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May 2, 2014

[2b2k] Digital Humanities: Ready for your 11AM debunking?

The New Republic continues to favor articles debunking claims that the Internet is bringing about profound changes. This time it’s an article on the digital humanities, titled “The Pseudo-Revolution,” by Adam Kirsch, a senior editor there. [This seems to be the article. Tip of the hat to Jose Afonso Furtado.]

I am not an expert in the digital humanities, but it’s clear to the people in the field who I know that the meaning of the term is not yet settled. Indeed, the nature and extent of the discipline is itself a main object of study of those in the discipline. This means the field tends to attract those who think that the rise of the digital is significant enough to warrant differentiating the digital humanities from the pre-digital humanities. The revolutionary tone that bothers Adam so much is a natural if not inevitable consequence of the sociology of how disciplines are established. That of course doesn’t mean he’s wrong to critique it.

But Adam is exercised not just by revolutionary tone but by what he perceives as an attempt to establish claims through the vehemence of one’s assertions. That is indeed something to watch out for. But I think it also betrays a tin-eared reading by Adam. Those assertions are being made in a context the authors I think properly assume readers understand: the digital humanities is not a done deal. The case has to be made for it as a discipline. At this stage, that means making provocative claims, proposing radical reinterpretations, and challenging traditional values. While I agree that this can lead to thoughtless triumphalist assumptions by the digital humanists, it also needs to be understood within its context. Adam calls it “ideological,” and I can see why. But making bold and even over-bold claims is how discourses at this stage proceed. You challenge the incumbents, and then you challenge your cohort to see how far you can go. That’s how the territory is explored. This discourse absolutely needs the incumbents to push back. In fact, the discourse is shaped by the assumption that the environment is adversarial and the beatings will arrive in short order. In this case, though, I think Adam has cherry-picked the most extreme and least plausible provocations in order to argue against the entire field, rather than against its overreaching. We can agree about some of the examples and some of the linguistic extensions, but that doesn’t dismiss the entire effort the way Adam seems to think it does.

It’s good to have Adam’s challenge. Because his is a long and thoughtful article, I’ll discuss the thematic problems with it that I think are the most important.

First, I believe he’s too eager to make his case, which is the same criticism he makes of the digital humanists. For example, when talking about the use of algorithmic tools, he talks at length about Franco Moretti‘s work, focusing on the essay “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles.” Moretti used a computer to look for patterns in the titles of 7,000 novels published between 1740 and 1850, and discovered that they tended to get much shorter over time. “…Moretti shows that what changed was the function of the title itself.” As the market for novels got more crowded, the typical title went from being a summary of the contents to a “catchy, attention-grabbing advertisement for the book.” In addition, says Adam, Moretti discovered that sensationalistic novels tend to begin with “The” while “pioneering feminist novels” tended to begin with “A.” Moretti tenders an explanation, writing “What the article ‘says’ is that we are encountering all these figures for the first time.”

Adam concludes that while Moretti’s research is “as good a case for the usefulness of digital tools in the humanities as one can find” in any of the books under review, “its findings are not very exciting.” And, he says, you have to know which questions to ask the data, which requires being well-grounded in the humanities.

That you need to be well-grounded in the humanities to make meaningful use of digital tools is an important point. But here he seems to me to be arguing against a straw man. I have not encountered any digital humanists who suggest that we engage with our history and culture only algorithmically. I don’t profess expertise in the state of the digital humanities, so perhaps I’m wrong. But the digital humanists I know personally (including my friend Jeffrey Schnapp, a co-author of a book, Digital_Humanities, that Adam reviews) are in fact quite learned lovers of culture and history. If there is indeed an important branch of digital humanities that says we should entirely replace the study of the humanities with algorithms, then Adam’s criticism is trenchant…but I’d still want to hear from less extreme proponents of the field. In fact, in my limited experience, digital humanists are not trying to make the humanities safe for robots. They’re trying to increase our human engagement with and understanding of the humanities.

As to the point that algorithmic research can only “illustrate a truism rather than discovering a truth,” — a criticism he levels even more fiercely at the Ngram research described in the book Uncharted — it seems to me that Adam is missing an important point. If computers can now establish quantitatively the truth of what we have assumed to be true, that is no small thing. For example, the Ngram work has established not only that Jewish sources were dropped from German books during the Nazi era, but also the timing and extent of the erasure. This not only helps make the humanities more evidence-based —remember that Adam criticizes the digital humanists for their argument-by-assertion —but also opens the possibility of algorithmically discovering correlations that overturn assumptions or surprise us. One might argue that we therefore need to explore these new techniques more thoroughly, rather than dismissing them as adding nothing. (Indeed, the NY Times review of Uncharted discusses surprising discoveries made via Ngram research.)

