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The contents of this page are drawn from the class discussions between students in HIST 5V71.


[edit] Readings and Summaries

On Building
Stephan Ramsay

In “On Building” Stephan Ramsay responds to the criticisms of individuals distressed by his comments made at MLA11. Despite much disagreement, Ramsay supports his original claim by defining a digital humanist as one engaged in making and building things. For Ramsay simply using traditional methods of reading and critiquing and applying such approaches to digital objects or texts does not make one a digital humanist. In Ramsay’s view, making and building results in different forms of interpretation and requires alternate methods of engagement with the objects of study. He posits a theory of interpretation based in “haptic engagement.” In other words, Ramsay views digital humanists as communicating with their subjects through touch and other senses. Ramsay’s definition of the digital humanist limits our understanding of the digital humanities but also provides a much needed methodological framework.

A Few Arguments for Humanistic Fabrication
William J. Turkel

In a “Few Arguments for Humanistic Fabrication” William J. Turkel explores the possibilities three dimensional printing may have for humanities research. He discusses the potential of future machines and devices capable of turning digitized (two dimensional) objects into three dimensional objects. Turkel encourages humanists to embrace this new technology for several reasons. First he argues that “materialization” of this sort may become vital in the future and humanists would benefit from getting a head start working with the technology. Second, supporting Ramsay’s argument that digital humanists should be involved in building, Turkel argues that humanists should be making things as well as thinking about things. Third he suggests that humanists may have a lot to learn from 3D representation of past objects. Fourth, Turkel argues for the continued development of a history based on touch and sensory feeling. Finally, Turkel views the critiquing of materialized and fabricated objects as a logical continuation of the practice of critiquing documents. Turkel makes a persuasive argument and one likely to influence the future of the digital humanities.

Writing as Programming, Part 1 and Part 2
Stephan Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell

In “Writing as Programming, Parts 1 and 2,” Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell engage in a Socratic dialogue on writing, programming, and coding through computerized cartoon representations of themselves. In the short videos, Ramsay and Rockwell ask whether writing code, and thus programming, is a form of textuality. Using a definition found online, Rockwell defines code as a system of symbols used to represent instructions to a computer. For this reason, Rockwell identifies a clear difference between code, a set of instructions, and narrative. But as Ramsay argues, text is also a system of symbols, and once instructions, like those given to a computer, have been executed they then become part of a narrative. Rockwell however points to the different intended audiences of text and code. Because code is meant to be read by a computer it must remain unambiguous, while text, meant to be read by humans, does not. Ramsay reminds Rockwell however that code is also read by humans. In the end, Ramsay and Rockwell seem to agree that because programming and writing are both conscious acts, a “common thread between dialogue and instructions” may exist.

New Old Things: Fabrication, Physical Computing, and Experiment in Historical Practice
Devon Elliot, Rob MacDougall and William J. Turkel

In “New Old Things” Elliot, MacDougall, and Turkel suggest that historical research and the study of communication are inherently similar tasks. In other words, historians are involved in conveying or understanding messages, specifically those messages left by past people. Historians have primarily depended on textual documents to interpret these messages, meaning that text has held a privileged place in historical research. With the advent of digitization, more historians have access to more texts. Digital humanists respond to mass digitization by developing new methods for analysis. Text analysis in particular has emerged as a leading method of study. However, as the authors suggest, text analysis has once again created a bias for written text. Elliot, MacDougall, and Turkel seek to explore “building” as a method for historical inquiry ultimately challenging the primacy of text in historical research. The authors argue that fabrication and physical experiment with our creations can help researchers to better understand how events, objects, and actions were experienced. In his research, Elliot built models of magicians performing magic tricks, photographed them, and used robotics to simulate assistants opening traps, to better understand how audiences experienced magic shows in the past. The authors conceded that they could not recreate the past. They merely sought to revisit and explore its possibilities.

