The early days of web search were essentially about observation. The web search engine observed the web (documents, links and user behaviours) and then delivered results based on those observations.
In recent years we have started to see more of a position of participation in web search engines. Examples of participation include:
Participation looks like a core strategy for search.
What do we really know about how our students generate answers to historical questions? Thanks to Sam Wineberg, Peter Seixas, Bob Bain, Stephane Levesque, and others in their orbits, we know a good bit about how K-12 history students reach their conclusions about the past, but when it comes to higher education, we know far too little. In fact, we’re often puzzled by the answers our students arrive at. Why did they assign great importance to a particular piece of evidence when our view is that this piece of evidence was just a of run of the mill source, not particularly worthy of extra attention? Why is it so hard to shake them from their belief that, say, people in the past wanted the same things that people today want?
To date, too many of our answers to these and other such questions have been based on folk wisdom about “kids today” or an over reliance on what we observe in our classrooms as being representative of “all students.” Real research, based on real data, would surely take us much farther down the road toward understanding how our students think.
Fortunately, scholars in other disciplines than history have done some hard thinking about these issues and, just as fortunately, have done that real research generating real data.
It’s not every day that a historian reads an article with a title like, “The Role of Intuitive Heuristics in Students’ Thinking: Ranking Chemical Substances,” but read it you should. [Science Education, 94/6, November 2010: 963-84] The authors, Jenine Maeyer and Vincente Talanquer, proceed from the assumption that the we better understand how our students think, the better our curricula can be. This is an entirely different approach from one that asks, “What should students who graduate with a degree in chemistry/history/sociology know?” That question needs to be answered in every discipline, but if learning is the goal of our teaching, then we must understand how that learning occurs as we design those curricula. To do otherwise is to waste our time and our students’.
Maeyer and Talanquer begin with a question: What are the cognitive constraints that impede their students’ ability to engage in the kind of careful and complex analysis that they want to induce in their courses? Drawing on 30 year’s worth of research from cognitive science as well as classroom research in the sciences, they describe two constraints and four reasoning strategies arising from those constraints. While they are writing about the analysis of chemical substances, a history teacher could very easily substitute “primary sources” and “history” for “substances” and “chemistry” and learn a lot from their results.
The two cognitive constraints they describe are implicit assumptions and heuristics (short cut reasoning procedures). In history, an implicit assumption would be that during the era of the women’s suffrage movement, all women wanted the vote, because of course women would want the vote. These implicit assumptions are very powerful and difficult to break down, in large part because they are so rooted in a learner’s view of how the world is.
Heuristics are the root of many problems in education in whatever discipline, but the authors argue that if students can learn how these heuristics govern their analytical strategies, they can then begin to learn differently. And once that happens, they are more likely to examine their implicit assumptions about the world.
All of us are beneficiaries and victims of our own heuristics. For example, the quick thinking that results from years of driving experience helps us recognize, without even thinking about it, that the car in front of us is about to do something stupid, so we slow down and give the driver room to do whatever he is about to do. The short cut reasoning procedures we develop as drivers lead us to reasonable conclusions at lightning speed.
But our short cut reasoning can also lead to into errors of analysis. Maeyer and Talanquer identify four heuristics that get in the way of the kinds of learning we want to induce: the representativeness heuristic, the recognition heuristic, one-reason decision making, and the arbitrary trend heuristic.
The representativeness heuristic is one in which we judge things as being similar based on how much they resemble one another at first glance. We see this often in our history classrooms as, for instance, when a student leaps to the conclusion that two works of art separated by both temporal and cultural boundaries must be similar because they kind of look alike.
The recognition heuristic is what happens when we look at a number of pieces of historical evidence, but recognize only one of them, and so assign a higher value to the one we recognize for no reason other than that we recognize it. In the history classroom, this happens when a student is confronted with four or five texts, one of which is familiar, and so focuses all of her attention on that text, to the point of deciding that this text is the most important in the group, even if it is not.