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Adam’s critique I’ve also had with some digital humanists. Adam thinks of the digital humanities as being about the digitizing of sources. He then dismisses that digitizing as useful but hardly revolutionary: “The translation of books into digital files, accessible on the Internet around the world, can be seen as just another practical tool…which facilitates but does not change the actual humanistic work of thinking and writing.”

First, that underplays the potential significance of making the works of culture and scholarship globally available.

Second, if you’re going to minimize the digitizing of books as merely the translation of ink into pixels, you miss what I think is the most important and transformative aspect of the digital humanities: the networking of knowledge and scholarship. Adam in fact acknowledges the networking of scholarship in a twisty couple of paragraphs. He quotes the following from the book Digital_Humanities:

The myth of the humanities as the terrain of the solitary genius…— a philosophical text, a definitive historical study, a paradigm-shifting work of literary criticism — is, of course, a myth. Genius does exist, but knowledge has always been produced and accessed in ways that are fundamentally distributed…

Adam responds by name-checking some paradigm-shifting works, and snidely adds “you can go to the library and check them out…” He then says that there’s no contradiction between paradigm-shifting works existing and the fact that “Scholarship is always a conversation…” I believe he is here completely agreeing with the passage he thinks he’s criticizing: genius is real; paradigm-shifting works exist; these works are not created by geniuses in isolation.

Then he adds what for me is a telling conclusion: “It’s not immediately clear why things should change just because the book is read on a screen rather than on a page.” Yes, that transposition doesn’t suggest changes any more worthy of research than the introduction of mass market paperbacks in the 1940s [source]. But if scholarship is a conversation, might moving those scholarly conversations themselves onto a global network raise some revolutionary possibilities, since that global network allows every connected person to read the scholarship and its objects, lets everyone comment, provides no natural mechanism for promoting any works or comments over any others, inherently assumes a hyperlinked rather than sequential structure of what’s written, makes it easier to share than to sequester works, is equally useful for non-literary media, makes it easier to transclude than to include so that works no longer have to rely on briefly summarizing the other works they talk about, makes differences and disagreements much more visible and easily navigable, enables multiple and simultaneous ordering of assembled works, makes it easier to include everything than to curate collections, preserves and perpetuates errors, is becoming ubiquitously available to those who can afford connection, turns the Digital Divide into a gradient while simultaneously increasing the damage done by being on the wrong side of that gradient, is reducing the ability of a discipline to patrol its edges, and a whole lot more.

It seems to me reasonable to think that it is worth exploring whether these new affordances, limitations, relationships and metaphors might transform the humanities in some fundamental ways. Digital humanities too often is taken simply as, and sometimes takes itself as, the application of computing tools to the humanities. But it should be (and for many, is) broad enough to encompass the implications of the networking of works, ideas and people.

I understand that Adam and others are trying to preserve the humanities from being abandoned and belittled by those who ought to be defending the traditional in the face of the latest. That is a vitally important role, for as a field struggling to establish itself digital humanities is prone to over-stating its case. (I have been known to do so myself.) But in my understanding, that assumes that digital humanists want to replace all traditional methods of study with computer algorithms. Does anyone?

Adam’s article is a brisk challenge, but in my opinion he argues too hard against his foe. The article becomes ideological, just as he claims the explanations, justifications and explorations offered by the digital humanists are.

More significantly, focusing only on the digitizing of works and ignoring the networking of their ideas and the people discussing those ideas, glosses over the locus of the most important changes occurring within the humanities. Insofar as the digital humanities focus on digitization instead of networking, I intend this as a criticism of that nascent discipline even more than as a criticism of Adam’s article.


April 25, 2014

[nextweb] The Open Source Bank of Brewster

I’m at the Next Web conference in Amsterdam. A large cavern is full of entrepreneurs and Web marketing folks, mainly young. (From my end of the bell curve, most crowds are young.) 2,500 attendees. The pening music is overwhelming loud; I can feel the bass as extra beat in my heart, which from my end of the bell curve is not a good feeling. But the message is of Web empowerment, so I’ll stop my whinging.

