One of the most famous images from the dawn of the nuclear era is back in the news: it is no longer seven minutes to midnight, but five, according to the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who announced that they were moving the hands of their famed "Doomsday Clock" closer to Armageddon. The "Doomsday Clock" first made its appearance on the cover of the Bulletin in June of 1947, a kind of visual shorthand that expressed the anxiety of many nuclear scientists about the arms race that had made the world a more dangerous place through scientific progress.
In the last 60 years the hands of the timepiece now have been moved back and forth a total of eighteen times -- the extremes of the timeline have been when the hands of the clock stood at two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the Soviet Union had followed the United States in successfully testing a new level of nuclear weaponry, the hydrogen bomb; at the other end, in 1991, the hands then slipped below the fatal last quarter, when they retreated to seventeen minutes to the final hour, due to the end of the Cold War and movement toward disarmament through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
It's always news when the Bulletin changes the clock's timing, but there was an additional news hook in this 2007 decision: the increasing threat to world survival was pegged as coming not only from nuclear events, but from such phenomena as global warming. As reported in the Chicago Tribune -- "Doomsday Clock to Start New Era" (Jeremy Manier, 1.17.07) --
. . . when the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveils the first change to the Doomsday Clock in four years, the risk of a nuclear holocaust will be just one among many threats that nudge the position of the clock's portentous minute hand. The keepers of the clock have expanded its purview to include the threat of global warming, the genetic engineering of diseases and other "threats to global survival."
It may be a stretch to put nuclear weapons and climate change in the same category, but that's one way the organization is trying to keep its 60-year-old clock relevant at a time when bioterrorism and radical groups can threaten the largest nations.
Indeed, this novel aspect of the nuclear experts reaching beyond the mushroom cloud to anoint climate change as a comparable danger, was duly noted and clearly highlighted by most outlets, as in this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news story ("The Doomsday Clock Advances Two Minutes" 1.17.07):
Add a new crop of countries dazzled by nuclear technology to other global threats such as climate change and environmental degradation and the result, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, is almost toxic.
"We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age," the board said in a statement.
The move from seven to five minutes from midnight was decided upon after scientists reviewed the current nuclear situation in combination with expected climate change, marking the first time the Doomsday Clock has ever reflected a separate world threat in addition to the bomb.
Even if, as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg remarked, "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock has to be one of the most successful magazine public relations gimmicks of all time, right up there with Time's Person of the Year and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue" (1.17.07), the roll-out of the 2007 model was newer, bigger, and better, apocalyptically-speaking. Even still-newsworthy icons need a brush-up, it seems, whether design-wise, or content-wise, to garner sufficient attention. An added kick was gained by bypassing the traditional site for Doomsday announcements: as noted by the Chicago Tribune, "in an added bid to influence policymakers and draw an international audience, the Bulletin is moving this year's announcement from its customary place in Chicago to a dual event held in London and Washington."
The bi-lateral press events did indeed seem to generate substantial coverage in the English language world, but even with all the "doomsday clock enters a new era" emphases, it seemed to me as if the stories would have fit relatively easily within the past world of a bygone time. Yes, the emphasis on climate science was new, but the key educational lesson seemed to fit comfortably within the venerable scientific organizational chart that places nuclear physics at the top, with what physicists have to say counting for more than the words of scientists from other disciplines -- there was a literal sense in which physicists were speaking for their other colleagues, graciously deigning to share their authority and the stage (metaphorically at least).
I found most fascinating the pictures of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking from the London event, where photographers sought to couple Hawking the icon with the Bulletin's icon. Climate science may have been the newsworthy angle, but physics as arbiter was definitely a controlling visual metaphor. The photo at the left is one version, with the clock floating above somewhat like a heavenly image of doom; at the right is a different take, which very nearly manages to juxtapose the two, tightly framing the machine-bound thinker and the message that we have but five minutes of future to go before time expires and our brief history along with it. The third photograph, which accompanied an online bbc news article ("Climate Resets the 'Doomsday Clock' " by Molly Bentley, 1.17.07) manages to get the shot that everyone must have been after, whether conscious of it or not: the physicist's face and the timepiece's face, melded together in a doubly powerful dose of symbolism, his head held at nearly the same angle of incidence (so to speak) as the minute hand as it closes the gap counting down to the zero hour, literally overshadowing the scientific mind in the foreground.
