II. TOWARD A COMMON LANUGAGE:
METHODS AND CONTEXT
Visions of the Future
Computer scientists and humanists often start with differing views
of how computing should be developed for humanities applications.
This contrast can be illustrated at the desktop, where most humanists
work. Noting the fragmentation of information resources across physical
and electronic sources, Jerome Saltzer proposed a goal
. . . of a digital library world, where every document in the library
is something that I can inspect from my desktop. I am not looking
for something elaborate. All I want is the ability to look at
documents. The other goal for that future system that I think is within reach
is that whenever you spot something in a document that makes
a reference to something else, it ought to be possible to click on it
and have that appear in the next window.
Joseph Busch argued that not all information may be appropriate
for desktop delivery.
I am a great believer that this is not something that
everybody should do on their desktop. Not everybody should be an
information server or is a good information server. I think we need to have
service providers: not necessarily commercial service providers, but we
have to understand the need for an institutional role of being a
What services are provided by whom and how services are provided
can have a fundamental impact on both system design and institutional roles.
Effective system design can be an elusive goal. Michael
Brodie pointed to systems failures in banking, telecommunications, and
other commercial sectors as evidence of the difficulty of moving from
a theoretical vision to workable systems design and implementation.
A first step is to understand the "humanities process," analogous to
various business processes.
What is the method by which one establishes a premise and
comes to a conclusion by interacting with other people? You study
that process and translate it into the appropriate information
technology requirements and build it. If you build a vague thing to support
a general notion, it is very unlikely that you will succeed unless by
some wonderful happenstance. . . . Run rampant in creating the vision
but do justice to the resources that you request in order to achieve it.
Collaboration, Brodie suggested, should extend to development of
the ontologies that drive automation processes.
Much discussion of information technology focuses on
information elements. But many also emphasize a vision of the future that more
fully engages users as social animals, as individuals with distinct
personalities. Computing and communications technologies have different merits,
and considering them as a set brings with it the risk of missing
important differences in their value to people. Mary Shaw suggested that
contrasting the newer Web with older newsgroups can help to understand
some of those differences.
The World Wide Web is one of the most sterile ways for
people to interact with each other because the central human
interaction has been washed out. As originally created, it was a way
of pointing at some document out in cyberspace and saying, "I
wish to see that document now." It has been larded about
with mechanisms that let the documents animate themselves,
but there is still not very much that lets you interact with real
people. A much older use of the Internet involves electronic mail
and newsgroups, which allow communities to develop around
a shared interest in a shared topic.
An important piece of technology differentiates the
newsgroups from the World Wide Web and makes the information
genuinely accessible to people in forms that they understand.
Historically we have concentrated on stringing wires and making bits
go faster. We had to do that to get started. But we now need
to devote energy to making the information capabilities
accessible to real people in the terms that they can understand and
control rather than just making things go faster with more
connectivity, more people, more kinds of representations. Technologists
need to rebalance the investment in the underlying network and
the investment in packaging the capability and the form
that reaches the intended audience.
The idea of active use and involvement with a medium as the key
to its potential was amplified by Willard McCarty and Richard
Liebhaber. Liebhaber argued that such potential implies a radical change in
what people do with evolving technology.
Contextually, we are still focused on the written and
statistical, whereas the movement is toward visual and virtual. We
are working methodologically in a world of "store and forward,"
and we are moving toward a world of "forward and store."
Our methodologies and our view of the technology in question
is based on storing material somewhere and forwarding it to a
user or a researcher. I believe technology and price, performance,
and some of the other issues we discussed are leading us to a
world of "forward and store." That is, instead of making it narrow
and real-time, I am going to make it fatter and less than
real-time, put it into a device and deal with it visually and virtually. I will
not be connected to anything that is physical. What troubles me
even more is that I believe the research and the real
contextual thought that is going on to make those two changes happen
is not being done in an academic environment, but in the
commercial and industrial environment.
Liebhaber explained that progress in computing technology
performance and associated reductions in cost will allow the movement
of functionality from work space into play space and, ultimately,
households. Trends also support a repositorial view of information:
together with the economics supporting greater connectivity, this may
broaden the potential for human studies and human interaction.
