important issues. Willard McCarty, the moderator of Humanist, a discussion list going since 1987, allowed the posting of a dubious note that made claims about anti-white racism and then refused to publish rebuttals for fear that an argument would erupt. We know about this thanks to Twitter, where Tovey-Walsh tweeted about it. I should add that her reasoning is balanced and avoids calling names. Specifically she argued that,
If Gabriel’s post is allowed to sit unchallenged, this both suggests that such content is acceptable for Humanist, and leaves list members thinking that nobody else wished to speak against it. There are, no doubt, many list members who would not feel confident in challenging a senior academic, and some of those will be people of colour; it would be immoral to leave them with the impression that nobody cares to stand up on their behalf.
I think Willard needs to make some sort of public statement or the list risks being seen as a place where potentially racist ideas go uncommented.
August 11 Update: Willard McCarty has apologized and published some of the correspondence he received, including something from Tovey-Walsh. He ends with a proposal that he not stand in the way of the concerns voiced about racism, but he proposes a condition to expanded dialogue.
I strongly suggest one condition to this expanded scope, apart from care always to respect those with whom we disagree. That condition is relevance to digital humanities as a subject of enquiry. The connection between subject and society is, to paraphrase Kathy Harris (below), that algorithms are not pure, timelessly ideal, culturally neutral expressions but are as we are.
Today was the last day of the CSDH / SCHN 2020 online conference. You can see my conference notes here. The conference had to go online due to Covid-19 and the cancellation of Congress 2020. That said, the online conference web brilliantly. The Programme Committee, chaired by Kim Martin, deserve a lot of credit as do the folks at the U of Alberta Arts Resource Centre who provided technical support. Some of the things they did that
- The schedule has a single track across 5 days rather than parallel tracks over 3 days. See the schedule.
- There were only 3 and half hours of sessions a day (from 9:00am to 12:30 Western time) so you could get other things done. (There were also hangout sessions before and after.)
- Papers (or prepared presentations) had to be put up the week before on Humanities Commons.
- The live presentations during the conference were thus kept to 3 minutes or so, which allowed sessions to be shorter which allowed them to have a single track.
- They had a chair and a respondent for each session which meant that there was a lot of discussion instead of long papers and no time for questions. In fact, the discussion seemed better than at on site conferences.
- They used Eventbrite for registration, Zoom for the registrants-only parts of the conference, and Google Meet for the open parts.
- They had hangout or informal sessions at the beginning and end of each day where more informal discussion could take place.
The nice thing about the conference was that they took advantage of the medium. As none of us had flown to London, Ontario, they were able to stretch the conference over 5 days, but not use up the entire day.
All told, I think they have shown that an online conference can work surprisingly well if properly planned and supported.