14.0405 a complaint

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: 10/24/00

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 405.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
             Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000 07:48:42 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: de planctu
    Dear colleagues:
    For the past several weeks I have been attempting to do what I think
    scholars in the humanities regularly do, or at least what I've done
    numerous times: look into a field in which I was not trained, dig around
    and follow the trails left by references, spot the papers/books that
    recurrently turn up, read everything I can get my hands on, then finally
    summarise the results for a fat footnote or paragraph in an essay that
    needs to recognise a direction, define what it is, but not follow it. This
    is the first time, however, that a majority of the research has been
    online. That in itself is an interesting and, I think, significant story,
    but it's not the one I'm writing about. I wish to complain, in the hopes
    that some kind if irritated soul will tell me I'm all wrong, that if I'd
    only looked at X or Y I'd not have had to make such a fuss, and perhaps a
    fool of myself. So be it. I'm into taking risks like that. But this time I
    really don't think it's much of a risk.
    A few weeks ago I decided I had to find out about what was happening in
    hypertext research. I don't mean the literary critical take on hypertext a
    la Landow et al. or what's been done in and on hypertext fiction, for which
    see Eastgate Systems, <http://www.eastgate.com/>. Rather in attempting to
    model sophisticated referential gestures in scholarly and traditional
    exegetical prose -- such as explicated by Steven Fraade in his brilliant
    study, From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the
    Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy -- I decided that I needed to know what the
    hypertext folks in computer science had thought about links, nodes and
    related topics. After a considerable amount of effort I have turned up
    about 50 articles and books, read them and am grateful, though not
    surprised. As I had suspected, a number of very bright people have done
    some deep thinking and built promising prototypes.
    What I am complaining about is the chaotic, careless and, it seems,
    self-absorbed state of that research. As far as I can determine the major
    venue is the series of Hypertext conferences run by the ACM, whose
    proceedings are online but kept under lock-and-key in the ACM's "Digital
    Library", <http://www.acm.org/dl/>, "a vast resource of bibliographic
    information, citations, and full-text articles" which costs $185/year to
    have unmetred access to; without joining one can purchase individual
    articles -- at $10 each (now THERE'S a risk). Hence, if you're not already
    part of the sub-community that goes to the conferences and collects the
    proceedings volumes, you're severely discouraged from finding out what it's
    doing. Outside of this tightly controlled though not topically organised
    resource, as far as I can determine there is no current academic
    bibliography of research in the area. The ones I have found have all ceased
    operation; Brown's Memex and Beyond is, as you've seen, only now getting
    started again. The best one can do now is to use Alf-Christian Achilles'
    The Collection of Computer Science Bibliographies (Karlsruhe),
    <http://liinwww.ira.uka.de/bibliography/>, by which you can search several
    concatenated bibliographies. Apparently, since Jeffrey Conkin wrote his
    broad survey, "A Survey of Hypertext", in 1987 -- much mentioned in the
    literature I have been able to find -- no one has written a sequel, though
    the noted Frank Halasz (called "the Zsa Zsa Gabor of hypertext"), in his
    "'Seven Issues': Revisited Hypertext '91 Closing Plenary" sadly notes that
    most of the problems Conklin discusses are still very much around;
    fortunately a transcribed version of his talk is online, without lock, at
    Note that it had to be transcribed.
    If the research perspectives of humanists and computer scientists are ever
    really to mingle, outside the blessed and very special arrangements at a
    few institutions (such as IATH, Virginia), something has to be done about
    the insular, provincial ways us disciplinary people conduct ourselves. At
    least the research has to be able to mingle. With respect to hypertext,
    which is all about "how we may think", the humanist's stock-in-trade, the
    problem seems quite serious. Ironic, isn't it, with all this talk about
    unrestricted availability of stuff online, information "wanting to be free"
    and all that? I worry about how, given the difficulty of getting access to
    the research, we're actually ever going to be able to do the things with
    our scholarly forms that some of us want and all of us need to do outside
    of the "big humanities" projects. Truly great things are going on e.g. in
    the Perseus Project; read about it in David A Smith, Jeffrey A Rydberg-Cox
    and Gregory R Crane, "The Perseus Project: a Digital Library for the
    Humanities", in Literary and Linguistic Computing 15.1 (April 2000): 15-25,
    <http://www3.oup.co.uk/litlin/hdb/Volume_15/Issue_01/>. But what about the
    ordinary, individual scholar, whose ideas e.g. about referentiality in
    commentaries on the Torah or about allusion in 17th century English
    religious poetry are most relevant to conceptions of nodes and links? With
    respect to hypertext, to paraphrase in negation (with apologies) what
    Yaacov Choueka once said, the research is hard to get, so the tools aren't
    HERE. How can we expect to achieve any results?
    We're always complaining among ourselves about those of us who don't do the
    reading and end up re-inventing the wheel, or the subroutine or whatever.
    After this experience, however, I'm not surprised that few bother to put
    themselves in the path of so much frustration. Perhaps rather than use the
    model of technological invention ("reinventing the wheel") we should think
    of one that happily allows for continuous repetition, such as making babies.
    Tell me I'm badly mistaken, please, and show me how. Then send me a
    complete run of the Hypertext proceedings volumes. PDF and PostScript files
    are most inconvenient to read.
    Dr Willard McCarty / Centre for Computing in the Humanities /
    King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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