Eliminating the Power Cord

[My live talk at the Shape of Things to Come conference at the University of Virginia, March 27, 2010. It is a riff on a paper that will come out in the proceedings of the conference.]

As I noted in my paper for this conference, what I find interesting about this panel is that we got a chance to compare two projects by Ken Price: the Walt Whitman Archive and Civil War Washington. How their plans and designs differ tell us something about all digital humanities projects. I want to spend my brief time spinning out further what I said in the paper about control, flexibility, creativity, and reuse. It’s a tale of the tension between content creators and content users.

But before I get to Ken’s work, I’d like to start with another technological humanist, Jef Raskin, one of the first employees of Apple Computer and the designer, with Steve Jobs, of the first Macintosh. Just read the principles Raskin lays out in 1979 in “Design Considerations for an Anthropophilic Computer”:

This is an outline for a computer designed for the Person In The Street (or, to abbreviate: the PITS); one that will be truly pleasant to use, that will require the user to do nothing that will threaten his or her perverse delight in being able to say: “I don’t know the first thing about computers.”

You might think that any number of computers have been designed with these criteria in mind, but not so. Any system which requires a user to ever see the interior, for any reason, does not meet these specifications. There must not be additional ROMS, RAMS, boards or accessories except those that can be understood by the PITS as a separate appliance. As a rule of thumb, if an item does not stand on a table by itself, and if it does not have its own case, or if it does not look like a complete consumer item in [and] of itself, then it is taboo.

If the computer must be opened for any reason other than repair (for which our prospective user must be assumed incompetent) even at the dealer’s, then it does not meet our requirements.

Seeing the guts is taboo. Things in sockets is taboo. Billions of keys on the keyboard is taboo. Computerese is taboo. Large manuals, or many of them is taboo.

There must not be a plethora of configurations. It is better to manufacture versions in Early American, Contemporary, and Louis XIV than to have any external wires beyond a power cord.

And you get ten points if you can eliminate the power cord.

Many digital humanities projects implicitly believe strongly in Raskin’s design principle. They take care of what to the content creators and designers seems like hard and annoying work for the end users, freeing those users “to do what they do best.” These editorial projects bring together at once primary sources, middleware, user interfaces, and even tools.

Like the Macintosh, this can be a very good thing. I mostly agree with what Ken has just said, that in the case of Whitman, we probably cannot rely on a loose network of sites to provide canonical texts. Moreover, students new to Walt Whitman can clearly use the contextualization and criticism Ken and his colleagues provide on the Walt Whitman site. Similarly, scholars dipping for the first time into ethnomusicology will appreciate the total research environment provided by EVIA. As Matt Kirschenbaum noted in the last session, good user interfaces can enable new interpretations. I doubt that many scholars would be able to do Hypercities-grade geographical scholarship without a centralized Hypercities site.

But at the same time, like Raskin, sometimes these projects strive too hard to eliminate the power cord.

Raskin thought that the perfect computer would enable creativity at the very surface of the appliance. Access to the guts would not be permitted because to allow so would hinder the capacity of the user to be creative. The computer designers would take care of all of the creativity from the base of the hardware to the interface. But as Bethany Nowviskie discussed this morning, design decisions and user interface embody an argument. And so they also imply control. It’s worth thinking about the level of control the creators assume in each digital humanities project.

I would like to advance this principle: Scholars have uses for edited collections that the editors cannot anticipate. One of the joys of server logs is that we can actually see that principle in action (whereas print editorial projects have no idea how their volumes are being used, except in footnotes many years later). In the September 11 Digital Archive we assumed as historians that all uses of the archive would be related to social history. But we discovered later that many linguists were using the archive to study teen slang at the turn of the century, because it was a large open database that held many stories by teens. Anyone creating resources to serve scholars and scholarship needs to account for these unanticipated uses.

When we think through the principle of unanticipated uses, we begin to realize that there is a push and pull between the scholar and the editor. It is perhaps not a zero sum game, but surely there is a tension between the amount of intellectual work each party gets to do. Editors that put a major intellectual stamp on their collection through data massaging and design and user tools restrict the ability of the scholar to do flexible work on it. Alan Burdette of EVIA was thinking of this when he spoke about his fear of control vs. dynamism this morning.

Are digital humanities projects prepared to separate their interfaces from their primary content? What if Hypercities was just a set of KML files like Phil Ethington’s KML files of LA geography? What about the Grub Street Project? Or Ken’s Civil War Washington? This is a hard question for digital projects—freeing their content for reuse.

I believe Ken’s two projects, one a more traditional editorial project and one a labor of love, struggle with how much intellectual work to cede to the end user. Both projects have rather restrictive terms of use pages and admonishments about U.S. copyright law. Maybe I’m reading something into the terms of use page for Civil War Washington site, but it seems more half-hearted. You can tell that here is a project that isn’t a holding place for fixed perfected primary resources like Whitman’s, but an evolving scholarly discussion that could easily involve others.

Why not then allow for the download of all the data on the site? I don’t think it would detract from Civil War Washington; indeed, it would probably increase the profile of the site. The site would not only have its own interpretations, but allow for other interpretations—off of the site. Why not let others have access to the guts that Raskin wished to cloak? This is the way networked scholarship works. And this is, I believe, what Roger Bagnall was getting at yesterday when he said “we need to think about the death of the [centralized website] project” as the greater success of digital humanities.

