[Humanist] 25.477 complementarity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Nov 16 08:36:44 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 477.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Seth van Hooland <svhoolan at ulb.ac.be>                    (151)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.475 complementarity?

  [2]   From:    Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>              (27)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 25.475 complementarity?

        Date: Tue, 15 Nov 2011 13:20:26 +0100
        From: Seth van Hooland <svhoolan at ulb.ac.be>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.475 complementarity?
        In-Reply-To: <20111115053817.104EE202503 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear prof. McCarty,

I am currently giving a course on information technology to 550 
undergraduate students from the arts and humanities faculty of the 
Université Libre de Bruxelles. So it is my job to convince 20-21 year 
old students in history, linguistics, philosophy, etc of the importance 
to be able to model a simple entity-relationship diagram, understand how 
the web works, code some basic HTML/CSS and in the sideline point out 
how the hours they spend on Facebook are exploited as a form of 
Immaterial Labour 2.0 (see for example 

One of the main goals I have set myself with this course is to 
demonstrate what the humanities have to offer to engineers and computer 
scientists (for those of you interested, you can find the syllabus of 
this course on 
http://homepages.ulb.ac.be/~svhoolan/syllabus_TRANB300.pdf). When I show 
a piece of simple HTML source code or a database schema on my slides 
during the first classes, at least 200 or 300 students gaze at me with 
pure horror in their eyes. This purely irrational reaction is partly due 
to the underdog position humanities put themselves in as in regards to 
the "sciences exactes". That is why I am currently trying (I put the 
emphasis on trying) to convince my students that there are opportunities 
for humanists to provide engineers and IT professionals with valuable 
input. Making an abstract model of a complex reality (which can be done 
with pen and paper) is typically something which can (and should) be 
done by someone who understands that reality, which is in most cases a 
humanist. The fact that this is currently not the case, is also probably 
one of the reasons why so many digitization projects fail or do not 
deliver satisfactory results.

Coming back to the question of prof. McCarty to supply concrete evidence 
of the added-value of humanities towards technologies, I would like to 
point out to the research of Isabelle Boydens (my former PhD 
supervisor), who has been working over the last decade on how the 
historical method at large, and hermeneutics in particular, can help to 
assess and to improve the quality of databases. The research of prof. 
Boydens has led to huge cost savings in the domain of the management of 
the Belgian social security, so a more concrete example of the 
added-value of humanities towards technologies is difficult to find. For 
those of you who read French, I can not recommend "Informatique, normes 
et temps" highly enough (see 
f3Dsr_1_1?ie3DUTF8&qid3D1321351868&sr3D8-1). David Bade of the 
University of Chicago recently wrote a review of her work in "It's about 
Time!: Temporal Aspects of Metadata Management in the Work of Isabelle 
Boydens" (Cataloging & Classification Quarterly (The International 
Observer), volume 49, nB0 4, 2011, pp. 328-338 (see 

Isabelle Boydens and I have recently published an article in the Journal 
of Documentation on the importance and the concrete added-value of 
hermeneutics in the field of empirical databases (see 
ract, please feel free to contact me if you do not have access to the 
full article), which demonstrates how hermeneutics (relying on the work 
of Fernand Braudel and Norbert Elias) can be operationalized to provide 
a framework to understand and act upon data quality issues.

In the context of the project Freeyourmetadata.org, I will be giving 
several presentations in the US (Columbia, University of Maryland, CHNM 
George Mason and University of Illinois Champaign) in the second and 
third week of February 2012, so please contact me if you are in that 
region and want to discuss the aforementioned issues. I would be 
delighted to explore this issue with colleagues and collaborate on more 
publications which concretely point out the added-value of the 
humanities for the technological domain.      

Kind regards, 

Seth van Hooland
Président du Master en Sciences et Technologies de l'Information et de 
la Communication (MaSTIC)
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Av. F.D. Roosevelt, 50 CP 123  | 1050 Bruxelles
0032 2 650 4765
Office: DC11.113

Le 15 nov. 2011 E0 06:38, Humanist Discussion Group a écrit :

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 475.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Tue, 15 Nov 2011 05:34:16 +0000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: complementarity
> I want to use the word "complementarity" to qualify the relationship
> between digital technologies and the humanities but first must reverse
> the process by which it became the creature of quantum mechanics and
> return it to the simple, expansive sense of "a complementary
> relationship or situation". If you would, regard that reversal as having
> happened.
> Now to the complementarity I want to ask about. A colleague just asked
> me in effect whether I thought we needed more of it in the digital
> humanities, to wit whether the relationship is not too often too
> one-way, from these technologies to the humanities rather than also from
> the humanities to them.
> What do you think?
> If you are about to jump in to assert that this is a perfect marriage (I
> issue a most open invitation), please supply evidence as specific as you
> can as to what the humanities have done for the technologies. I think we
> have enough of the other kind to last us for a while, or at least enough
> assertions that were one actually to look he or she could produce such
> evidence. (Do we believe that?)
> I suspect that on the whole we are still so applications-orientated,
> perhaps also so stymied by the enormously difficult challenges coming
> from the humanities, that we tend not to think of what they contribute.
> I suspect that we still feel the need to promote digital tools and
> methods to our less techologically literate colleagues as once happened
> with wordprocessing. Nowadays it is not rarely said that the digital
> humanities might be a life-raft for the humanities as a whole. But why
> should scholars of principle think that? I for one would rather have
> them on my life-raft than have it sunk by a horde of opportunists.
> In asking the question I mean *much* more than markup with XML. I want
> to ask, how do the interpretative demands of the humanities stimulate
> the transformation of the technologies -- or could if only we paid attention?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
> College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor,
> Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

        Date: Wed, 16 Nov 2011 05:35:29 +1000
        From: Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 25.475 complementarity?
        In-Reply-To: <20111115053817.104EE202503 at woodward.joyent.us>

I have a strong hunch that the traffic is almost exclusively one-way.
The reason is that many of the problems encountered by humanists in
their work are purely scientific. And the level of expertise of
humanists for solving them, having been trained to work quite
differently, can't be as good as that of the scientists. On the other
hand I doubt that scientists have much need for hermeneutics. So taking
these two forces together, the few examples where humanists have been
able to reverse the tide and teach scientists how to do things (e.g.
having a hand in inventing markup) are mostly of the flavour of having
an influence rather than driving the design. Where I think digital
humanities could have more of an influence is in providing an intriguing
backdrop to solving familiar scientific problems. For example,
demonstrating tools to handle textual variation in the humanities vs the
biological sciences. (e.g. Barbrook's note in Nature, 1998). But the digital 
humanities are in danger of being taken over by technologists. I favour 
a more "complementary" relationship in which the character of the 
humanities is preserved, and in which technology merely helps out. 
As Aristotle once said, in a pure marriage of minds one or the other 
must perish if not both.

Desmond Schmidt
Information Security Institute
Faculty of Science and Technology
Queensland University of Technology

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