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten recaps the conference’s 30-hour hackathon. 28 apps. One plays music the tempo of which is based upon how fast you’re driving.

First up is Brewster Kahle [twitter: brewster_kahle], founder of the Internet Archive. [I am a huge Brewster fan, of course.]

Brewster 2011

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Brewster begins by saying that the tech world is in a position to redefine how the economy works.

We are now in position to talk about all of things. We can talk about all species, or all books, etc. Can we make universal access to all knowledge? “That’s the Internet dream I signed on for.” A lot of material isn’t on the Internet yet. Internet Archive is a non-profit “but it’s probably the most successful business I’ve run.” IA has all programs for the Apple II, the Atarai, Commodore, etc. IA has 1.5M physical books. “Libraries are starting to throw away books at a velocity.” They’re aiming for 10M books. They have about 1.5M moving images online. “A lot of the issues are working through the rights issues and keeping everyone calm.” 2M auio recordings, mainly live music collections, not CD’s that have been sold. Since 2000 they’ve been recording live tv, 24×7, multiple channels, international. 3m hours of television. They’re making US TV news searcable. “We want to enable everyone to be a Jon Sewart research department.” 3.7M ebooks — 1,500/day. When they digitize a copy that is under copyright, they lend it to one person at a time. “And everyone’s stayed calm.” Brewster thinks 20th century wbooks will never be widely available. And 400B pages available through the Wayback Macine.

So for knowledge, “We’re getting there.”

“We have an opportunity to build on earlier ideas in the software area to build societies that work better.” E.g., the 0.1% in the US sees its wealth grows but it’s flat for everyone else. Our political and economic systems aren’t working for most people. So, we have to “invent around it.” We have “over-propertized” (via Pam Samuelson). National parks pull back from this. The Nature Conservancy is a private effort to protect lande from over-propertization. The NC has more acres than the National Park system.

Brewster wants to show us how to build on free and open software. Brewster worked with Richard Stallman on the LISP Machine. “People didn’t even sign code. That was considered arrogant.” In 1976 Congress made copyright opt out rather than opt in: everything written became copyrighted for life + 50. “These community projects suddenly became property.” MIT therefore sold the LISP Machine to Symbolics, forking the code. Stahlman tried to keep the open code feature-compatible, but it couldn’t be done. Instead, he created the Free Software GNU system. It was a community license, a distributed system that anyone could participate in just be declaring their code to be free software. “I don’t think has happened before. It’s building law structure based on licenses. It’s licenses rather than law.”

It was a huge win, but where do we go from there? Corporate fanaticism about patents, copyright, etc., locked down everything. Open Source doesn’t work well there. We ended up with high tech non-profits supporting the new sharing infrastructure. The first were about administrating free software: E.g., Free Software Foundation, Linux Foundation, LibreOffice, Apache. Then there were advocacy organizations, e.g., EFF. Now we’re seeing these high=tech non=profits going operational, e.g., Wikipedia ($50M), Mozilla ($300M), Internet Archive ($12M), PLoS ($45M). This model works. They give away their product, and they use a community structure under 501c(3) so that it can’t be bought.

This works. They’ve lasted for more than 20 years, wherars even successful tech companies get mashed and mangled if they last 20 years. So, can we build a free and open ecosystem that work better than the current one? Can we define new rules within it?

At Internet ARchive, the $12M goes largely to people. The people at IA spend most of their salaries on housing, up to 60%. Housing costs so much because of debt: 2/3s of the rent you pay goes to pay off the mortgage of the owner. So, how can we make debt-free housing? Then IA wouldn’t have to raise as much money. So, they’ve made a non-proift that owns an apartment building to provide affordable housing for non-profit workers. The housing has a community license so it the building can’t be sold again. “It pulls it out of the market, like stamping software as Open Source.”

Now he’s trying it for banking. About 40% of profits in corporations in the US goes to financial services. So, they built the Internet Credit Union, a non-profit credit union. They opened bitcoins and were immediately threatened by the government. The crdit union closed those accounts but the government is still auditing them every month. The Internet Credit Union is non-profit, member-run, it helps foundation housing, and its not acquirable.

In sum: We can use communities that last via licenes rater than the law.


Boris: If you’re a startup, how do you apply this?