Intellectual property becomes more important as the barriers from costly
transport and storage and easy control of ideas and materials fall.
Imagine a world in which each of us had the opportunity to
create for ourselves our own special interest magazines, which
change by time of year or phase of life or whims of interest. Imagine
a world in which instead of reading about the world of
Thomas Aquinas, we download a series of images of Thomas Aquinas.
Liebhaber urged humanists to plan for novel system capabilities
and designs, referring to his shift from store/forward to forward/store.
Part of this trend involves recognizing and planning for growth in
the consuming public, for whom the expansion of do-it-yourself
options with automation extends to the finding, publishing, and
repositorial handling of humanities material.
The coupling of technology and process is mediated by
economics: people choose what they can afford. Responding to Edward
Ayers' discussion of the potential of electronic media to support
"democratic" access to humanities content, Charles Henry cautioned that
humanists may have to work against the rhetoric of the National
Information Infrastructure,2 which tends to be commercial in its
metaphorspipelines, conduits, highways, and toll booths as "things that you
can direct and meter." Humanists find little comfort in computer
scientists' observations about emerging technology for fine-tuning charging
schemes. Their experiences will, in any event, be shaped by the larger set of
non-technical factors that govern intellectual property rights and
associated public policy.
Jerome Saltzer observed that computer scientists themselves may
not understand all of the potential of information technology.
Things that cost $100,000 in 1983 we can do for
$100 today. . . . Most computer scientists are still reacting to this factor of
a thousand that has come upon them. . . . They are still trying
to figure out how to unwind all of the decisions that were made
ten years ago based on things that cost 100 times as much, and
get into step with today's costs. They are not looking ahead to
see that the things that cost $100 today are soon going to cost
$1.00. So when humanists talk to computer scientists, you have
to realize that most computer scientists are, in a funny way, tied
up in the past.
Even scientists have difficulty coping with the rapid change in
Universes of Discourse
Overcoming language differences was a major theme of the
roundtable: all agreed that it is an issue for any cross-disciplinary
collaboration. Pragmatically, Edward Ayers pointed to the rise of a pidgin language
that spans computing and other disciplines. Michael Joyce captured
the challenge eloquently in an opening statement using unusual words
to illustrate the challenge of building a common language (See
Willard McCarty observed that the homogenizing influence of
information technology on methodology provides a basis for a
What jumps immediately into focus after five years of
teaching humanities computing to graduate students at Toronto, and
now undergraduates and postgraduates in London, is the
importance of methodologies. When you teach humanities computing
what immediately becomes obvious is that the only subject you
have to talk about is the methodology. You find that this is a great
deal to talk about. There is a huge and very rich
interdisciplinary common ground of techniques relating to the data that
people in the humanities deal with, whatever their particular
disciplinary orientation. There are common tools and techniques. One
can easily take, for example, relational database management
and highlight examples in various disciplines and have
people recognize the utility of these things. But much more
important than that is the new perspective on these disciplines that
these tools bring about. Here I have the very strong suspicion that
this transcends the humanities and has to do with what has
been going on in the sciences. We do not know very much about
this yet. . . . We can get to this common language by seeing what
"falls out" from the application of computing to the humanities
during the fifty years since Roberto Busa started his project and in
Methodology can provide one of the spaces where humanists
and computer scientists meet. Summarizing his description of a variety
of "potentiated spaces" created by humanists using computers,
Joyce suggested that humanist and computer science methodologies have
a reciprocal relationship: "our presence as human persons in real
places continues as a value not despite but because of the ubiquity of
Collaboration: "Synching Up"
Effective collaborations may be serendipitous, but they are often
not accidental. A critical element of any collaboration is mutual respect,
and that element is especially important in collaboration across
disciplines. Individual disciplines tend to be chauvinistic, and disciplines
that generate useful toolsincluding computer scienceare concerned
to have their contributions appreciated as such. Willard McCarty
addressed that issue:
"Computing in the humanities" is not quite right, because
the humanities do not own computing and should not swallow it
up. We have to think much more in terms of a common
language. The phrase "common languages," as George Steiner
recognized, refers to the state of bliss before battle when everyone
speaks one tongue. But we have suffered this fall into
disciplinary specialization, and we have these separate city-states. . . . Perhaps a better analogy is the perspective of the
Phoenician merchants who invented the alphabetof people
moving between civilizations needing to invent a meta-device, a
meta-language, if you will, to represent the goods and services that
they were trading to people speaking incompatible languages. . . . "Computing in the humanities" is not right because it
suggests that computing moves into the disciplines and becomes
absorbed in them. So you have a kind of Marxist theory of
the withering away of the state and finally you have all of
these disciplines with each of their computing experts in them. This
is not the way to do things, because it ignores the
fundamental contribution of the computer to the interdisciplinary dialogue,
the fact that there is all of this material held in common in
these techniques and approaches.