One-reason decision making happens when students make their decisions about evidence based on a single differentiating characteristic of that evidence. So, for instance, in that group of four or five texts, our student might decide that because only one of them actually mentioned something of importance that she is studying, it is somehow more important than the other four when trying to figure out what happened back when the texts were written.
The arbitrary trend heuristic is one we see not only in our students, but in the works of our colleagues. Because several historical sources were generated within a few miles of one another, or within a few weeks of one another, we assume that they must, somehow, be connected to one another, without any evidence to support this hypothesis.
All of these heuristics occur at various moments throughout the semester in our classrooms, regardless of the discipline we teach. Not all students utilize these short cut strategies all the time, but most of them deploy one or the other at some point in semester. Knowing that this is the case, we can then design our courses to address these thinking strategies.
I wish someone had assigned me this article 20 years ago. Of course, it hadn’t been written yet, so that wouldn’t have been possible. But if it had, and I’d read it back before I started teaching history, my life would have been so much easier and my student’s learning would have been so much richer.
I’ve had this call for papers for the ‘The Return of Biography: Reassessing Life Stories in Science Studies’ workshop at Science Museum on 18 July laying on my desktop for months:
The lived life serves as an organising principle across disciplines. We talk of the biographies of things and places, and we use personal narratives to give shape to history. Biography is central to historians’ work but often unacknowledged and untheorised: it is used to inspire and to set examples, and to order our thinking about the world, but is a primarily a literary mode; biographies written for popular audiences provide material for the most abstruse work across disciplines; and the canon of well-known lives dictates fashions in research.
For historians of science, technology and medicine this is a particularly pressing issue: their discipline is founded on the ‘great men’ account of discovery and advance, and, though that has long since been discarded, the role of the individual in historical narratives has not diminished, and heroic tales have themselves become a legitimate subject of inquiry. For writers and researchers in other fields, the question remains: how do the lives of individuals intersect with cultural trends and collective enterprise?
It has been laying there since November because there are so many different things in it I would like to take issue with:
- Isn’t the notion of ‘return’ of biography long overdue?
- Does the notion of ‘biographies’ of things and places make sense?
- Are biography and historiography necessarily narrative (story-telling) genres?
- Is it really true that the role of the individual in historical writing hasn’t diminished?
But given the restriction of a 20 minutes talk and my need to say something new, I eventually found out (but not until deadline day, last Friday) that I would rather like to engage with the explicit occasion for the workshop meeting — Science Museum’s Turing-exhibition — and ask whether biographical museum exhibitions are really possible?
I have to confess I haven’t seen Codebreaker yet — but will certainly do so, before the workshop (and if my abstract is accepted).
However, I have long been thinking about making a biographical exhibition here at Medical Museion. I would like to be able to combine the two major strands of my scholarly life so far, which are (1) writing (about) biography and (2) curating (and reflecting on) the use of material artefacts in science museum exhibitions on the other.
So far, however, I haven’t really seriously tried — and I think there are two reasons for this lack of action from my side.
One is more conceptual, having to do with the uncertain role of material things in the life-courses of scientists as opposed to the role of ideas, concepts, writing, etc. Symbols and text on paper and images have such a prominent place in the self-awareness of scientists. Just read their autobiographies; there are ideas, concepts, theories etc. on every page. But material artefacts play a much more humble role in the way scientists understand themselves in interviews and autobiographical reports.
The other reason is more practical: scientists like to save documents and images from their work for the archives and archives are by tradition often organised in person-defined document collections. But scientists rarely donate the material things they have worked with to museum collections. Material artefacts are mostly collected by museum with an eye to the historical importance of the things rather than as personal material archives.
All this makes it difficult to display the material life of an individual scientist. The ‘material turn’ in the humanities doesn’t easily translate into artefact-based museum exhibitions about lives in science.
(featured image: cover of T. Soderqvist, ed., The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography, Ashgate 2007)
One episode closer to the century mark, Amanda, Dan, Mills, and Tom welcome Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Tim Carmody for a debriefing on digital developments at the annual meetings of the MLA and AHA and a discussion of the tragic suicide of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz.