Intervention: Hacking History, from Analogue to Digital and Back Again
William J. Turkel

William J. Turkel in “Hacking History” explores criticisms of digitizing images and texts and suggests methods for countering limitations digitization is presumed to have. He admits that digital representations will never entirely reflect the original document, but Turkel does not see this as a limitation nor as an obstruction of the research process. He explains that as technology advances new methods capable of complementing digitization will, and have already begun to emerge. For instance, transcription, optical imagining, and tools for capturing smells could in the near future increase our ability to work with digital objects. In the end, Turkel argues that the purpose of digitization is not to recreate the original exactly as it was. He suggests that digitization offers new methods for “communicating interpretations of the past” (p. 293). Turkel offers an interesting method for approaching digitized text and encouraged humanists to look beyond traditional methods.

Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic
William J. Turkel and Devon Elliot

In “Making and Playing with Models,” William J. Turkel and Devon Elliott argue that humanists should be actively engaging with technologies used for material production. They suggest that humanists should be trained early on in making and building as part of their research. In their view, the “democratization of innovation” such materialization devices may produce will offer humanists the opportunity to engage critically with their objects of study in new ways, based primarily on hands-on experience and creating. For their own research on the history of stage magic, Turkel and Elliot used a MakerBot 3D printer and a RepRap to reproduce the techniques used by magicians to perform levitation tricks. Their research suggests that material involvement with objects of study, as well as a feeling of ownership over objects created, may contribute to a new “historical consciousness.” Turkel and Elliot make a valid case for building and creating as an important avenue for digital humanists, but because 3D printing remains relatively new, their research on the history of stage magic leads to a number of questions related to method and purpose.

[edit] Questions

[edit] Question 1

In our first class, Robert asked if a difference exists between a digital humanist and a humanist using digital methods. In “On Building” Ramsay offers an answer to this question. Do you agree with Ramsay’s definition of what a digital humanist is? How does his definition problematize the digital humanities? Does Ramsay's focus on "making" mean that the digital humanities are "undertheorized" as Ramsay’s critics claim?

[edit] Question 2

What do you make of Ramsay and Rockwell's dialogue on writing as programming? If we agree with Ramsay in "On Building" that the act of making, through coding for instance, leads to new ways of engaging in academic inquiry, (“haptic engagement”), then is Ramsay’s cartoon correct in stating that as a conscious act programming(an act of making) is the same as writing? Ramsay argues that a dialogue, like programming, is merely a script, (or set of instructions), for a performance. Are the two comparable?

[edit] Question 3

What potential do 3D printers and materialization devices like the ones mentioned by Turkel in "A Few Arguments," and in "Hacking History," and used by Turkel and Elliot in their research on stage magic, have for humanities research? In other words what types of problems, methods, questions, projects could building and making in research produce? What kind of interpretations are made possible by this technology and would research performed in this way be viable and stand firm alongside more traditional research methods?

[edit] Discussion

[edit] Rob

As you can all see I am having way too much fun with giving myself new names. I'm also quite surprised that I'm the first to comment (most likely because I'm resisting doing the 400+ pages of reading for another course-which-must-not-be-named). Anyway...

Q1: To be or not to be a digital humanist. That is the question. As Ramsay has it, a digital humanist must build and create. "Hurrah!", I say. But does he limit building to working with software and strictly digital methods? Turkel certainly doesn't! And would it count if one were merely there in the development phase? Or do they need to be there doing all the nitty gritty coding and whatnot to count? I guess this has just led me to another question...if we 'build' something that doesn't make use of digital technology, are we then analog humanists?

Q2: Wow. That dialogue was heavy. The computerized voices held my attention as much as a textbook written in binary would. I do however disagree with the assertion that programming is writing - at least in the conventional sense. Some writing is instructional, yes. But I don't think that can be said for most dialogues, narratives, papers etc. These latter formats are meant to engage human reasoning, emotions, and interpretation. I may be missing something here, but programming code, or language, which is very constrained as even they admit, cannot accomplish this. To be honest, a lot of the argument they are presenting seems too much like a "let's convince the humanists that programmers are cool too" sort of thing.