Rather like nuclear physicist announcements of decades past, men appeared to dominate the photographic spotlight, whether through pictures of Hawking from London or by pulling old file photos featuring a male hand on the clock (for example, to the left; from Alaska Report, using a Reuters file image). In Washington, Bulletin Executive Editor and political scientist Kennette Benedict was also part of the stage presence, along with Ambassador Thomas Pickering and physicist Lawrence Krauss. These pictures tended to feature her rather awkwardly, as with this one that peers at her off in the distance fussing with unveiling the new time, with the men looking on as she finishes with the stagecraft. It looks somewhat like every tedious office meeting with middle management that you've ever had to sit through as they fuss with the flow charts. It just doesn't have the same authoritative impact as the others, diffusing the visual warning that the end of the world is nigh.
But the black-and-white analog 1950s feel to this news event also stems from the endless reiteration of the "doomsday" theme. Now the idea of doomsday has a long lineage -- one of my favorite examinations of the cultural resonance of this theme is Daniel Wojcik's The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (which includes discussions of secular apocalyptic themes in the nuclear era as well), and of course the idea of doomsday stretches back millennia -- but in the years after World War II, the growing awareness of the unprecedented destructive power created through atomic science -- especially with the H-bomb -- gave the doomsday scenario a new grasp on life (so to speak). As Wojcik argues:
The concept of a meaningless apocalypse brought about by human or natural causes is a relatively recent phenomenon, differing dramatically from religious apocalyptic cosmologies. Instead of faith in a redemptive new realm to be established after the present world is annihilated, secular doomsday visions are usually characterized by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism. (p. 97)
The Doomsday Clock was an apt image for scientists to reach for in a Doomsday world circa 1947 / 1953 in which scientists saw it as their responsibility to blast the populace (and the policy-makers) out of what they saw as a complacent response of willful ignorance in the face of daily emergency; to the extent that scientists still address the public in such stark and urgent terms when informing them of scientific opinion on matters such as nuclear proliferation or global warming, then the Doomsday Clock certainly remains a relevant symbol. But if the Doomsday Clock is an accurate visual shorthand for the longer, more complex scientific arguments that undergird it, this does not necessarily mean it is (or was?) an effective communication device, in terms, at least, of engaging the public in a meaningful discussion of risk assessment, scientific expertise, political realities, and democratic decision-making.
A few years back I opened a discussion with the students in my history of modern science course about the continuing relevance of nuclear issues as a political matter by taking them through the timeline of the Doomsday Clock, and asking them to draw a picture of their own clock, and then write about what they thought the time should be and why. I was surprised to learn that many students resented what they saw as the manipulative nature of physicists choosing the last 15 minutes before midnight as their starting point. Many of them argued for placing the hands at 9:00 or 10:00 or 11:00 -- not because they were insisting that nuclear weapons were of little importance, but because they believed that their own starting points placed more faith in the power of human beings to maneuver within difficult straits. It might still be night, but we had been pushing back against the darkness and we were not at the last gasps before a total loss of control, of options, of hope. They were looking to be empowered, not diminished, as a motivation toward action.
In the eyes of the Bulletin scientists, no doubt my students would seem naive in rejecting the "minutes to midnight" framework. The Bulletin has an incredible amount of international political experience at their fingertips and intellectual mindpower at their disposal -- as the Bulletin's press release notes, the decision of the "BAS Board of Directors was made in consultation with the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates." It is true that there were no Nobel Laureates on my class roll that year. But I believe that these students were articulating an important reality, one that places the thinking of their generation at odds with the cold war mechanics out of which the "Doomsday Clock" is constructed, and where the "two cultures" norm holds sway [the expression itself a cold war era contribution by C.P. Snow]: brilliant scientific minds needing to get the attention of inattentive or lesser minds (such as those with a shaky grasp of the second law of thermodynamics as Snow suggested) by prophesying immediate doom. In a recent article, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists called their symbol "The People's Clock." After listening to my students, I don't think I would agree.
