12.0533 recognising (good) work

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 6 Apr 1999 20:13:03 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 538.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Maureen Donovan <donovan.1@osu.edu> (39)
Subject: Re: 12.0533 recognising (good) work

[2] From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com> (53)
Subject: Re: 12.0533 recognising (good) work

Date: Tue, 06 Apr 1999 20:15:01 +0100
From: Maureen Donovan <donovan.1@osu.edu>
Subject: Re: 12.0533 recognising (good) work

Dear Willard:

Very interesting question.

I like your comparison with the Phoenician traders, especially because for
them a "network" of contacts in various ports would have been essential to
their success. The idea that this is somehow connected to their invention
of the alphabet is interesting.

For me, quality work in humanities computing must include use of the
"networking" capability of computers. People who compile databases to
analyze texts, etc -- although using computers -- are not taking advantage
of this most important characteristic. On the other hand, people who make
texts available for group members (or the public at large) to participate in
the textual work are. (For example, the International Dunhuang Project at
the British Library which is digitizing manuscripts in their collection to
make it possible for scholars around the world to work on them -- something
that only an extremely small number of people could do previously.)

Whenever I hear of a new product, project, etc I find myself asking to what
extent it is a part of the "digital age." Negroponte in <Being Digital>
describes 4 characteristics of the digital age: it is globalizing,
decentralizing, harmonizing, and empowering. In his final column in <Wired
12/98> he describes 5 forces of change: being global, being big and small
(at the same time), being prime (asynchronicity), being equal, and being
unterritorial. The greater the number of these characteristics (either
list) that a project has, the more likely it is to succeed. That's my
(unscientific) impression gained over the past couple of years..

Another source that is useful in thinking about how good a project is, is
Larry Downes and Chunka Mui <Unleashing the Killer App: digital strategies
for market dominance>. Although they are writing mostly about business,
some examples come from the nonprofit sector. This is basically a book
about how to take advantage of the networking capabilities of computers.
Again, that's what I'm looking for --

Well, that's how I've been thinking about this --


Maureen Donovan
Japanese Studies Librarian
Associate Professor
Ohio State University Libraries
East Asian Libraries Cooperative WWW: http://pears.lib.ohio-state.edu

Date: Tue, 06 Apr 1999 20:15:09 +0100
From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com>
Subject: Re: 12.0533 recognising (good) work

A response off the cuff to Willard's two problems:

> The first one is to communicate enough of the literary background to my
> probem so that my argument makes sense to those who don't know it -- without
> taking the entire time I have just setting things up.

A good example goes a long way. I dare say your audience will be both
entertained and edified by the posing of a problem, in miniature, which
is taken to stand for the general case. (It is Ovid, after all.) The
problem of time trade-offs in your presentation is merely (!) a design

> The second, much
> harder one is then to find a common language in which to describe my results
> so that they will be recognised as belonging to something we will all agree
> is called "humanities computing". I've done the job many, many times, but
> each time I worry about whether I'm actually communicating or just talking
> to an imaginary audience consisting of people who know exactly what I know
> (and no more than that, if you please!).

Your continuing to worry even after your successes in this area
indicates only that you are likely to do a good job (again). The dilemma
you pose -- facing some kind of hermeneutic circle on the group level --
is, as you hint, endemic and perennial. Dealing with it is what makes
the work creative.

That you cite the Phoenicians' invention of alphabetic literacy is
canny. The genius of what those traders did is not that they figured
signs could stand for sounds. (I think that had been done before.) It
was that they invented an encoding that was easy to learn, yet flexible.
It was straightforward and could be learned in a few hours, and yet it
could transcribe other languages than their own. To use current
business-speak, they flattened the learning curve for literacy, and thus
lowered the barriers to entry.

So I'd think the way to go would be to aim your talk not to the
already-sophisticated, but to the interested but uninitiated. This is
likely to reach almost all your audience, especially given your problems
and methodologies. A talk like this should not have to prove membership
by uttering shibboleths. Rather, it should follow the Phoenician lead
and invent, or discover, a technical language (a medium or notation)
that is accurate and capable of meaning, and yet not overburdening or
hard to learn.

I would submit that the same principles apply to the development of
markup languages -- but that's a different subject, isn't it?


(P.S. FWIW, I myself suffer your problem intensely, and in daily life.
Half the time I'm convinced I'm uttering the completely obvious; the
other half, I'm amazed anyone understands any of what I'm saying at all.

Wendell Piez mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

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