- Mind Technologies: Humanities Computing and the Canadian Academic Community
The best contributions to this book reach beyond the impressive range of Canadian accomplishments to the core problematic of the field: what the mechanical has to do with the humanistic. Some less adventurous pieces document solid work in the older disciplines. Some are more vestiges of the past than indications of a desirable future. Here I will concentrate on the first of these. [End Page 138]
Humanities computing is approximately sixty years old but a mere adolescent in self-awareness and so is bestirred by conflicting thoughts, as here. But computing's inexhaustible potential for imagining and exploring possibilities gives deeper reason for the multivocality. When in his fine essay Michael Best admonishes us to be experimental and adventurous, he names the game, not just the current state of play. The book's URLs and other signs of the passing moment similarly instruct us how to read it: not for foundations but for a trajectory. Its interdisciplinarity instructs us further, to read primarily for the methodological contributions, such as in Murray McGillivray's piece, for his persuasive document-centred approach to serving traditional goals better than print.
Stephen Reimer asserts (as Ian Lancashire's and Russon Wooldridge's lexicographic projects impressively suggest) that computing changes research fundamentally 'by extending our reach and improving our efficiency.' As beings in space-time, we dismiss either at our peril; if wise, we investigate the cognitive differences they make. Lancashire's concern with stylometry thus directs us from mind to brain, and so to the possibility of a bridge toward the neurosciences. One need only look to the proceedings of last year's 'Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity' conference (http://asc.nhc.rtp.nc.us/) to see how promising that and similar bridges are.
Robert Good and Charles Clarke report on software that uses but avoids the limitations of the highly structured metadata of digital media collections.
The fundamental question raised is familiar: what is text? The best response comes at the end, in Geoffrey Rockwell's afterword: (1) our theories are craft-theories, arising from and informing our digital constructions; (2) these theories begin to emerge from silence when we must say why one tool is preferable to another for a given job; and (3) any text we interact with is embedded in tools that authorize or thwart different types of interpretation. Seeds of a fine and much-needed book are here.
The editors' argument for modelling may suggest that tools map scholarly processes move-for-move. After arguing for the importance of statistical assumptions, the late Paul Fortier points out that the increasing sophistication of software obscures them but that we can infer the suitability of procedures no one could carry out by hand. Thus complexity forces us from strict imitation toward the synthetic and creative, as for example in contemporary physics. It is one of computing's many gifts to us.
Based on their experience at McMaster, Andrew Mactavish and Rockwell argue that models from the creative visual and performing arts are what we need to respond to the problematic status of method [End Page 139] and technique in the humanities. Both are at home in the arts, the crafts, and in engineering, which informs software development. If anything, the authors underplay the potential of such an expanded practice to untie us from what theoretical biologist Robert Rosen in Essays on Life Itself describes as 'a mind-set of reductionism, of looking only downward toward subsystems, and never upward and outward' to systems with a life of their own.
Both the Orlando Project described by Susan Brown et al. and the Virtual Buildings Project described by John Bonnett turn on the superiority of active engagement over passive consumption. The ambition of Orlando is to advance the historiography of literature, first by encoding the entities and structures of a literary history in markup, then getting their audience to engage with that markup as end-makers of knowledge, not mere end-users of information. Virtual Buildings is based on...