A: Many software companies push hard against the status quo. The days are gone when you can just write code and sell it. You have to hack the system. Think about doing non-profit structures. They’ll trust you more.


March 21, 2014

Reading Emily Dickinson’s metadata

There’s a terrific article by Helen Vendler in the March 24, 2014 New Republic about what can learn about Emily Dickinson by exploring her handwritten drafts. Helen is a Dickinson scholar of serious repute, and she finds revelatory significance in the words that were crossed out, replaced, or listed as alternatives, in the physical arrangement of the words on the page, etc. For example, Prof. Vendler points to the change of the line in “The Spirit” : “What customs hath the Air?” became “What function hath the Air?” She says that this change points to a more “abstract, unrevealing, even algebraic” understanding of “the future habitation of the spirit.”

Prof. Vendler’s source for many of the poems she points to is Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, the book she is reviewing. But she also points to the new online Dickinson collection from Amherst and Harvard. (The site was developed by the Berkman Center’s Geek Cave.)

Unfortunately, the New Republic article is not available online. I very much hope that it will be since it provides such a useful way of reading the materials in the online Dickinson collection which are themselves available under a CreativeCommons license that enables
non-commercial use without asking permission.

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November 9, 2013

Aaron Swartz and the future of libraries

I was unable to go to our local Aaron Swartz Hackathon, one of twenty around the world, because I’d committed (very happily) to give the after dinner talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate Library and Information Studies 50th anniversary gala last night.

The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)

Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:

It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.

But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.

When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.

And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.

I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.


Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.

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October 24, 2013


The Emily Dickinson archive went online today. It’s a big deal not only because of the richness of the collection, and the excellent technical work by the Berkman Center, but also because it is a good sign for Open Access. Amherst, one of the major contributors, had open accessed its Dickinson material earlier, and now the Harvard University Press has open accessed some of its most valuable material. Well done!

The collection makes available in one place the great Dickinson collections held by Amherst, Harvard, and others. The metadata for the items is (inevitably) inconsistent in terms of its quantity, but the system has been tuned so that items with less metadata are not systematically overwhelmed by its search engine.

The Berkman folks tell me that they’re going to develop an open API. That will be extra special cool.

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October 20, 2013

[templelib] James Neal, Columbia University

At Temple University’s symposium in honor of the inauguration of the University’s new president, on Oct. 18, 2013.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jim Neal, University Librarian [so cool!] at Columbia Univ., begins by noting that Bill Withers uses “I know” 26 times in “There Ain’t no Sunshine When She’s Gone.” Jim knows 26 things about libraries, he tells us. [Jim speaks quickly. He elaborates each of these. I can’t get it all.]

  1. We must build a national broadband information infrastructure. The library community has to be at the table.

  2. Identity management

  3. Build the digital library

  4. Mine the information

  5. Content mgt gateways for discovery, supporting different types of workflows.

  6. Preserve and archive the content

  7. Integrate Web 3.0: social network, collective intelligence, software as service

  8. Enhance student experience

  9. Support course management systems. “MOOCS cannot be successful without libraries at the table.”

  10. Support faculty

  11. Support Big Science

  12. Transform scholarly publishing

  13. Advance open source, open standards, open archives, open linking, open knowledge, Open Access

  14. Managing repositories. Persistence and version control.

  15. Support policies

  16. Fight the copyright wars. Support Fair Use.

  17. Develop new markets and products. Inculcate a competitive attitude.

  18. Work globally

  19. Respond to user expectations

  20. Accountability and responsibility

  21. Rethink library space planning. Start with the user, not the collection. Create a playground, not a sanctuary.

  22. New collaborations

  23. Develop the library workforce with new recruitment and development strategies

  24. New organizational models that move away from hierarchies, to a loosely coupled organization.

“This is a massive strategic agenda,” Jim acknowledges. Academic libraries have to pursue risk and experimentation at their core. We have to radicalize library sharing, moving beyond Kumbiyah.

He cites Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1. Brooks comes down from the mountain with three tablets:

Jim gives us his own five lost commandments:

  1. Value libraries.

  2. Preserve our freedoms.

  3. Embrace your human objectives.

  4. Advance the revolution.

  5. Care about each other.

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September 1, 2013

Shakespeare performance is over? Put it on line!

We just came from a fantastic production of Love’s Labor’s Lost by Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. I’ve lauded this company before (often), but this afternoon’s show was among the very best we’ve seen. The second half especially was both hilarious and very touching. At least the way they played it this time — we saw it here years ago — the ending was a criticism of the play’s own wit as a way to dodge true knowledge. That Shakespeare guy really could write!

