Willard McCarty and Harold Short

Pisa, April 2002

“…in scientific research you start from two beginnings, each of which has its own kind of authority: the observations cannot be denied, and the fundamentals must be fitted. You must achieve a sort of pincers maneuver.” Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago, 1972): xxviii

Mapping the field

Mapping, as we all know, is a powerful tool for representing a complex terrain so that we can apprehend it as a whole and quickly grasp the interrelation of its parts. A “roadmap” is of course for going places, but prior to that, it’s for seeing what the choices are and what might be involved in getting there. Prior again to that, as recent work in the history of mapping has argued, the making of a map takes possession of and literally defines the mapped terrain: features are named (or re-named), relationships shown, boundaries indicated, unknown parts labelled – and so marked for exploration.

The intellectual “map” offered here is intended to serve the last of these roles, as a provisional sketch of a terrain that although inhabited for the last half-century is only now coming into our field of vision as a whole. Up to the early 1990s it seems to have been assumed that humanities computing was to be described by cataloguing its instantiations within the various disciplines of activity. By then, however, it had become insuperably difficult to make any such catalogue: too many publications, in too many disciplines, appearing in minor as well as major places in many languages. Furthermore, the assimilation of computing into the older disciplines meant that increasingly much of the relevant work, when mentioned at all, had become subsumed in articles and books whose titles might give no clue. Clearly if we are to have a view of the whole, and so a conception of professional selves that matches our experience, a different approach is called for. This is not to argue that the bibliographic project should be abandoned (though it is to suggest that it needs to be rethought), rather that we need to apply Bateson’s “pincers maneuver” to our reality.

The mapping activity instantiated here is the point rather than the map itself. It is meant to aid the complementary move of that maneuver by giving us a means of working out in vivid form overall conceptions of the field.



The Methodological Commons

At the centre of the map, as at the core of the field, is a large, uncertainly bounded area we call the “methodological commons”: an abstract area for the computational methods that the various disciplines of application share. These, as we know, apply mostly by type of data rather than by the subject of or interpretation given to these data. Hence we have discursive (or “running”) text, tabular (“chunky”) text, numbers, visual images, sound; we may as well wish to think about some kinds of data (such as images and sound) characterized primarily by their temporal dimension. The techniques applied to these data may be described under broad headings such as text-analysis, database design, numerical analysis, imaging, music information retrieval and so forth. The list is not fixed nor stable, of course, as from time to time new methods are devised.

Disciplinary groups

Above the commons are depicted the disciplines of the humanities (and in some cases, of the social sciences) in broad disciplinary groups. In part these groups reflect our view of the disciplines, in part new interdisciplinary groupings in our institutions of higher education. Double-headed arrows connect each disciplinary group with the data-type(s) and so computational methods commonly relevant to it. The arrows are double-headed to indicate that between each group and the commons a lively interchange of methods takes place, somewhat like the exchange of goods between a group of people and a merchant-trader. (Indeed, we are that merchant-trader.) The disciplinary groupings and the arrows are likewise provisional because institutional arrangements change as well as vary across national/cultural boundaries, and because new technologies lead to changes in what older disciplines consider to be relevant.

“Clouds of knowing”

Beneath the commons are ranged broad areas of learning that, we have discovered, so crucially bear upon what is required of us that an understanding of them must figure into any intellectual map of the field. At first the task of acquiring this understanding might appear superhuman, but what these clouds are intended to denote is not comprehensive mastery of philosophy et al., rather working knowledge of specific areas as they apply to our practice. For example, in refurbishing inherited artefacts for the electronic medium, e.g. scholarly forms such as editions, commentaries and lexicons, we need to understand them in as close to their original context as possible so that we may recover from them what they were intended to be and how they were intended to be used. Such knowledge is mostly tacit, i.e. went without saying at the time. The rich debate in historiography and ethnography about acquiring this knowledge alerts us to the depth of the problem and gives us tools to address it.

Similar things may be said about the other “clouds of knowing” in relation to the work of maintaining and cultivating the methodological commons and managing its intellectual commerce with the other disciplines. They are represented as clouds to denote (with apologies to both the anonymous medieval author of the Cloud of Knowing as well as to Aristophanes) their nature as bodies of thought and our provisional understanding of their role in humanities computing. Again, they do not form a canonical list. We are only beginning to see which might be on our map and how each fits in.

The value of such a map as this lies not so much in the proverbial notion that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, rather in the power of an image to draw forth what we think and know, and so to provoke debate leading to better maps and so better, more consciously focused and directed work in humanities computing.

History and new directions

Strictly speaking very little on the map shown above is new: nearly everything existed and was known ten years ago. As we have suggested, however, it is the activity of mapping itself, in the form it has taken here, that is a fundamentally new direction in our second-order (or meta-) thinking about the field.

A decade ago we knew enough to relate common techniques to the various disciplines: we first suspected, then partly knew that humanities computing was concerned with a methodological commons within which disciplinary boundaries did not apply. Indeed, about then it became possible to draw a map relating abstractions of computing and basic types of software to ordinary aspects of research in the humanities. At the time imaging (except for OCR) was not important enough to put on the map, so its addition is new. “Communications” then did not yet centrally imply the Web, as it certainly does now.

Recent experience, say within the last 5 years, has increasingly involved multi-technology/multi-media work on the basis of large-scale resources, with pronounced multidisciplinary results and discovery of further potentials. In effect networked resources have begun to manifest the ancient model of the research library, in which singular and relatively unchanging resources are separated from their manifold and highly changeable uses, allowing for indefinite recontextualization across the many fields of study to which each resource is relevant. The emergence of this multidisciplinary digital library has served not to fragment the methodological commons but to emphasize its centrality and extend its breadth. In turn the centrality and breadth of the commons have made it increasingly clear that in applying the technologies we are in fact drawing on those “clouds of knowing”, whose methodological import we need to explore much more systematically.

The map illustrates the fundamental role of humanities computing as agent of the commons, mediating through the shared techniques between the clouds of knowing and specific research projects in the humanities. Among other things, this mediation fosters the engagement of the clouds of knowing in the humanities research enterprise.

The future directions for humanities computing therefore involve systematic exploration of the methodological commons to ensure that developments are coherent, cohesive and responsible to its cultural inheritance. What is new is the holistic overview of the commons and the future research agendas that it graphically indicates.