[Humanist] 24.600 a positive rhetoric of failure

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 18 11:40:10 CET 2010


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 600.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Martin Holmes <mholmes at uvic.ca>                          (122)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?

  [2]   From:    Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>              (24)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?

  [3]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>                       (145)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2010 08:22:38 -0800
        From: Martin Holmes <mholmes at uvic.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?
        In-Reply-To: <20101217103405.6317CBF866 at woodward.joyent.us>

Just on this one point:

 > One of these is "interoperability", which is used quite casually as if
 > it were unproblematic, which it certainly isn't: to make two
 > independently designed digital objects communicate with each other in 
 > a non-trivial way seems to me to be an enormous challenge not yet
 > met. Is that true?

Yes and no. On the one hand, we have a flourishing ecosystem of 
widely-supported standards -- think of the HTML and CSS family, which 
now work mostly identically in half a dozen or more browser engines; 
other successes are SVG, the Open Document format, and the XML gang 
(XML, XQuery, XSLT, XPath, XLink, etc. etc.), all of which are usable 
across a range of different applications and software platforms. Java 
also comes to mind; I can now write a Java application which will run 
happily on any OS for which there's a current JVM. All of these have 
assisted in the growth of Digital Humanities as a discipline (and of 
course DH has contributed significantly to this standardization movement).

On the other hand, there are some areas in which interoperability is an 
ideal to be aimed at rather than a realistic goal. The TEI is one, I 
think. Different TEI projects will naturally use different 
customizations of the schema designed to suit their particular 
documents, and the guidelines actively encourage such customizations 
(both those resulting in documents which will validate against a default 
"tei_all" schema, and those which add novel elements and attributes or 
change the normal behaviour of existing ones). We cannot expect any one 
software package or system to (for instance) render any TEI document 
into a perfect web page, or reliably parse out all the metadata in any 
TEI header, given the (intentional) rich diversity in alternative ways 
of doing the same thing, or the infinite range of new things that may be 
done within the basic TEI structure. What we do instead is to document 
our customizations in a formal and predictable way; that's a practical 
alternative to "pure" interoperability.

My sense is that over the last couple of years in particular, we're 
finally getting the interoperability we need and deserve. We're a long 
way past the days when web pages needed to be coded entirely differently 
for IE and Netscape, or when everyone needed a copy of Word or they 
couldn't read anyone else's documents. But it's also clear that we're 
rather thoughtlessly encouraging trends which work against 
interoperability -- buying iPads and iPhones which depend on an app 
store run essentially as a proprietary dictatorship, for instance. We 
need to restrain ourselves a little there.

Cheers,
Martin

On 10-12-17 02:34 AM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 597.
>           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>
>
>
>          Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2010 10:29:07 +0000
>          From: Willard McCarty<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>          Subject: a positive rhetoric of failure?
>
> Certain standard topics in computer science and the digital humanities
> appear to me actually to hide a compromise that has been made, once to
> much noise that has now died down. Or perhaps I am not listening in the
> right places. Or perhaps I am simply not understanding how words are
> used in technical discourse. This is to enquire what is the case.
>
> One of these is "interoperability", which is used quite casually as if
> it were unproblematic, which it certainly isn't: to make two
> independently designed digital objects communicate with each other in a
> non-trivial way seems to me to be an enormous challenge not yet met. Is
> that true?
>
> Another is "semantic web", sometimes annoying referred to as "The
> Semantic Web", as if it were a reality, which it isn't. I suppose we do
> want the Web to be "semantic", i.e. to deliver to us what we want rather
> than what we can specify with current mechanisms. But I find it curious
> that when the dream of a semantic web is spelled out it proves to be
> more or less the same as similar dreams were in the mid 1960s, i.e. an
> environment that reminds granny to take her pills and you to pick up the
> kids because it's your turn that day. This would suggest an imaginative
> failure.
>
> Two others, though in different ways, are (a) "digital library" and (b)
> "digital edition". These, it seems to me, are terms the meaning of which
> we are trying to discover while at the same time they are being used
> unhelpfully to denote (a) any collection of digital materials meant to
> be read, listened to or looked at, and (b) any version of a textual,
> musical or visual work that has in any sense been edited, respectively.
>
> I am reminded of something that G. Spencer Brown says at the end of his
> astonishing mathematico-logical treatise, Laws of Form (1969). Writing
> as a philosophical mathematician (and a man of a rather different age,
> when one could unselfconsciously write to other academics about divine
> states, plain truth and mortal sins), he observed,
>
>> Discoveries of any great moment in mathematics and other
>> disciplines, once they are discovered, are seen to be extremely
>> simple and obvious, and make everybody, including their discoverer,
>> appear foolish for not having discovered them before. It is all too
>> often forgotten that the ancient symbol for the prenascence of the
>> world is a fool, and that foolishness, being a divine state, is not a
>> condition to be either proud or ashamed of.
>>
>> Unfortunately we find systems of education today which have departed
>> so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of
>> what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt. It is
>> corrupt not only because pride is itself a mortal sin, but also
>> because to teach pride in knowledge is to put up an effective
>> barrier against any advance upon what is already known, since it
>> makes one ashamed to look beyond the bonds imposed by one's
>> ignorance.  (pp. 109-10)
>
> Perhaps, even in or especially in technical discourse, we should more
> often explicitly recognise and quietly celebrate, though not take pride
> in, our ignorance? I say "quietly" because without boasting of
> achievements, however qualified, who in a position to reward academic
> work will do so? Hence the rhetorical challenge, esp for those who work
> in a technologically orientated area: to invent a positive discourse of
> failure.
>
> Comments? Suggestions? Objections?
>
> Yours,
> WM