Q3: Now Elliott and Turkel were fantastic! I wholeheartedly agree with them that we need to stop making text the be all and end all. Granted, text is the foundation upon which we rest but we're in the 21st Century man! I think that they demonstrated how such modeling/building can allow us to better interact with the past rather admirably though the whole Magician Barbie thing was a stretch. But I say why limit it it to models? Let's incorporate drama, psychology and other disciplines into our study. There is a danger of the past remaining 2-dimensional if we strictly rely on text. We need to touch, to feel, to experience something fully to truly comprehend it. With technologies like these, we can have and approximation of the convenience that the digital age brings combined with real-time experience. I do believe that this is why so many shows like Monster Trackers, Mythbusters, and a number of other shows on the history channel or Discovery are so popular. But let's not be content to watch others do it, let's do it ourselves!

My only concern with the model that Elliott and Turkel offer of the democratization of innovation is economic really. It's great we can all make flashlights, but what about the guys who make flashlights? Unemployed? Could be a problem on a larger scale unless we actually do develop Star Trek-like replicators...

Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.


[edit] Dave

Since Robert is the topic of the first question, it is only fitting that his is the primary reply. I don't necessarily agree that Ramsay does answer the "are we/aren't we" debate. We are all builders in history, albeit primarily using text as our medium much to the dismay of Ramsay who would see us coding and creating, shaping and hacking in order to create a new understanding of the past. His assertion that in building or creating we achieve a new understanding is a true idea to someone like myself who needs endlessly to understand context in historic arguments, much like I have to understand how anything works in my environment that I may use so that I might have a better idea of how to fix it when it fails. One of the concepts that I have always been a fan of is that of commonality and transference - many tools and machines follow basic principles and once you have learned how they function, the ability to transfer that knowledge to a similar situation is easier. Ramsay is arguing that we need to make these objects ourselves in order to grok them and I fully agree. Does this then mean that those historians who fail to do so are consigned to the scrapheap of history? I don't see the all or nothing approach working with historians because as has been mentioned in class, in 20 years (or less) this question may well be moot. The old, hard-line text only scholars will be history themselves and the next generations will only know history as presented digitally, since that will be the norm.

The Rockwell/Ramsay bots argued the philosophical differences that the text vs. code question presents. I would agree with Ramsay that code is writing when we are on a conscious level, since the ability to create an interface between us and a machine is essential. The language of the code is that - a language. The need to write so that we as humans understand it (the computer only needs binary) means that we have created something that we can understand, follow, shape and direct. While it lacks the narrative flow of english, to those who understand this language it can be as elegant as some prose. If I were to be writing this passage en Francais, would those who do not understand that language argue that my narrative was a set of instructions to be translated and that the words in French were merely identifiers for the proper English words? I do agree that any technology will not increase wisdom, but that argument was originally used against the "new" technology of writing by Socrates, so why is our position against DH any different. As we have seen, text managed to outlive it's original detractors...


[edit] Rob

In response to Dave...Coding as writing? Have the gotten to you too old boy (to be said in a Michael Caine "Zulu" accent)? I guess in the strictest sense of the word it literally is writing, but let's not forget that 85% of communication is non-verbal, and a good writer brings more than just dialogue to the table. I'm not sure coding can ever be as elegant as prose...unless it's a sonorous text on Empire or something (Zing!). Not only does it lack the narrative of an actual language, it lacks the nuance involved in meaning. And did writing increase wisdom, or just make it more accessible to more people who couldn't make it to the symposium? A humanist having to learn code (beyond the basics) just seems like a little too much - unless that's their specific job. I really don't think it should be a 'basic skill' like reading and writing that everyone should be expected to know. What ever happened to the division of labor? Are WE the ones becoming strangers in a strange land? (loved the groking reference!)

Finally, just wanted to say. I do make quite a good topic to questions. haha. Now if only I knew the answer. Oh wait, it's 42! What was the question again? (I'm hoping someone has read Hitchhiker's...)