In his book Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema, author Christopher Frayling contends that:
Up until quite recently, real-life senior scientists have tended to present themselves like bewigged judges in court -- remote, out of touch, unconsultative, much given to pontificating and immune from criticism. And senior scientists have wondered why the public does not follow them every step of the way! Now there is much more consultation and much more emphasis on communications skills, but these tend to be confined to set-piece platforms or media debates in which the rhetoric of horror films -- on both sides -- takes over from serious discussion. 'Seeing into the mind of God' or 'destroying the planet' or 'my statistics are better than your statistics' or dismissive comments about lay people in the name of public understanding of science, tend to be the resulting headlines. (p. 226)
It is easier to re-animate old patterns of discourse, rather than to try, in a later phrase of Frayling's, to "break the flow" and find new forms of engagement. But if the public is truly to be a partner in a scientific conversation about pressing issues, then new strategies of discursive detente need to be deployed. In fact it may be time -- it may be past time -- to do so.
For more: The Jan/Feb 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a very nice two-page layout on the history of the clock (even if I take exception with the title of the article), including a reminiscence from the artist, Martyl, who first created the image. There's an interesting historical artifact from Time Magazine online: a 1964 article entitled "Turning Back the Clock," which states that since "now there is less concern about Armageddon and less shock value to the power of the atom, the clock is ticking mostly for the Bulletin. Its funds low, the magazine is once more passing the hat." And speaking of whether or not the clock is outdated, Dood Abides at Unconfirmed Sources plays with the file photo of the Doomsday Clock to present, a new, shiny digital version for the 21st century :-) For more of Stephen Hawking's dire pronouncements about the fate of the human race, see "Prophet of Doomsday: Stephen Hawking, Eco-Warrior" by Geoffrey Lean in the Independent, 1.27.07. For an interesting undergraduate conversation by students from different majors about the "two cultures" idea, see this panel discussion, "The Two Cultures: Students Speak their Minds," from the University of Colorado.
Images: The very first image is from the homepage of the Bulletin, at http://www.thebulletin.org/; the original 1947 cover is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Research Library, online at http://library.lanl.gov/libinfo/news/images/BulletinAS-cover.jpg. The first Hawking image is from the Telegraph ("Hawking: Doomsday Clock Closer to Midnight" 1.18.07) at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/17/nclock117.xml; the second Hawking image is from the CBC article at http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/nuclearweapons/doomsday-clock.html; and the third image from the BBC is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6270871.stm. The file photo shown on the Alaska Report is at http://www.alaskareport.com/reu77351.htm while the trio photo from the DC press conference was carried on an msnbc.com article "Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight" http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16670369/.
From Melissa and Twitter a great visualization of London Lives on the Line. It shows life expectancy and poverty by the tube stops of London. It shows the rhetorical power of visualization to connect data to our lives.
Gartner has an interesting Hype Cycle Research methodology that is based on a visualization.
When new technologies make bold promises, how do you discern the hype from what’s commercially viable? And when will such claims pay off, if at all? Gartner Hype Cycles provide a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities.
The method assumes a cycle that new technologies take from:
Here is an example from the Wikipedia:
I’m at Digital Humanities 2012 in Hamburg. I’m writing a conference report on philosophi.ca. The conference started with a keynote by Claudine Moulin that touched on research infrastructure. Moulin was the lead author of the European Science Foundation report on Research Infrastructure in the Humanities (link to my entry on this). She talked about the need for a cultural history of research infrastructure (which the report actually provides.) The humanities should not just import ideas and stories about infrastructure. We should use this infrastructure turn to help us understand the types of infrastructure we already have; we should think about the place of infrastructure in the humanities as humanists.
Susan pointed me to Pundit: A novel semantic web annotation tool. Pundit (which has a great domain name “thepund.it”) is an annotation tool that lets people create and share annotations on web materials. The annotations are triples that can be saved and linked into DBpedia and so on. I’m not sure I understand how it works entirely, but the demo is impressive. It could be the killer-app of semantic web technologies for the digital humanities.
