Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In the Trading Zone

I'm afraid I haven't posted much this month because I've been working on a big grant application with a number of colleagues. One component of the grant is dedicated to digital infrastructure for environmental history, and as part of the grant-writing process I've been required to negotiate a number of partnerships with institutions that are creating digital repositories of various sorts. In an odd reversal, I've been finding it much easier to talk to librarians, archivists, curators and new media specialists than to my own colleagues in environmental history. I now realize that this is because I share a language with the former that the latter have not yet adopted: the language of open source, open access, digital libraries, markup, and web services.

Two other recent experiences have helped me put this in perspective. Yesterday in my digital history grad class we were talking about machine learning and data mining. Some of the students wondered whether we would let available tools and techniques guide research questions, basically agreeing with a concern raised by Dan Cohen earlier in the week. I was reminded of Maslow's remark that "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." (The Psychology of Science: A Reconaissance, New York 1966). One of the ways that historians often differ from more theory-driven social scientists is by commitments to holism, nuanced messiness and complexity. Exceptions don't prove the rule; they show that rules are always impoverished.

I've also been reading Fred Turner's new book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (Chicago 2006). Talking about the emergence of an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs he draws on ideas from Peter Gallison ('trading zone') and Geoffrey Bowker ('legitimacy exchange'):

Legitimacy exchange helped transform cybernetics from a relatively local contact language suited to the particular needs of scientists in wartime Cambridge into a discourse commonly used for coordinating work across multiple research projects and multiple professional communities. As Bowker suggests, cybernetics facilitated not only the interlinking of research, development, and production activities, but also the development of new interpersonal and interinstitutional networks and, with them, the exchange and generation of a networked form of power. To the extent that members of two or several disciplines could succeed in creating a relatively closed system of interlegitimation, they could make it extraordinarily difficult for nonexperts (i.e., noncyberneticians) to challenge their individual agendas. They could and did stake claims for research funding, material resources, and popular attention. Working together, in pairs and networks, each acquired a legitimacy that none could have had alone without the exchange of legitimacy afforded by cybernetic rhetoric (pp. 25-26).

Gallison's ethnographic metaphor of a trading zone leaves room for the very different understandings that humanities scholars and intelligence analysts will bring to their encounter. In Image and Logic he writes "Anthropologists are familiar with different cultures encountering one another through trade, even when the significance of the objects traded--and of the trade itself--may be utterly different for the two sides. And with the anthropologists, it is crucial to note that nothing in the notion of trade presupposes some universal notion of a neutral currency. Quite the opposite, much of the interest of the category of trade is that things can be coordinated (what goes with what) without reference to some external gauge" (p. 803). So much better to enter the trading zone than to wait and form a cargo cult.