Although the roundtable was labeled "computing
and the humanities" in recognition of the concerns McCarty raised, he cautioned
against inferring from that wording that computing and the humanities
are fundamentally separate. That inference, he explained, is "an
illusion caused by a lack of historical perspective and perpetuated in
the discipline-based structure of our institutions."
Stanley N. Katz underscored the challenge of transcending
discipline-based structures, noting the mix of strength and constraint that
Probably everyone around this table would raise the banner
of interdisciplinarity or of multidisciplinarityor I like to talk
about it as "nondisciplinarity." But probably none of us, if we
are thoughtful, wants to give up disciplinarity. Method is
important. It is enormously important. We do not know how to maintain
a structure in which we have the virtues of both method
and nondisciplinarity. It seems to me to be an enormously
important challenge and very relevant to the kind of collaboration that
we are talking about here.
McCarty proposed looking more broadly at "humane learning,
which includes the sciences." He suggested that
computing from a humanistic point of view addresses how people think.
The computer, from a humanist's perspective, and I think
from several others, is essentially a modeling device. That is,
through it we determine or we play with how scholars think. And
the interesting question that arises is the discrepancy between
how the computer manages to do things and how human
beings manage to do things. This generates many questions of
interest to humanists because it has intimately to do with how
the research perspective changes once you begin computing
your texts, images, sounds, and other forms of humanities data.
McCarty noted that scholars who shaped computingfor example,
Alan Turing and Vannevar Bushused models from the cognitive
science branches of philosophy, neuropsychiatry, and other fields.
Many pioneering applications in the humanities have been
documented, and several are accessible on the World Wide Web.
(See Appendix E.) To illustrate emerging possibilities, some of which relate directly to the challenge of understanding and exploiting
how people think, Mary Shaw presented examples of
cross-disciplinary collaboration among computing, other sciences, and the arts.
The Journey into the Living Cell project of the Carnegie Mellon
University Studio for Creative Inquiry, which draws on the Fine Arts
Department and Carnegie Science Center, was motivated by artists, who saw
an opportunity to reach a new audience with a new medium. An
interactive, visual system developed by biologists and artists, it involves
the audience as collaborators in a performance. Another interactive
performance project, associated with CMU's digital library project, involves
an interactive representation of Albert Einstein using a script performed
in different orders depending on the audience. Elements of this
project include speech recognition and synthesis, information retrieval,
and digital video. And Shaw's own work includes an education
application that includes simulations, record keeping, and documents. She
is collaborating with cognitive psychologists to understand how
learning takes place.
Shaw derived from her and others' experiences some principles
for effective collaboration that were echoed throughout the
roundtable discussions. Foremost is for people to have some common cause,
such as working on a particular project. This can generate positive
feedback (drawing in students, colleagues, and follow-on activities).
Participants must be full partners in order to reconcile different points of view
along with different research styles, languages, and cultures. And
institutions must find ways to remove administrative barriers (allocation of
contract overhead, turf battles over income) in order to create the conditions
for collaborations and for opportunities to be seized spontaneously
when they arise. Edward Fox reinforced that point, noting that
collaboration "cannot be marginalized," with humanists outside of a science
project. He suggested that this had been an issue with the federal Digital
Library Initiative (DLI).3 Shaw commented more broadly that from the top
down, institutions can only enhance or interfere.