[edit] Ryan

The self replicating 3D printers used by Turkel and Elliot have vast implications for society as well as the humanities. As Turkel demonstrated we can begin to make the abstract and inaccessible accessible and tangible. This directly relates to the authenticity issue we have talked about in our seminars. While it might not be the real thing, actually holding a replica helps us to generate new questions about it. A picture of a bone is very different from actually holding the bone and feeling its contours. We are able to incorporate more of our senses in the act of examination, whereas previously we were dependent on only one. More senses mean more perspectives, more perspectives means more questions. We can develop new approaches to history, such as the recreation of past experiments. This will inevitably lead to new interpretations. If nothing else there is an added element of depth with the incorporation of tangible elements into our research, helping to bolster our findings.

Robert, I want to respond to your concern about the flashlight makers. I don’t think there is need to worry about these people losing their jobs. They might lose their job in a factory but that doesn’t necessarily leave them high and dry. For one, they can get their own RepRap and cut down on their need to purchase products that have traditionally been mass produced and mass marketed. And I also see potential for employment with the proliferation of these machines. You might say that if everyone has one they can just make their own things. True. But they won’t. Most of us today can already make our own things or grow our own food. But we don’t, it’s just too much of a hassle to go through all that work. So perhaps people will begin to specialize in printing and assembling one type of product which they can then market themselves. In this case they could just leave their printer on one setting which would simplify the process. Even if no one wants to BUY the products being made there is a definite potential of resurrecting the barter system. I’ll trade you my flashlight for your bucket… We can begin to think beyond money.


[edit] Sean

Wow…I’m behind this week, and will try to answer a couple of these interesting questions. To the first question, Ramsey’s definition of digital humanists as builders – I think is apt and has a number of points to it, however, while I’m no fan of academic critics who do little else than criticize without more substantive contribution, I think that Ramsey’s perspective has the tendency to ignore the value of academic discourse as a form of building towards a better understanding. Just as his argument ignores the very real potential of authors of texts as creators and builder - this is a point which Dave highlights in his response. Moreover, as Robert is smart to ask, is Ramsey’s argument limited to digital humanists and if so, what does this mean in terms of traditional humanist research? If DH and building are meant to facilitate other perspectives as Turkel notes, and Ramsey’s critique is focused on the development and use of digital resources then he gives a fair commentary, however if his critique is more widespread then I think Ramsey’s viewpoint is somewhat off base.

In answer to the third question, regarding the impact of fabrication and materialization on humanities research I have a range of reactions. First, I agree with Turkel’s assessment of economics as an impediment to more comprehensive research. I can’t see how any student or researcher today isn’t impacted by the realities of not being able to access archives or materials they need, or visit locations of events they study. It is a sad reality, to which I can appreciate the appeal which the materialization and fabrication of items can hold in overcoming the obstacles of distance, access, and cost. Without a doubt, some relationship with the items we study has its virtue – this is a point which Turkel highlights when he notes the strength of engagement in the sciences and other fields such as archaeology. Certainly engaging with resources is important, certainly being able to participate in their creation would provide for a different and fresh perspective on them. However, a fabrication is NOT the same and it should NOT be confused as a viable substitution for the original. Holding a printed Roman Vase – though insightful - cannot feasibly be considered in the same light a visiting Rome or holding an original. Perhaps engaging in the design and actual creation with the same sort of materials as Romans used would be a more viable experience by far than producing a copy. That said, I am all for the experience and participation with historical materials,but these should not be confused with interaction with the original. I realize that Turkel and Ramsey aren't arguing that these resources do or should replace original experience, but they also don't adequately account for the possibilities and problems which will arise by those who do or will.

I find it interesting that though the goal is to get closer to different historical processes and materials – a goal which I applaud and can appreciate – yet, words like illusion, fabrication, and replication are exceedingly prevalent throughout these articles, which is itself revealing. Yes we can get closer, yes we can garner new perspectives, but we should not conflate copies with originals, or the experience with those originals. sean

[edit] Grant

Well, I may as well chime in now on this week's discussion! I agree with Ramsay's definition of what a Digital Humanist is. Simply put, they do build or make things. Ramsay gives an excellent example of building a GIS map, and I can think of other instances in which DHs build things. They build simulations of artificial societies and make probable outcomes of past events. As seen with last week's reading, digital humanists build simulations of historic floods, and build digital libraries of ancient texts. In my own mind, and I feel Ramsay will agree with me on this, if a digital humanist did not build something, then they are merely a humanist who writes on the digital world. If they just created theories on digitalization, or wrote articles on digital projects, then they are only humanists who focus on digital humanities. Building= digital humanists!