The French have pulled the plug on Minitel, the videotex service that was introduced in 1982, 30 years ago. I remember seeing my first Minitel terminal in France where I lived briefly in 1982-83. I wish I could say I understood it at the time for what it was, but what struck me then was that it was a awkward replacement for the phonebook. Anyway, as of June 30th, Minitel is no more and France says farewell to the Minitel.
Minitel is important because it was the first large-scale information service. It turned out to not be a scalable and flexible as the web, but for a while it provided the French with all sorts of text services from directories to chat. It is famous for the messageries roses (pink messages) or adult chat services that emerged (and helped fund the system.)
In Canada Bell introduced in the late 1980s a version of Minitel called Alex (after Alexander Graham Bell) first in Quebec and then in Ontario. The service was too expensive and never took off. Thanks to a letter in today’s Globe I discovered that there were some interesting research and development into videotex services in Canada at the Canadian Research Communications Centre in the late 1970s and 1980s. Telidon was a “second generation” system that had true graphics, unlike Minitel.
Despite all sorts of interest and numerous experiments, videotex was never really successful outside of France/Minitel. It needs a lot of content for people to be willing to pay the price and the broadcast model of most trials meant that you didn’t have the community generation of content needed. Services like CompuServe that ran on PCs (instead of dedicated terminals) were successful where videotex was not, and ultimately the web wiped out even the services like Compuserve.
What is interesting, however, is how much interest and investment there was around the world in such services. The telecommunications industry clearly saw large-scale interactive information services as the future, but they were wedded to centralized models for how to try and evolve such a service. Only the French got the centralized model right by making it cheap, relatively open, and easy. That it lasted 30 years is an indication of how right Minitel was, even if the internet has replaced it.
The Digging Into Data program commissioned CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) to study and report on the first round of the programme. The report includes case studies on the 8 initial projects including one on our Criminal Intent project that is titled Using Zotero and TAPOR on the Old Bailey Proceedings: Data Mining with Criminal Intent (DMCI). More interesting are some of the reflections on big data and research in the humanities that the authors make:
1. One Culture. As the title hints, one of the conclusions is that in digital research the lines between disciplines and sectors have been blurred to the point where it is more accurate to say there is one culture of e-research. This is obviously a play on C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. In big data that two cultures of the science and humanities, which have been alienated from each other for a century or two, are now coming back together around big data.
Rather than working in silos bounded by disciplinary methods, participants in this project have created a single culture of e-research that encompasses what have been called the e-sciences as well as the digital humanities: not a choice between the scientific and humanistic visions of the world, but a coherent amalgam of people and organizations embracing both. (p. 1)
2. Collaborate. A clear message of the report is that to do this sort of e-research people need to learn to collaborate and by that they don’t just mean learning to get along. They mean deliberate collaboration that is managed. I know our team had to consciously develop patterns of collaboration to get things done across 3 countries and many more universities. It also means collaborating across disciplines and this is where the “one culture” of the report is aspirational – something the report both announces and encourages. Without saying so, the report also serves as a warning that we could end up with a different polarization just as the separation of scientific and humanistic culture is healed. We could end up with polarization between those who work on big data (of any sort) using computational techniques and those who work with theory and criticism in the small. We could find humanists and scientists who use statistical and empirical methods in one culture while humanists and scientists who use theory and modelling gather as a different culture. One culture always spawns two and so on.
3. Expand Concepts. The recommendations push the idea that all sorts of people/stakeholders need to expand their ideas about research. We need to expand our ideas about what constitutes research evidence, what constitutes research activity, what constitutes research deliverables and who should be doing research in what configurations. The humanities and other interpretative fields should stop thinking of research as a process that turns the reading of books and articles into the writing of more books and articles. The new scale of data calls for a new scale of concepts and a new scale of organization.
It is interesting how this report follows the creation of the Digging Into Data program. It is a validation of the act of creating the programme and creating it as it was. The funding agencies, led by Brett Bobley, ran a consultation and then gambled on a programme designed to encourage and foreground certain types of research. By and large their design had the effect they wanted. To some extent CLIR reports that research is becoming what Digging encouraged us to think it should be. Digging took seriously Greg Crane’s question, “what can you do with a million books”, but they abstracted it to “what can you do with gigabytes of data?” and created incentives (funding) to get us to come up with compelling examples, which in turn legitimize the program’s hypothesis that this is important.