I’d recommend you see it, but this was the last performance. Which makes me wonder (once again) why a company like this doesn’t video one of the performances and put it up on the Web for free. Why the heck not? It would only encourage attendance, and would raise the company’s prominence.

And Shakespeare & Co. also holds informal talks about their performances. Why not video them and put them up on the Web for people who are about to see any company’s performance of the play?

There may be a simple answer to this. For example, as my nephew pointed out, some of the performers are in Actors Equity and there may be rules against posting performances for free. If so, what a waste and disservice to their members! For example, it would only help Josh Aaron McCabe‘s career for people to see his performance as Berowne this afternoon.

Or it may be simply that the default at Shakespeare & Co. hasn’t switched to open-when-done. But that only requires the Will. I just hate to see this love’s labor lost.


July 30, 2013

Aaron Swartz and MIT’s neutrality

In my reading, MIT does not come off as cleanly in Hal Abelson’s excellent report as Pres. Reif’s spin suggests.

When Pres. Reif writes that MIT’s actions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith” I think we have to ask “Appropriate to what?” To MIT’s interests as a legal entity? Very likely. To MIT as a university? Not in my book. I won’t try to adjudicate the claims that MIT cooperated eagerly with the prosecutors but dragged its feet with the defense; I’m too emotionally involved to trust my reading of the evidence in the Abelson report. But, MIT’s timid “neutrality” wasted an opportunity to stand against the unreasonable and inappropriate tactics of the prosecutors, and to stand for the spirit of inquiry, openness, innovation, and risk-taking that has made MIT one of the world’s great universities.

I understand that MIT wasn’t going to say that it was fine with Aaron’s breaching its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have stood against prosecutorial overreach, and for the values— if not the exact actions— Aaron embodied.

Larry Lessig has posted incisive comments about MIT’s neutrality.


June 21, 2013

[lodlam] Sean Thomas and Sands Fish on getting Open Access into the right hands

Sands Fish [twitter: sandsfish and Sean Thomas [twitter: sean_m_thomas] at MIT are interested in pursuing a project to see if the new wealth of Open Access research is getting into the hands of people who can use it to solve problems. What is the distribution of access to OA?

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June 15, 2013

[2b2k][eim] My Stuttgart syllabus

I’ve just finished leading two days of workshops at University of Stuttgart as part of my fellowship at the Internazionales Zentrum für Kultur- und Technikforschung. (No, I taught in English.) This was for me a wonderful experience. First of all, the students were engaged, smart, talked from diverse standpoints, and fun. Second, it reminded me how to teach. I had so much trouble trying to structure sessions, feeling totally unsure how one does so. But the eight 1.5 hour sessions reminded me why I loved teaching.

For my own memory, here are the sessions (and if any of you were there and took notes, I’d love to see them):


#1 Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, and Internet exceptionalism defined, with JP Barlow’s Declaration of the Independent of Cyberspace as an example. Class introductions.

#2 Information Age to Age of Connected. Why Ted Nelson’s Xanadu did not succeed the way the Web did. Rough technical architecture of the Net and (perhaps) its embedded political values. Hyperlinks.

#3 Digital order. Everything is miscellaneous? From information Retrieval to search engines. Schema-based databases to tagging.

#4 Networked knowledge. What knowledge looks like once it’s been freed of paper. Four challenges to networked knowledge (with many more added by the students.)

On Saturday we talked about topics that the students decided were interesting:

#1 Mobile net. Is Facebook making us more or less social? Why do we fill up every interstice by using Facebook on mobiles? What does this say about us and the notion of the self?

#2 Downloading. Do you download music illegally? What is your justification? How might artists respond? Why is the term “intellectual property” so loaded?

#3 Education. What makes a great in-person course? What makes for a miserable one? Oddly, many of the characteristics of miserable classes are also characteristics of MOOCs. What might we do about that? How much of this is caused by the fact that MOOCs are construed as courses in the traditional sense?

#4 Internet culture. Is there such a thing? If there are many, is any particular one to be privileged? How does the Net look to a culture that is dedicated to warding off what it says as corrupting influences? End with LolCatBible and the astounding TheJohnnyCashProject

Thank you, students. This experience meant a great deal to me.


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