-- 
Martin Holmes
University of Victoria Humanities Computing and Media Centre
(mholmes at uvic.ca)



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2010 04:51:00 +1000
        From: Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?
        In-Reply-To: <20101217103405.6317CBF866 at woodward.joyent.us>


>One of these is "interoperability", which is used quite casually as if
>it were unproblematic, which it certainly isn't: to make two
>independently designed digital objects communicate with each other in a
>non-trivial way seems to me to be an enormous challenge not yet met. Is
>that true?
>Two others, though in different ways, are (a) "digital library" and (b)
>"digital edition". These, it seems to me, are terms the meaning of which
>we are trying to discover while at the same time they are being used
>unhelpfully to denote (a) any collection of digital materials meant to
>be read, listened to or looked at, and (b) any version of a textual,
>musical or visual work that has in any sense been edited, respectively.

I think the biggest failure is the failure to recognise the problems you 
describe so vividly. Perhaps "interoperability" is achieved -
momentarily - by many digital editions and digital libraries. On the
other hand, failure to recognise that technology and the methods it uses
are ephemeral leads us to mingle technology with text in ways that make
it very difficult to interchange or repurpose - the exact opposite of
what attempts to "standardise" formats aim to achieve. We ought to admit
that mingling technology and text leaves behind the trace of how the
program works, and what is worse, a trace inevitably customised for
different applications. The only way to separate text from technology is
literally to have the two separate. That is I think the problem the
status quo have yet to admit is the primary difficulty with the digital
objects you describe.



--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2010 11:18:10 -0800
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?
        In-Reply-To: <20101217103405.6317CBF866 at woodward.joyent.us>


Quite a set of interesting questions and observations about the
past/present...future?  Willard's concluding remark rings a bell for me:
i.e., his "I say "quietly" because without boasting of
achievements, however qualified, who in a position to reward academic work will do so?'

At least 30 or 40 years ago I read a little book by an Emeritus biologist
from Columbia University, who was reviewing his lifelong affair with what
then already Big Science.  He taught us that Academia had already been
corrupted with a sort of *propter hoc ergo post hoc *structure.  That is, in
applying for research grants, say 2-5 years, the scientists he knew of, and
knew widely and well, had per force fallen into that trap: In writing out a
proposals, and reviews each year of work accomplished, the technique was to
describe the purpose of proposed research clearly, but that proposed work
had already been done, and its results known to the wouldbe grantee. In that
way a clear record of successes would assure and ensure the next applied-for
grant.
What, after all, those in a position to award and reward would have
something to go on for the next merit increase or promotion or prizes.  In
short, it is a gaming of a system, which seems not to accept that most
research projects...90%? fail.  Failure *ought* to be built in.  Scientific
research is not a business,and most startup businesses fail.
I was also reminded of this when my son, a computer engineer, worked only a
few years ago on a project sponsored by SONY.  The group was supported well
for two years to invent a kind of page on which letters would be formed,
like a book's page, and be made of a flat sort of paperlike or plastic
screen.  It proved rather difficult, for materials and inlaid conductive
stuff to be programmed.  When the project was halted, my son remarked that
SONY had of course been funding several similar groups and projects.  Well
we have ebooks only 5 years later and kindle and other devices started up
and selling world wide.  But if you are running a startup lap in, say
biology, at UCLA, and are brought in from, say Harvard or MIT, that lab
needs an appropriation of 4-5 millions to be bought completely equipped.  If
you are the principal investigator and walking into that new space and
hiring TA's and lab assistants and grad students, you sure wont write a
grant for a project that may fail 9 out of 10 times.  Pari passu, this
applies perhaps as well to Guggenheim grants, and so forth, in the US.
 Scientists of the "purer" bent might well be better off in Big Pharma, Big
Oil, Big Steel.
I suppose the "institutes" in Nazi and Communist Germany and Russia didnt
bother about such matters.  Their "Academicians" were in for life...and had
of course other things to worry about every midnight, when the knocking at
the door commenced up...? [Sure as hell no messengers bringing Nobel
certificates or Xmas wreaths?]
Jascha Kessler
-- 
Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648
www.jfkessler.com
www.xlibris.com





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