In other words we should acknowledge and respect the politics of granting. Digging set out to create the conditions where a certain type of research thrived and got attention. The first round of the programme was, for this reason, widely advertised, heavily promoted, and now carefully studied and reported on. All the teams had to participate in a small conference in Washington that got significant press coverage. Digging is an example of how granting councils can be creative and change the research culture.
The Digging into Data Challenge presents us with a new paradigm: a digital ecology of data, algorithms, metadata, analytical and visualization tools, and new forms of scholarly expression that result from this research. The implications of these projects and their digital milieu for the economics and management of higher education, as well as for the practices of research, teaching, and learning, are profound, not only for researchers engaged in computationally intensive work but also for college and university administrations, scholarly societies, funding agencies, research libraries, academic publishers, and students. (p. 2)
The word “presents” can mean many things here. The new paradigm is both a creation of the programme and a result of changes in the research environment. The very presentation of research is changed by the scale of data. Visualizations replace quotations as the favored way into the data. And, of course, granting councils commission reports that re-present a heady mix of new paradigms and case studies.
A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at Digital Infrastructure Summit 2012 which was hosted by the Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers (CUCCIO). This short conference was very different from any other I’ve been at. CUCCIO, by its nature, is a group of people (university CIOs) who are used to doing things. They seemed committed to defining a common research infrastructure for Canadian universities and trying to prototype it. It seemed all the right people were there to start moving in the same direction.
For this talk I prepared a set of questions for auditing whether a university has good support for digital research in the humanities. See Check IT Out!. The idea is that anyone from a researcher to an administrator can use these questions to check out the IT support for humanists.
The other day while browsing around looking for books to read on my iPad I noticed what looked like a dissertation for sale. I’ve been wondering how dissertations could get into e-book stores when I remembered the license that graduate students are being asked to sign these days by Theses Canada. The system here encourages students to give a license to Library and Archives Canada that includes the right,
(a) to reproduce, publish, archive, preserve, conserve, communicate to the public by telecommunication or on the Internet, loan, distribute and sell my thesis (the title of which is set forth above) worldwide, for commercial or non-commercial purposes, in microform, paper, electronic and/or any other formats;
I now just came across this cautionary story in the Chronicle for Higher Education about Dissertation for Sale: A Cautionary Tale. It seems it is also allowed in the US.
For those wondering why I haven’t been blogging and why Theoreti.ca seems to be unavailable, the answer is that the blog has been hacked and I’m trying to solve the problem. My ISP rightly freezes things when the blog seems to send spam. Sorry about all this!
I posted on 4Humanities a questionnaire that I call Check IT Out!. The idea is to give administrators and researchers a tool for checking out the research information technology (IT) that they have at their university. I developed it for a talk I give tomorrow at the Digital Infrastructure Summit 2012 in Saskatoon. I’m on the “Reality Check Panel” that presents realities faced by researchers. Check IT Out! is meant to address the issue of getting basic computing support and infrastructure for research. It is often sexier to build something new than to make sure that researchers have the basics. That raises the question of what are the basics, which is why I thought I would frame Check IT Out! as a series of questions, not assertions. Often people in computing services know the answers to these, but our colleagues don’t even know how to frame the question.
We have just had a short letter published in Medical Teacher on Serious games for patient safety education. The letter reports about the research that a team of us spanning medicine and humanities computing did around using a FPS (First Person Shooter) for teaching medical communication. I reported on a juried exhibit, Insight, that we showed the game at before.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers has a campaign to Save Library and Archives Canada from the “Badly conceived restructuring, a redefinition of its mandate, and financial cutbacks (that) are undermining LAC’s ability to acquire, preserve and make publicly available Canada’s full documentary heritage.” The issue is not just cuts, but how LAC is dealing with the cuts.
Daniel Caron, Library and Archivist of Canada, has announced that “the new environment is totally decentralized and our monopoly as stewards of the national documentary heritage is over.”
LAC will be decentralizing a large portion of its collections to both public and private institutions. LAC documents refer to this voluntary group of “memory institutions” as a “coalition of the willing.”
Go to the site now, read up on the issues, and consider taking action!