Links mentioned on the podcast:
Dan Cohen, Digital History at the 2013 AHA Meeting
Mark Sample, Digital Humanities at MLA 2013
Aaron Swartz (Wikipedia)
Tim Carmody, Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century
Running time: 58:04
Download the .mp3
Last week I was delighted to be back at my old stomping grounds at Rice University’s Digital Media Commons to lead a workshop on “Doing Things with Text.” The workshop was part of Rice’s Digital Humanities Bootcamp Series, led by my former colleagues Geneva Henry and Melissa Bailar. I hoped to expose participants to a range of approaches and tools, provide opportunities for hands-on exploration and play, and foster discussion about the advantages and limitations of text analysis, topic modeling, text encoding, and metadata. Although we ran out of time before getting through my ambitious agenda, I hope my slides and exercises provide useful starting points for exploring text analysis and text encoding.
Here’s my short speech at the opening of Biohacking: Do it yourself! last Thursday evening:
In true hacker style, this opening is somewhat ad hoc-ish. We will spend about 20 minutes up here in the old auditorium; several people will say a few introductory words each, in several languages.
Then — because there isn’t room for us all down there — the speakers will go downstairs to the biohacker lab, where they will make the official opening (clip, clip with the scissor) while the web camera projects on the screen. And finally you will get drinks and popcorn from the microwave while you can move freely around between this floor and the biohacker lab.
So why are we doing this? What’s a biohacker lab doing in a medical museum and in this venerable old building from 1787? It’s not an irrelevant question, because some of our visitors think a museum like ours should restrict itself to real medical history – the history of epidemic diseases, surgical instruments from the 18th and 19th enturies, gory human body parts etc.
OK, believe it or not, we’re still in the history business. We’re still displaying things from the gruesome medical past. But we are also very eager to engage with the present and the future. As some of you know, our latest exhibition is about the current obesity epidemic and the brand new treatment method called gastric bypass surgery that accidentally also cures type 2 diabetes.
In the exhibition (or rather installation) you’ll see tonight, we’re taking yet another step away from the past, to the future of biology and medicine — to the emerging worlds of synthetic biology and biohacking.
Other speakers will say more about synthetic biology and biohacking in a few moments. I’ll just give you the background to this project.
The idea behind the exhibition/installation started three years ago, when some ten small European science centers and art institutions met at Le Laboratorie in Paris to prepare an application from the European Community for an art-science project, called StudioLab.
One of the themes we decided on at the Paris meeting synthetic biology – a very hot topic among life scientists. Using small parts of life to build more complicated living parts. Like in the famous Lego bricks.
What was then, three years ago, a pretty vague idea, has now materialized in a very concrete art-design-science installation –thanks to an interdisciplinary collaboration between a couple of biohackers and scientists, an installation designer, a science communication specialist and a historian of ancient technology. They come from the UK, Germany, the United States, and Denmark, so this is a truly international project team, based locally here in Copenhagen.
Before I give the word over to these people who made this come true, I will say that it hasn’t escaped my notice that the idea of biohacking may have further implications for a museums like ours, and maybe for museums in general.
Because there’s something in the hacker culture – whether it’s computer hacking or biohacking – that points to the ongoing cultural change in the museum world. As I said to one of the biohackers at dinner earlier tonight: museums are struggling to become more open, to involve their users, to draw on the creativity of non-professionals, to crowdsource the cultural heritage, to engage citizens in the construction and re-construction of collections and exhibitions. The do-it-yourself attitude is spreading to museums too.
This is what some museum people call ‘museum 2.0‘. It’s pretty similar to what social media are doing to the world of publishing right now. Or what biohackers are trying to do for the life sciences.
As a museum I think we have very much to learn from the hacking culture – and I’m proud that we have been able to engage people from the local biohacker community here in Copenhagen to help us – not only to open this particular installation – but in the long run help us rethink what a museum might be.
Now, I will give the word to Rüdiger Trojok, a molecular biologist who’s currently finishing his Masters at the Technical University of Denmark; Malthe Borch, who has a masters in Biological engineering, and who’s a co-founder of the local biohacker space BiologiGaragen here in Copenhagen; and Sara Krugman, who’s an interaction designer, and currently completing her masters at The Copenhagen School of Interaction Design.
(Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara give short speeches)
Thank you, Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara! And now over to Emil Polny, who’s a project coordinator at the Center for Synthetic Biology here at the University of Copenhagen.
(Emil gives a short speech)
Thank you, Emil! And finally I’ll give the word to the people here at Medical Museion who have organised and curated the biohacking space, namely Karin Tybjerg, who’s an associate professor with a background in the history of science and technology and Louise Whiteley, who’s assistant professor with a background in theoretical neuroscience and science communication studies.
(Karin and Louise give short speeches)
Thank you Karin and Louise! And now comes the tricky logistical part of the opening. I will ask you all to wait here for two minutes – and we’ll show a short video while you wait – while our presenters walk down to the biohacking lab to open it. The reason is the lab room is so small, we cannot all be in there – so they will cut the ribbon in front of a video camera – and we’ll transmit it over the web and stream up on the screen behind me. And after they have cut the ribbon you can do whatever you want – take drink, eat some popcorn, sit and talk – or even go down and visit the biohacker space.
Thank you very much! Enjoy your evening.
You’ve probably been there. A new job, a new project team, a new client. A great first meeting. Everyone is invited to talk, to listen, to contribute. Everyone is assured that their voices will be heard, their concerns addressed, their ideas taken seriously.
Fast forward a week, a month, a year. One by one, those voices have been silenced, those concerns dismissed, those ideas undermined. What remains are the ideas and concerns of the person who (it has now become clear) is in charge.
To do their jobs effectively, members of a project team need to know who the decision maker is. We all like democracy, those of us in education and cultural heritage especially so. If it’s truly a democracy, great. But if it’s a dictatorship, people would rather know from the outset than be led down a rhetorical primrose path of “democracy,” “consensus,” and “collaboration” only to have the rug pulled out from under them when the decision maker finally decides to assert his or her will.
If you are the decision maker, let us know. Anything less treats team members like children and wastes everybody’s time. What’s worse, it makes for shortsighted, haphazard, second-rate work product.
Having recently returned from a trip to Kauai where I used my beach search engine with middling success, I've now got a few updates out on the site.
Firstly, there is a full map showing either all the beaches in a location, or all the beaches from a search within a location. This was a pretty obvious missing feature.
Secondly, as this is an active map, you can zoom and pan the map which interactively restricts the set of results.
There are some minor improvements to other elements of the site as well.
Note - something that always interests me is the relationship between back-end data quality and the presentation of the data. By having a complete map of beaches, it highlights cases where there are duplicates in the results (a topic for another post).
If you are heading to Hawaii - give it a try and let me know how you get on.Related articles Snorkel* and Surf* in Kauai and Maui The State of Hawai'i Demands a New Search Engine
Burns Day 2012, January 25th, I was drumming my metaphorical fingers on all the desks I could find. My due date had been the 19th; another day or two, and they wouldn’t let me give birth at the Birth Center anymore. This risking out business was annoying! But that was where the bureaucracy won, and I was going to play along whether I liked it or not.
I was giddy with impatient anticipation. Felt like an amazon. Wanted haggis. Molly and I briefly fantasized about going to get the really good stuff somewhere in Jersey, but that wasn’t in the cards. I had itchy feet, though, and Molly is the platonic ideal of my traveling companion.
“Wanna go have dinner in Maine?” Do I!
Duckfat. I’d heard about it, but had never been to the Portland place with amazing-sounding fries. Two hours away is far enough to be a road trip, but totally close enough to get back if, you know.
This was it. Last chance to kick start labor and probably avoid a hospital setting. Mid-afternoon, I went to the store and got blue and black cohosh drops. I took some while parked outside of Molly’s workplace in Cambridge, waiting for her to come down.
At a gas station half an hour out of town, I went to the bathroom and stared at a tiny wet spot on my jeans. Slight incontinence is a common travel companion in late pregnancy, but this felt different.
Getting back, I said, “I think my water just broke.”
Molly stared at me. “Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. There wasn’t a dramatic gush or anything, but yeah.”