Second, out of all the articles we've read in this class, Turkel's article on materialization machines was the coolest. Just as with the digitizing of texts, the creation of historical artefacts opens many doors for scholars and students. If I wanted to study closely a painting from ancient Greece, and was not satisfied with pictures on a computer, I have that option now. I am able to hold a replica of that painting and study it's make up and artistry. Yes, I do agree with you Sean that it is not the same as holding the original, but as a student I could care less. As with the text debate, I take the stand that I wont be able to go to Italy or have access to the original, so this is the closest I will get to it for some time. I do not have the funds or the prestige to have access to these ancient materials, and that is the great benefit of these materialization machines. They open doors to us students in doing our research. If a university has the space and funds, then why not invest in them. I'm secretly hoping that Brock will buy one for me for Christmas. That would be super cool of Kevin to do that. Hint hint.

[edit] Sean

Well put Grant - however isn't there something to be said for the value of building theories on digitization? Once again I'm not a theorist nor do I have a high regard for critics who only criticize rather than write, but while I'll grant that the fabrication of historical items gives way to new perspectives it doesn't necessarily put those insights on a higher level of understanding - simply a different one. While interaction and participation with history are certainly important, I also think that Ramsey has to be careful not to imply that other approaches to humanities scholarship are lesser because they engage certain materials like texts or approach their discipline in a different or more traditional manner. Just because something is new does not make it better, simply a different approach. sean

[edit] Dave

I would like to reiterate my position that historians have always been builders and while Ramsay argues that the true DH is a builder of virtual and real objects tied into historic record, I would assert that historians have been doing so for decades already. The computer is simply the newest iteration of the scholar's need to form a bridge to the past and display past events and settings. Turkel and Elliot describe in detail the recreation of their models of magic acts in order to discover their secrets and to demonstrate that in order to learn about these illusions properly, a model needs to be constructed in order to get the history right. I agree entirely with this approach, but haven't historians been doing this by helping to recreate sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and Black Creek Village?

Working with archaeologists, historians have painstakingly recreated the actual (not virtual) buildings and tools that were used by persons of the eighteenth century. In order to understand how a trebuchet could be fashioned by a fourteenth century army in such a short time and in the midst of a siege, historians have to make models of these machines and test them in order to prove or disprove accounts of their devastating effects on walled cities. The Roman mangonel or ballista are described in detail in Roman war accounts, but it is only when they are rendered by historians that we are able to fully understand the overwhelming advantage that they gave to the Roman centurions. Even something as rudimentary as a compound bow used by the Mongol hordes can only be appreciated for its superiority when it is recreated and tested.

Take a walk through any of the Smithsonian museums in Washington in order to get a sense of the use of models to help explain past events. To my mind, we have been modelling for a very long time and the true value of the computer is to take us further than the physical models can. That, however, leads us into next week's discussion so I will leave it there for now.

I will also take a materialization machine if they are being handed out; if not I will share with Grant.


[edit] Spencer

I hate to point this out, but I think the above discussion has inferred an argument into Ramsay's article that simply isn't there. At no point does Ramsay suggest that writing a text (journal article, book, etc) is not building. When Ramsay refers to building, he means the act of making something that we would normally treat as something to examine. I refer you to his paragraph about maps. Traditionally, historians use maps in a certain way; in digital humanities, making a map is an altogether new way of engaging with a map. Ramsay isn't saying that historians have previously never produced anything; he's saying that digital humanities is about making a whole realm of things, from maps to games to magic tricks to virtual collections, that were previously considered outside the scope of scholarship.

