"The place of human interaction in the digital humanities": John Unsworth's Call for Collaborative Humanities Research"
Guest Writer: Jenelle Grant

Friday, March 9, 2012

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Title page of Bacon's Instauration Magna (1620). The Latin inscription at the bottom reads "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."
[On Friday, March 2, 2012, John Unsworth, former Dean of the Graduate School for Library and Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, spoke at a lecture sponsored by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. The below contribution is from Jenelle Grant]

"The place of human interaction in the digital humanities: John Unsworth’s Call for Collaborative Humanities Research"

Written by Jenelle Grant (French)

Following the digital turn and the subsequent imperative to digitize, humanities scholars find themselves in a gold-mine: billions of images, sounds, and pages of text… digitally-stored and digitally-born "objects" awaiting investigation. In the most utopian of knowledge temples, a Digital Humanities Center, physical barriers between researcher and collections of libraries, archives, and museums around the world would dissolve in an instant. Yet the very size of virtual collections and their labyrinthine infrastructures can hide glittering objects from view, obscuring humanities scholars’ paths. In addition to non-profit collections, such as the HathiTrust which stores the fruit of Google’s scanning project (10,103,655 volumes as of Friday March 2, 2012), commercial digitization also continues: eight hours of content are uploaded every minute to YouTube, for example. Such rapid collection and production of digital cultural artifacts places nothing less than a "computational imperative" on you.

Yes, I said you. Whether you simply need to print a recent journal article from JSTOR or are ready to immerse yourself in Franco Moretti's method of analytics, computational analysis dawns essential to venturing into the obscure, unexplored regions of this digital new world. It may even be fair to say it is the latest form of “light” that Francis Bacon, 17th-century Englishman and father of empirical science, describes here:
…if a man could succeed […] in kindling a light in nature, a light which should in its very rising touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so, […] should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world, that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race. ("Prœmium," Of the Interpretation of Nature [1603]).
Exactly how such a light is best kindled in our era was the theme of Friday’s Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities address by digital humanities expert, and former dean of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, John Unsworth in his talk "Merchants of Light, Depredators and Pioneers: I’ll take my digital humanities with Bacon!"

John Unsworth
Unsworth began by questioning the impetus to streamline and centralize the creation and curation of digital collections at the cost of losing the personnel necessary to navigating these collections. He disagreed with conclusions in Diane Zorich’s 2008 survey of Digital Humanities Centers, illustrating how she privileges collectively maintained virtual "resources" over locally managed research “centers” or institutional libraries. Unsworth proposes instead that digital resources must maintain ties to physical place and that they need to be structured in order to respond to local researchers’ collective practices. In this way, large repositories of digital objects ("Big Data") will necessarily reduce duplication and become increasingly accessible, a point on which he agrees with Zorich. But for Unsworth as opposed to the top-down Zorich, this task must be accomplished through demand-driven creation of resources and computational tools: that is, resources are only as valuable as the researchers committed to using them and taking them into their classrooms and studies.

This research- and researcher-motivated approach, he continued, is only possible in an environment of informed collaboration between experts with variable skill-sets—domain expertise, collection management, information technology. The future of digital humanities depends on disrupting current institutional hierarchies that separate faculty in academic departments from library and information science specialists and computer analysts. In order to imagine such a function-driven model of collaborative research in the humanities using digital resources and tools, he turns to a liberal reading of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), in which the writer envisions a new kind of university centered around performing and analyzing experiments.

Unsworth sees in Bacon’s movement away from the Aristotelian structure of the early- modern university a parallel to an epistemological shift that he seems to believe is currently taking place in the humanities: the "End of Theory." Both, he implied, call for a rejection of a search for ontologies, taxonomies, and hypotheses, and a turn toward the observation of patterns and correlations. (Unsworth did not define what he meant by the "End of Theory": the parallels listed on his PowerPoint slide led me to believe he equated Bacon’s move toward empiricism with certain digital humanities scholars’ move away from some schools of critical theory—particularly, perhaps, close reading.) In the place, then, of "theory" to structure and cohere researchers’ work in the humanities, Unsworth puts forth the possibility of scholarly communities formed out of the observing functions performed by the researchers.