Jim Chandler and I have been formulating a rule of thumb for these editorial projects: the more a discipline is secure in its existence, its modes of interpretation, and its methods of creating scholarship, the more likely it is to produce stripped-down, exchangeable data sets. Thus scholars in papyrology just want to get at the raw sources; they would be annoyed by a Mac-like interface or silo.  They have achieved what David Weinberger, in summarizing the optimal form of the web, called “small pieces, loosely joined.”

On the other hand, the newer and less confident disciplines, such as the digital geographic history of Civil War Washington, Hypercities, and Grub Street feel that they need to have a Raskin-like environment—it’s part of the process of justifying their existence. They feel pressure to be judge, jury and executioner. If the Cohen-Chandler law holds true, we will see in the future fewer fancy interfaces and more direct, portable access to humanities materials.

Of course, as I note in my paper, the level of curation apparent in a digital project is related to the question of credit. The Whitman archive feels like a traditional editorial project and thus worthy of credit. If Ken instead produced KML files and raw newspaper scans, he would likely get less credit than a robust, comprehensive site like Civil War Washington.

The irony about the long-suffering debate about credit is that every day humanities scholars deal with complexity, parsing complicated texts, finding meaning in the opaque. And yet somehow when it comes to self-assessment, we are remarkably simple-minded. If we can understand Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, surely we can tease out questions of credit and the intellectual work that goes into, say, complex KML files.

To help spur this transition along, Christine Madsen has made this weekend the important point that the separation of interface and data makes sustainability models easier to imagine (and suggests a new role for libraries). If art is long and life is short, data is longish and user interfaces are fleeting. Just look at how many digital humanities projects that rely on Flash are about to become useless on millions of iPads.

Finally, on sustainability, I made a comparison in my paper between the well-funded Whitman archive and the Civil War Washington site, which was produced through sweat equity. I believe that Ken has a trump card with the latter. Being a labor of love is worth thinking about, because it’s often the way that great scholarship happens. Scholars in the humanities are afflicted with an obsession that makes them wake up in the morning and research and write about topics that drive them and constantly occupy their thoughts. Scholars naturally want to spend their time doing things like Civil War Washington. Being a labor of love is often the best sustainability model.

12 thoughts on “Eliminating the Power Cord

  1. Cherine Munkholt

    Once again some great arguments in the discussion on whether knoweldge should be accessible to all. Unanticipated use is exactly how knowledge can be furthered, and networked scholarship also allows those of us outside academia to follow and perhaps even occasionally participate in knowledge creation.
    So keep up the good work!

  2. Cameron Blevins

    The question of credit is a big one, as you note. We’ve got a long ways to go in developing a robust model for both disseminating and crediting the creation of humanistic data. There aren’t that many DH scholars that would object to others using and remixing, for instance, the raw KML files they put hundreds and hundreds of hours into creating. But the incentive for doing so would be a lot higher if there was a clear way for them to receive some kind of clear and standardized recognition for creating that data (beyond a couple words in an acknowledgment footnote, or the digital equivalent).

  3. Daniel Chamberlain

    I think this is another one of those both/and situations. Yes, we should find ways to value DH projects that result not just in a snazzy interface, but also in persistant repositories of well-described data. At the same time, compelling interfaces will still be helpful in sharing and publicizing the research in the first place. .

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  7. Shane Landrum

    Dan, thanks for this. The Cohen-Chandler thesis (if I may call it that), that mature disciplines are more comfortable exposing their raw material, intrigues me and seems accurate on a first glance.

    I’d like to see metadata-rich data sets and source materials become more common as forms of online scholarship, and I think the Internet Archive furnishes one model. Archive.org practices 3 phases of access: 1) bulk upload of materials (just get it online), 2) basic cataloging (make it findable) 3) OCR, user-contributed annotation, etc. Easy enough for print and media materials, and it’s exactly the kind of raw-sources access you’re describing (I think.)

    If I upload a historical primary source to archive.org, I’ll get credit for that via my user id attached to the record; but archive.org (perhaps rightly) doesn’t attach my name to every PDF of that item that they distribute.

    In traditional print or in online media, my name gets attached to a primary-source collection (“data set”) only when I do the work of scholarly editing: transcribing, contextualizing, annotating, and (for print) selecting are some typical forms that that labor would take.

    We know what “scholarly editing” looks like in print forms. What do you think it looks like for historians? What tools do historians need to know in order to be the producers of digital data sets? (Other than the basics of open data licenses, which would help maintain attribution for our labor.)

  8. John Muccigrosso

    I don’t quite see what Raskin’s ideas about computer design have to do with open data. It’s the “getting at” the raw data that requires the appliance in the first place.

    And rather contrary to this view, papyrologists were in fact extremely proprietary about their data and did not readily share, say, high-resolution photos of papyri to people who were not scholars. That has all changed within the past 15 years. It’s not that the field got mature in that time, but that there was a lot of learning that went on, and a new generation of scholars came of age.

  9. Matt Cohen

    I enjoyed this thoughtful reflection on the problem of the openness of digital archive projects.

    I would extend John Muccigrosso’s caveat about the proprietary tendencies of papyrologists to molecular biologists, who are exceedingly confident in their discipline, yet exceedingly picky about whom they share their data with–and when, and in what form. It seems to me that the social and technical conditions of the discipline do matter, as the Cohen-Chandler thesis suggests, but that the publishing protocols and the marketability of data as a commodity are also important factors.

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