Thomas DeFanti echoed Shaw by describing how
partnerships between computer scientists and artists created the subdiscipline
of computer graphics. He noted that SIGGRAPH conferences are
distinguished from other computer meetings by the participation of
artists, illustrators, and other visual workers, male and
female.4 Part of this mixture reflects the aesthetic imperative: "early on during the
growth period it was clear that if we were going to promote this technology
it had to look good." DeFanti's current lab engages artists as
project managers because they surpass scientists and engineers in driving
the software to commercialization. These artists have scientific training;
they are "a very cross-cultural bunch of people who are actually
generating the technology."
Sandria Freitag suggested that the seemingly trivial frustrations
about converting to different software may express a more
fundamental concern about the match of technology to process: "Many people
were right: WordPerfect is a much better package to work with than Word
if you are writing." Humanists often perceive limited ability to shape
the technology they use. Concern grows "from that very simple level to
the much more complicated level of how do you harness the technology
that can deal with the visual and the virtual." She
remarked on the tensions revealed in the roundtable
discussions"between the notion that
there is a technological expertise out there that can be leveraged on behalf
of the humanities; and the other side of the issue, which is that
the communities themselves have to structure these things, have to
create them to address their own needs."
Freitag and others noted the emergence of a new mindset: a
more subtle and profound transformation of what humanists do, and how
that results from merely incremental improvements to the usability of
any particular system. Michael Neuman cautioned against generalizing
that phenomenon, at least in the near future. Attitudes about technology
vary across the humanities. It may not be simply a matter of time before
all humanists embrace computing tools and methodologies; it may not
be possible to reach the entire community with any single project.
But Willard McCarty suggested that broad forces shaping education
impel accelerated attention to computing in the humanities.
Students come to us with the computer in their mental
vocabulary as a kind of model for how thinking takes place. It
is extremely important that humanists deal with computing
in order to carry out their mission. We have no choice about
this whatsoever. We also need to communicate with the public
since we are no longer swabbed in superstitious reverence for what
we do, as was true in my parents' generation.
Humanists, explained Edward Ayers, have been trained in "how
to deal with one kind of technology, the book," although it has
taken centuries to master that technology. The more diverse and
heterogeneous world of electronic information poses major challenges
for instructors at all levels. The strong links between different kinds
of humanities activities and education motivate interest in
information technology as amplifying agents as well as interest in options
for disseminating information about projects and systems with
Bruce Schatz noted that even in scientific contexts, professors
and graduate students show different preferences for software and
systems. Drawing from his experience with genome analysis systems,
Would you like to have something that is used by
professionals in the field now? You need to find something that they really
want, that is so important to their lives that they will spend time
using the systems that do not actually work. Or do you want
something that is used by graduate students in scientific areas or
undergraduates in teaching areas that does not really do
anything useful but illustrates to them what the world will be like when
they are professionals? Most of the high-end research systems
are very, very popular among the graduate students because
they know that that is what the world will be like five or ten years
from now. But professors and professionals tend not to care
because they can see that their immediate problem can be done
more easily by some simpler mechanism. So you have to think
about what kind of project you want to have before you start;
that determines almost all of the other choices.
Technology holds the promise of alleviating some of the problems
of change that it creates. For example, Edward Ayers described how
his center uses a model in which "an individual project has to be the
carrier of its own set of instructions, somewhat like DNA; it has to be able
to tell people how to use it at the same time." More generally, Tom
DeFanti noted the impetus from distance learning:
If distance learning is going to happen, it will need everything
that you are talking about in order for it to be successful. I think
that it is going to happen because the technology will be there.
How long it takes, I have no idea. How long it will be stalled, I have
I. Introduction and Background
II. TOWARD A COMMON LANGUAGE: METHODS AND CONTEXT
III. Software and Standards Development
IV. Economic and Institutional Issues
V. Next Steps: Talk First to Select Actions Better
Notes | Appendices