He adapts Bacon’s vocabulary describing distinct but interdependent roles in the New Atlantis’ utopian "Solomon’s House" (roles that include "Merchants of Light," and "Depredators") where each member contributes to the joint advancement of knowledge. Unsworth imagines contemporary researchers and librarians similarly working together on research projects in a range of roles: e.g., accessing and analyzing previous work, designing new projects, gathering the desired elements from the repositories of "Big Data," performing experiments, finding how new methods can be applied to other domains, and distilling and disseminating the new knowledge gleaned. He adds that new roles would, of course, have to be created to accommodate contemporary issues of intellectual property rights and the integration of commercial and non-profit digital resources.

So, how would we implement a shift toward such re-division of academic labor? Well, says Unsworth to humanities researchers, you don’t have to learn to program fluently (though you should probably learn some), but you do need to stop thinking of librarians as merely the care-takers of books owned by the university, and start thinking of them as your Virgil in a quest to accessing and doing work with objects stored in a variety of digital repositories. And information science specialists: he says it’s time to meet researchers in the fields they’re excited about and stop waiting for them to come to you with questions.

While Unworth’s idea that doing work in digital humanities could undo hierarchies in the research university system may seem only slightly less utopian than Bacon’s island population of scholars, his call to underscore the human element as the guarantor of future success of work in digital humanities is both inspiring and important. This is especially relevant in Illinois’ current environment of increased centralization, often at the cost of the specialists that make it possible to use our valuable resources. Furthermore, the benefit of collaboration across vastly diverse disciplines is exhibited by the existence of programs such as Illinois’ Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory the IPRH and even accidentally interdisciplinary environments such as MIT’s Building 20 (see Jonah Leher’s recent article in the New Yorker for more examples of the productivity of collaborating with people who see problems differently).

Hans Holbein the younger, The Ambassadors. 1533. The National Gallery, London. Click here to see the gigapixel-sized digital copy, courtesy of the Google Art Project.
Yet later while reflecting on Unsworth’s talk, even as I basked in the glow of the digitized pages of first-edition books I could consult in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s collection without having to abandon my cat and dreamed of collaborating on a database that would make all 19th-century slang dictionaries searchable for diachronic and synchronic comparisons, something about the "Merchants of Light" made me uneasy. It was the term "merchant": defined simply as "a buyer and seller of commodities for profit." As Unsworth pointed out, digital humanities scholars cannot ignore the importance of commercial involvement in the creation of these "big data" resources, even if they are accessed and managed locally by non-profit educational institutions and independent centers. But his parallel with Bacon almost disguises an important effect of this commercial provenance. Bacon’s researchers observed the natural world; digital humanities researchers, however, observe data that has already been processed at least once by an interested party. What one "sees" is entirely dependent on how one looks, and how one looks in the digital humanities depends, at least in part, on the algorithms established by commercial entities: on the search terms entered, on the way objects are tagged and classified as they are entered into the repository.

Unsworth amusedly pointed out Bacon’s description of gilded luxury and the quasi-sanctified status surrounding the Head of his imagined university, the one to whom all the other functionaries report. But he failed to point out how this leadership figure, perhaps there by virtue of being a very successful merchant of "light," effectively reinstates a hierarchy even as he lauds its collaborative nature, or how such a Head might find his contemporary parallel not in the university, but in the commercial sector.

So in the end, I’ll "take my digital humanities with Bacon" as well: his 1603 description of such a bringer of new light contains an indication of its inherent threat. The citation abridged in at the beginning of my comments continues, "if a man could succeed […] in kindling a light in nature […] that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race, the propagator of man’s empire over the universe, the champion of liberty, the conqueror and subduer of necessities." I underline the power wielded by the one to provide light not to suggest that I fear librarians may one day conquer the university and subdue creative, independent, scholarly research. But I do fear that Google certainly could if it wanted to. Unsworth trusts in the fact that it is not in Google’s economic interest to do so. I, however, will remain vigilant.


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Ted said...

Love this summary, Jenelle -- vivid and also very fair to the texture of the talk.

I was amused by John's decision to skip "The End of Theory" in the talk itself -- although (as you point out) he left some of the bullet points on the slide. Leaving a provocation hanging there in sort of Cheshire-cat fashion ... I imagine he rightly concluded that particular bullet point would distract people from the rest of the talk.

Also agree with your final peroration about the importance of the commercial dimension here. It's not quite inevitable, I think. We can wrest control of the data from corporations, and even design our own algorithms and interfaces. Actually, much of the energy in digital humanities is focused now precisely on these issues of "open access" to both data and the research founded on it. But you quite rightly flag it as a probably. The biggest problem, probably, is the curtain of darkness that falls over everything around 1923 ...