“…Is it bad that my main thought is, drive faster?” We laughed.
“Bad, no! It’s why I love you.”
So we went on to Portland. I hadn’t thought to bring pads with me, and further didn’t even think to buy any at the gas station. So the moment we were seated at Duckfat, I said to our waitress: “So… My water broke, and I’m in labor! I’m totally fine, or we wouldn’t be here. But I need a pad. I don’t suppose you have any here?”
Her eyes got momentarily wider, but she kept her cool. “Congratulations, wow. Uh… *I* don’t have any, and the rest of the staff are dudes. Let me take a look in our first aid kit.” Moments later she was back with a big packet of gauze. “Best I can do.” It was good enough for the moment.
Dinner was delicious. Creamy soups, duckfat poutine (!!), duck rillettes, salad with duck confit. I had a blood orange and lemon curd shake that left me speechless. We texted Mark, who was at a company party. Molly posted pictures of our food, one of them captioned: “Tomato-fennel-basil, cream of onion, PS Vika’s water broke.” Our local internet erupted in good wishes.
The contractions started very slowly, sometime over dinner. After, we drove to a pharmacy and got real pads. The cashier at the pharmacy walked with me to show me where the bathrooms were. On the way there she suddenly called out, “Whoo! Hot flash!” I laughed and explained to her why I needed pads and a bathroom. We shared a sweet moment.
I drove us home. I wanted to see how far I could get, driving through mild contractions, and it turned out–all the way! Molly livetweeted, of course. We chatted about everything. We’ve had some great conversations over the years, but that evening’s was one of the best.
Got home in a beautiful dusting of snow, sometime between 11 and midnight. Mark was parked by my place, and we handed me off. Molly walked home, just down the hill. Mark and I went inside, puttered a bit, prepared things to take to the birth center when the time came. He snapped some pictures. We went to bed around midnight.
I got up at 2:30am with stronger contractions, and here things get hazy. The intensity of the contractions increased pretty rapidly. I tried to keep hydrated with water and tart juices (can’t stomach sports drinks), but couldn’t keep any of that down. Over the next hour I proceeded to get mildly dehydrated, which worsened the contractions and pushed them closer together, though I didn’t draw the connection then.
Around 4am we went to the birth center. The midwife on duty there, Laurie, wasn’t anyone I’d met before, and had easily the worst bedside manner I’d encountered in that place. She was displeased that we’d come, despite the fact that Mark had been on the phone with the center and we’d been told to come. She gave me an internal exam and used a speculum, which hurt like a mofo, and the entire time she was as gently disposed as sandpaper.
I wasn’t dilated enough, she said. A few centimeters. A non stress test showed no reason for worry, and an ultrasound confirmed that baby was head down. We should go and keep laboring at home. And, oh, drink lots more fluids.
Arrrrgh. Everything they tell you about how much it sucks to ride in a car while having contractions is true. And the pavement quality on Beacon Street between my house and the birth center is infamous with local bicyclists for its potholes. I felt every one, plus all the cracks in the road.
We went home at 6am, and the next several hours are a haze of pain and further dehydration. I might have slept a little bit. Throughout the night and morning, Mark was wonderfully supportive, but I don’t remember interacting much around the actual contractions — that seems to have been something I felt the need to deal with on my own.
He timed them, though. Things progressed, too slowly. There was a lot of pain. We talked to the birth center once or twice more, and were encouraged to stay the course. But at some point I couldn’t. Sometime close to noon I told him we were going in. He didn’t argue.
We got in around 12:15, and discovered that they couldn’t admit me unless they checked me again, and I was so dehydrated that they couldn’t check me until I rehydrated. So for the next hour and a half I lay on the thin narrow couch in the “family room,” a sort of tiny interstitial room, hooked up to an IV saline drip and trying with varying degrees of success to roll with it. Mark intermittently held my hands and made sympathetic noises, and was a generalized rock-solid loving presence. The contractions got bad enough that at some point I remember telling him, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m close to giving up.” I was afraid, and later decided that this was the beginning of transition into the final stages of labor: often that time is marked by fear. But in the moment, of course, I didn’t remember that, and concentrated on my loved one and the kind nurse encouraging me to get through the rehydrating stage and find out where we really are, because what if we’ve progressed a lot? Would be a shame to check into the hospital with no need, since that’s a thing I wanted to avoid if possible.
