Drucker: Blind Spots

Johanna Drucker has an essay in the Chronicle about how humanists should be involved developing their work environments, Blind Spots. She has a nice phrase for the attitude by some scholars that someone else should do the work of developing the knowledge environment of the future – she calls it the “hand-waving magic wand approach to the future”. She concludes here essay,

Unless scholars in the humanities help design and model the environments in which they will work, they will not be able to use them. Tools developed for PlayStation and PowerPoint, Word, and Excel will be as appropriate to our intellectual labors as a Playskool workbench is to the chores of a real plumber. I once bought a very beautiful portable Olivetti typewriter because an artist friend of mine said it was so elegantly designed that it had been immediately put into the Museum of Modern Art collection. The problem? It wasn’t designed for typing. Any keyboardist with any skill at all constantly clogged its keys. A thing of beauty, it was a pain forever. I finally threw it from the fourth-floor tower of Wurster Hall at the University of California at Berkeley. Try doing that with the interface to your university library. Now reflect on who is responsible for getting it to work as an environment that supports scholarship.

We face a critical juncture. Leaving it to “them” is unfair, wrongheaded, and irresponsible. Them is us.

Johanna’s essay is addressed to scholars reminding us that we need to take responsibility for working things out. There is, however, another audience that needs to be addressed and that is the audience that believes that humanists aren’t the right people to be involved in designing infrastructure. The argument would be that there are professional software engineers who are trained to design portals for communities – they should be given the job so we don’t end up reinventing the wheel or doing a poor job. Obviously the answer lies in a creative design collaboration and humanists with computing development experience can play a crucial role in the mix, but how do we build such teams?

What Is Infrastructure?

I’ve written another essay. It seems to be what I do in Sundays. This time I’m trying to work out What Is Infrastructure and how it is different from supplies? The question is a way into trying to understand the role of big projects like TAPoR or Bamboo, both of which I am involved in (at very different levels.) As I thought about it I came to a couple of conclusions:

  • Defining things as infrastructure or cyberinfrastructure is a political move that tries to change how we frame services so we can propose different (and ongoing) ways of funding them. To be more blunt, defining a service as infrastructure moves it from something you ask for a limited grant for to something you ask for ongoing funding for (or something you set up a consortium to provide ongoing funding for.)
  • I can imagine a lighter way of weaving infrastructure out of existing industry provided stuff that we should take seriously.
  • Humanities research infrastructure should be public as in available to everyone and available internationally. Not only can the public participate in humanities research, but opening it up to the public is away of engaging them. Perhaps the relevance of the humanities lies not in their products, but in their participatory processes. Philosophy is not a science best done in a lab that will eventually produce a cure for ignorance. Philosophy is a love of wisdom we should share because we never owned it and we were never appointed its keepers.

Why not crowdsource the humanities? What would it take to make the (arts and) humanities the public disciplines? What sorts of infrastructure would engage the broader public?

Federation: The Brief to Government on Technology

The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (known as the Federation) has some interesting briefs for government up on its site. One brief, the Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology: Regarding Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage (PDF 65KB) April 2008 is a response to the federal government’s science and technology strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage. The response, authored by Noreen Golfman, President of the Federation, points out how the humanities and social sciences, “have long contributed in direct and meaningful ways to the achievement of the priorities of the government. The Federation believes that our research contributions are invaluable not only to the economy and the science and technology strategy but also to the cultural and political prosperity of Canada.” (p. 1)

The argument in the response starts with “Creativity and communication are at the heart of our disciplines in humanities and social sciences” and then moves on to show how creativity and communication play out in three “advantages” called for:

  • entrepreneurial advantage
  • knowledge advantage
  • people advantage

It is always strange to read documents that are not about advancing knowledge for everyone, but achieving national advantage. Didn’t they get the “nationalism is out” memo? Of course, that is the game of national policy and I’m sure the academic games appear just as dated from the outside. (“Didn’t they get the idealism is out memo?”) Golfman tries to engage the policy on its own terms and show how the social sciences and humanities are important to the advantages sought. Where I disagree with Golfman is about creativity. I don’t think we actually do a very good job in the humanities and social sciences developing creativity. The arts, especially when practiced, do a much better job. We probably do a better job at “critical” than “creative.” At least that what we tell each other.

Interestingly the response mentions TAPoR at the University of Toronto and IBM under “entrepreneurial advantage” on page 3. TAPoR is one of two examples of projects that have partnered with companies to everyone’s advantage. One of the ways that projects like TAPoR engage creativity and communition is through a particular type of thinking through technology that involves developing technologically rich objects as part of our practices. We don’t just read and critique, we design and craft as they might in the arts. But lets not forget what is important,

The end game is as much about a better Canada as it is about a more economically competitive
Canada. (p. 1)

Pliny: Welcome

Screen Shot of Pliny Pliny, the annotation and note management tool by John Bradley at King’s College London just got a Mellon Award for Technology Collaboration.

The Mellon Awards honour not-for-profit organisations for leadership in the collaborative development of open source software tools with application to scholarship in the arts and humanities, as well as cultural-heritage not-for-profit activities.

Pliny is free and you can try it out on the Mac or PC. John has thought a lot about how tools fit in the research process of humanists.

Globe and Mail: 1858: How a violent year created a province

The Globe and Mail yesterday had a full page story on 1858: How a violent year created a province. This story about the birth of British Columbia 150 years ago draws from the University of Victoria site Colonial Despatches which has images and text of the despatches. Neat project.

It’s remarkable, what a slender thread British authority hung by,” UVIC history professor John Lutz, who helped give birth to the new website, bcgenesis.uvic.ca, said in an interview.