Mapping the field

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, 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.

Please note: 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.

Areas of the map

The map is divided into three zones. 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 abstraction for the computational methods that the various disciplines of application share. Above the Commons, in the rectangular boxes, are multidisciplinary groups with which humanities computing directly interacts. Beneath the Commons are ranged broad areas of learning that crucially bear upon our understanding of the field, with some indication within each of the subject-areas of importance to humanities computing. The zones of this map are discussed in turn below. The Pisa reports and other commentary are hypertextually linked from areas of the map outlined in yellow.

The Methodological Commons

The Commons has within it the major data-types encountered in the humanities: (1) narrative or "running" text; (2) tabular alphanumeric ("chunky") data, (3) numbers, (4) visual images and (5) music, including other kinds of sound. The techniques applied to these data are not represented graphically here, e.g. 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. Beneath the data-types is a broad category of techniques shared by all, denoted "communications, hypermedia and the digital library".

Disciplinary groups

The groups denoted here are intended to include all kinds of research in the humanities. 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.

The "clouds of knowing"

The Clouds denote broad areas of learning that, as we are discovering, crucially bear upon what is required of us to understand the field theoretically. 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 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 Unknowing 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.