Fair point, and the baby was doing just fine, so I kept on breathing.
Two liters of saline later they took me to get checked out. I actually started crying at the thought of another speculum exam. “No speculum,” the midwife on duty promised. I’d never met her either, but she was different from Ms. Mousy Sandpaper. She was solid and reassuring and full of warmth, and she helped me breathe more easily in the midst of labor. So when she mentioned a student midwife and asked me if it would be ok to have her along, I didn’t think twice. I love student medical practitioners. They’re sweet and brave and interested. And let me tell you: Kate ended up taking over the entire thing including my postpartum visits, and was amazing.
But that was later. For now, the senior midwife (whose name I no longer remember) checked me without a speculum. “Oh! You’re at 7.5 centimeters.”
Holy crap! Turns out my body had been laboring hard and productively. “Does this mean I get admitted?” Oh yes. Ohhh thank all the deities.
They took me to an honest-to-goodness laboring room. With a BATHTUB. I got to float in the warm water, easily the best thing to happen all day up to that point. My birth-center-provided doula was summoned (did I mention I loved my experience at the Cambridge Birth Center?), and spent some intense time with me getting to full dilation without pushing. She had to really work on me, there. The urge to push was strong with this one.
This whole time Mark was with me, being a rock star, best birthing companion I could’ve wished for. Later I heard that when he finally left us the next day, he sat in Molly’s kitchen and ate peanut butter straight from the jar for a while, recharging and staring off into space. Plenty deserved.
The midwife was covering both the birth center and the hospital delivery ward next door, so we spent some time waiting for her to come back and check me again. Ages later she came back, checked me quickly, and pronounced me fully dilated. But, surprise! The warm tub water was too cool for the baby to be delivered into, so they wanted me to come out.
I just looked at them all in disbelief. I remember feeling flickers of rage, but the whole thing was so preposterous—I mean, couldn’t they just turn on the damn hot water faucet?—that there had to be something I didn’t know. I couldn’t use words at that point, so I turned to Mark, who proceeded to be my lungs and mouth. Couldn’t we turn on the hot water? They answered him as they were hustling me out, so I didn’t catch the answer, but he told me later: no, they said. There wasn’t time. This baby was coming too fast.
Whee! Everything’s a blur. Here’s what I remember: they got me on the bed and put down some disposable towels. I think I pushed in earnest a total of four times. Then I had a baby.
I’d been admitted sometime around 2pm on January 26th. By 3:50 he was out. I was on all fours, and they put him on the bed under me. We stared at each other. He screamed with shock and indignation. I cried and laughed. Mark cried.
Everything they tell you about the pain disappearing into a haze on account of the endorphins is true. It was the best, cleanest high I ever expect to experience. Someone helped me turn around and sit, reclined, on the bed. They cleaned up my baby and put him on my belly. Sometime in there I delivered the gorgeous root structure of the placenta, which I had no interest in keeping but was fascinating to see. I had a tiny tear that didn’t need any stitches. They cleaned me up. Everything got a lot more quiet.
We rested. Babe-a-licious got checked out and pronounced perfect (7lbs 9.9oz, 21.5 inches). Nobody once suggested taking him out of the room: there was no need. I think I had toast and tea, courtesy of the lovely doula lady. We tried to get him to latch on with some success. Mark snapped some photos. We got a visit from Molly, ate sushi for dinner, drank a vodka toast to his arrival and a long and wonderful life, and picked out his name. Nico Alexander Zafrin. I called my mom. There was another exam (his blood is B+, by the way), and then we napped the nap of the smugly accomplished.
They don’t let you stick around for long at the birth center, and I didn’t feel like transferring to the hospital without true need. Around midnight we went home in a dusting of fresh snow.