If we want to return to Robert's question about historians using digital tools, I think we can only evaluate a historian based on what they make. If a historian uses digital tools (I'm looking at you, Microsoft Word) as simply new tools for accomplishing the same old things (journal articles, books), Ramsay would argue that they are not being digital humanists. If a historian embeds a hyperlink in their blog post, however, they are making an interactive, multilayer digital text, and they are suddenly digital humanists (despite the fairly limited scope of their build).

The goal is not to define digital humanities as exclusive, but to distinguish it from the previous conventions, which do not accommodate the building that DH requires. And Dave, I think you are right that historians have been building for quite some time, but the truth is that scholarly history has been a realm of published text more than anything else. Building a trebuchet was never before a substitute for extensive textual research about trebuchet use. Of course, we still use conventional methods, but DH incorporates building as a crucial research practice. Want blog?

[edit] Stacey

Sorry I'm a little late and didn't give myself a cool nickname like everyone else, however I'd like to offer my two cents briefly. I agree with Spencer on the Ramsay article, I saw it as Ramsay wanting to keep building new tools and models and that these can be interpreted in new ways that could open more doors for historical inquiry. Once again I'll add in my Medieval history bias and say that the building of model is super neat from our perspective because we can't go see certain sites. This is not because of the geographic or monetary restrictions because in most cases building have either disappeared all together or have been greatly modified over time! Much like maps I think the concept of building models offer so many new avenues for research! I also thought of the idea that sources/models aren't just static things but can offer so much more insight.

[edit] Melanie

I'm a little late too but I'll dive in! I have to say I agree with Dave's original post about Ramsey not necessarily setting up a we are/we aren't dicotomy, and Spencer's comments about the article. Ramsey does talk about building physical models, but he also says he identifies it as a shift from reading and critiquing to building and making. This process of creation can be taken in a number of ways, not just in building physical things, but as Stacey said, tools, coding, etc. As we see in the Elliot, Turkel and MacDougall article, the physical model isn't where the process of 'building' ends; they acknowledge that after completing a model they digitize it in a number of ways, through photographs, written text about it, etc. and continue to rebuild their conception of the past through a number of different digital tools.

As for the second question, I don't know that I would say coding is Exactly the same thing as writing, but perhaps that is accomplishes a lot of the same purposes. They acknowledge that writing was once the new technology of the age, similar to how coding is new to us in contemporary society. Both things are read by humans, can function as instructions or a narrative, but coding does lack the ambiguity of language which we see in text. It is still a language, however, and functions in a lot of the same ways

[edit] Post-Seminar Notes

This week’s discussion began with a debate related to Stephen Ramsay’s definition of a digital humanist. While most people agreed with Ramsay, many added that Ramsay’s language is somewhat limiting. While digital humanists as “builders” is certainly an appropriate way to describe their methods, many of us felt that other terms would also be appropriate to describe these avant-garde humanities researchers.

The discussion then moved to a question of what building or material fabrication has to offer to the humanities in general, and history in particular. We discussed the potential of devices like the MakerBot and sought to describe how physical engagement with objects created by humanists for the purpose of humanistic study may add to, or perhaps obstruct, scholarly interpretation.

More specifically class members discussed how the process of fabrication itself, in addition to physical engagement with the object upon completion, may offer new ways of thinking about different topics of study. We discussed the use of testing models to see what works and what does not, the need to understand the process behind certain performances like Elliot’s magic tricks by using fabricated models, and the idea of remaking objects endlessly over shorter periods of time as a form or trial and error approach to analysis. Spencer argued that material fabrication does not necessarily fill a gap in the humanities, but rather creates new practices and approaches for us to take.

Next, was a short discussion of the potential applications of such an approach in our own research. Dr. Kee reminded us that using these tools can enable us to see things we may not have seen other wise. This helped us to consider ways in which we can use digital methods, from mapping, to 3D modeling, and motion capture.

The discussion ended with a quick acknowledgement of the need to improve the space and tools afforded to digital humanists and their students in universities. Overall, we as a group, seemed excited about the potential of using digital tools like the MakerBot and the RepRap, and about learning how to code or to use GIS for analysis for our future research projects.

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