Recently, I stumbled across a documentary about Auguste Rodin's monumental sculpture La porte de l'Enfer, and decided I could use The Gates of Hell as a metaphor in telling the history of the use of computing in the Humanities and the transfer from Humanities Computing to Digital Humanities as a name for the field. This coincided with my attempts to find an angle for a guest lecture I was invited to give at the Lehrstuhl für Computerphilologie und Neuere Deutsche Literaturgeschichte of the Julius-Maximilians Universität Würzburg (Germany) on 13 December. My last visit to Würzburg as a keynote speaker to the 2011 Annual Conference and Members' Meeting of the TEI Consortium (12 October 2012) had been very enjoyable indeed, but bringing in chocolates again would be pushing it a bit. Moreover, I was not lecturing in the prestigious Würzburg Rezidens, but at the evenly prestigious University of Würzburg, where I met a very attentive audience of students of Digital Humanities.
As it goes with guest lectures, at least in my case, the eventual contents of the lecture hardly ever reflects the title which was communicated way before putting together the lecture. When I sent my title to Armin Volkmann, who invited me to teach in his course, Text and Image based Digital Humanities: providing access to textual heritage in Flanders seemed a good title. However, when I discovered the story behind Rodin's Gates of Hell I changed my mind and elaborated on the metaphor to talk about the history and definition of literary and linguistic computing, Humanities Computing, and Digital Humanities. In order to relate to the previously communicated title, I divided the lecture in two parts:1. History of the use of computing in the HumanitiesSlides Video
In the second part, I demonstrated some of the projects we realized at the Centre for Scholarly Editing and Document Studies (CTB) of the Royal Academy of Dutch Language and Literature (KANTL) in Flanders:
And one project of the Computational Linguistics& Psycholinguistics Research Centre (CLiPS) from the University of Antwerp:
Since I taught at Würzburg, I have elaborated on the metaphor and the themes addressed in the lecture for a forthcoming book chapter entitled: The Gates of Hell: Digital@Humanities@ComputingAcknowledgements
I would like to thank Armin Volkmann for the invitation to lecture in his course, and especially Mareike Laue who took care of all the practical arrangements and who did a wonderful job filming and editing the lecture.
“See! Now! Our sentence is up.”
That’s the last line of the last page of the last issue of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s pop magic comic book master work. That final issue came out right around Y2K, but it’s set on the December solstice of what was then the freaky-sounding future year 2012. All this year, every time I heard somebody cracking wise about the Mayan Apocalypse, I thought, “Unless you’re an ancient Mayan, you’re stealing Grant Morrison’s bit.”
I bought and read every issue of The Invisibles as it came out from 1994 to 2000. It’s the only comic I’ve ever followed so religiously. It’s brilliant and fun and a bit of a mess and it meant the world to me. It worked its way into my life and rewired the way I saw things, which is pretty much what it was intended to do. Yes, it’s dated now, but so am I. I can’t be any more objective about it than I could be objective about my twenties.
My first pointless argument with a stranger on the internet—you never forget your first time—was on an Invisibles fan site, and it was about whether or not the world was really going to end on December 21, 2012. The world of the comic book, that is. There’s much talk in The Invisibles about the End of Days, the Mayapocalypse, Glitterdammerung, you name it, but I figured all along that Grant was going to invoke the “As We Know It” clause—the end of the world wouldn’t be a literal end but just the dawning of a new age, an evolution to a some higher (read: more Grant Morrison-like) state of being. When an early issue featured a flash forward to the year 2051 or so, showing the young protagonist Dane McGowan dying of old age, I said this proved Dane’s world wouldn’t end in 2012. My internet interlocutor said this was a false vision sent by the comic’s demonic baddies to demoralize Dane. I’m not sure how demoralizing it is to be told you will die peacefully in bed at the age of eighty-three, but the Archons of the Outer Church work in mysterious ways.
And when it comes, I think you will agree that the difference between being crushed by the massive palm of the headless body of NUG-SHOHAB on the ruined plain of RAGNAROK versus dying alone in a hospital room with a television flickering images at you of a football player dancing with the stars is so small that it is not worth arguing over.
That’s John Hodgman in what has to be the year’s best apocalypse, That Is All. Now, Hodgman’s not stealing Morrison’s bit. He probably read all about the Mayan calendar back in 1979 in The People’s Almanac or The Book of Lists. Speaking of 1979, here’s Stephen King talking about the appeal of the apocalypse in Danse Macabre (I’ll admit it: King’s red-state apocalypse The Stand was almost as big a deal to me in high school as The Invisibles was to me in grad school):
Much of the compulsion I felt while writing The Stand obviously came from envisioning an entire entrenched societal process destroyed at a stroke. I felt a bit like Alexander, lifting his sword over the Gordian knot and growling, ‘Fuck untying it; I’ve got a better way.’ … In this frame of mind, the destruction of THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT became an actual relief. No more Ronald McDonald! No more Gong Show or Soap on TV—just soothing snow! No more terrorists! No more bullshit!
Pause for a moment to reflect that The Gong Show and Soap were once, apparently, arguments for the destruction of humanity. Today they’d be an improvement over many things on TV. (Come back, Chuck Barris, all is forgiven!) Setting that aside, who hasn’t felt like that, like the end of everything would be a kind of relief? Who hasn’t felt like that this week?
The lure of apocalypse is not just the thrill of destruction. It’s the dream of the blank slate. One stray comet, one deadly plague, one dolorous blow from the headless NUG-SHOHAB, and all our troubles will be over. Sure, the world will be a smoking ruin, but that term paper you have to write, those bills you have to pay, those intractable social problems that we just aren’t up to solving—they’ll all be made moot. Cosmic Do-Over. Tabula Rasa. Inbox Zero.
When I put this weblog in mothballs two years ago, I was feeling depressed about the internet, and all the ways in which it seemed to be falling short of what we’d hoped for it. I said it didn’t surprise and delight me any more. I still feel that way (see Anil Dash’s recent “The Web We Lost“), but I resist the urge to disown the optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s, no matter how naive or embarrassing it all seems in retrospect. That would let us all off the hook too easily for the things we didn’t accomplish. (For the record: the internet still surprises and delights me from time to time.)
Dreams of utopia and dreams of apocalypse are both ways of talking about the future—no, scratch that—they are ways of talking, if only obliquely, about a radically different present. In a society that seems to have given up trying to imagine anything much better than multinational capitalism, you need to sneak up on social criticism. Dress it up with rayguns or zombies. Set it in some freaky futuristic-sounding year like 2012.
That’s fine and all. But what are you supposed to do when the world doesn’t end? What do you do when the flying saucers don’t land, the Mayan star-demons don’t tear us to shreds, the Rapture comes and goes and God doesn’t take a single one of us? Or, what do you do when a revolutionary new technology rewires the world yet leaves all the power structures and patterns that predated it intact? How do you make your way and make a difference in a world that refuses to end, a world neither apocalypse nor utopia, a world where the slate will never come clean?
Toward the end of The Invisibles, one character tries to tell King Mob, the ass-kicking anarchist hero of the series, “Amid all the bangs and the drama and the grand passions, it’s kindness, and just ordinary goodness, that stands out in the end.” In fact, King Mob spends most of the comic shooting people, using time travel to hook up with women from different decades, and reminding everyone how cool he is. But Dane, resolutely unglamorous, saves the world just by being a good person. And the final issue finds Dane doing nothing more dramatic than giving comfort to a dying friend. I know which kind of heroism is more meaningful to me. This week especially.
The end of the Mayan calendar is not an apocalypse at all, of course. It’s just like Y2K–another big odometer rolling over. That can mean as much as or as little as you want it to. What’s the end-of-the-world equivalent of “think globally, act locally”? Think apocalyptically, act… ordinarily? Think as if the world is ending, act as if it isn’t.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Invisibles, but I dug out the final issue to write this post and I noticed one more thing I’d never seen before. The final issue is actually set on December 22, 2012. The day after the Mayapocalypse. Suck on that, fourteen-years-ago internet arguer.
The first line on the first page of the first issue of The Invisibles is:
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.