Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What It's About 3: Interaction

Although digital history isn't about computers per se, we still have to take into account our mediated interactions with other people, and with various constellations of hardware and software. Over the past few decades we've seen the widespread proliferation of human-scale interactive devices. These have been driven, in part, by advances in electronics. Thanks to transistors and integrated circuits, small electric motors, tiny radio transceivers, LEDs, lasers and relatively long-lasting batteries, more and more people are toting around cell phones, pagers, laptops, digital cameras, music players, and GPS receivers. As any reader of Gizmodo or Engadget knows, these devices are legion. Thanks to various standards like Wifi and Bluetooth, they are usually networked to one another and to the Internet.

In the same period there has been a rethinking and expansion of a field which used to be known as human-computer interaction, and is now known as interaction design. Interaction designers are responsible for making it easier, more obvious or more intuitive to place a call, post to a blog, get money from an ATM, buy tunes, order an espresso, shift into overdrive or pay taxes. For many years people approached computers at a level very close to the machine, flipping switches or punching out ones and zeros on cards. As networked computation becomes ever more pervasive in our environments it takes many more forms. It may be invisible, like the network of microprocessors that keep your car running efficiently or provide telltale data after an 'event.' It may seem like something else: a phone conversation, a game, recorded music, even a heartbeat. New devices allow people to use motion and gesture as inputs. Many interaction designers follow the advice of IDEO's Bill Moggridge to think in terms of "verbs, not nouns."

As an example of the potential of thinking in verbs, consider reading. Historians are very familiar with the different affordances of the traditional codex. In digital form, however, text can be "remixed" or "mashed-up" in ways that allow new kinds of interaction. In a sample mashup, the text of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War was passed through a system that extracts geographic names and projected into an interface that includes an interactive map. In this new form, the book can still be read in the traditional fashion; it is now also possible to click on locations on the map and see corresponding passages in the text. It is relatively easy to extract dates and plot them on an interactive timeline, providing a temporal browser as well as a spatial one. If the editor of the volume needs to correct an error in the text, the mashup continues to work. If the History of Herodotus is digitized, it can be given a similar interface with little effort. There are three key points about mashups. First, they are heterogenous, built from services that are supplied over the Internet. Once one person or group figures out how to do something (like extract dates from a text) they can provide the service to anyone else who needs it. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Second, mashups are live. Data can be continuously updated without breaking the system. Third, the range of web services is continuously expanding. Increasingly, we will come to think of the work of the historian as the work of drawing live sources from archives, integrating those sources on the fly, interpreting them, and building that interpretation into tools that give the reader an unprecedented power to explore the evidentiary base from which our accounts are constructed. Historians, in other words, will become designers of experiences and interactions.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

What It's About 2: More is Different

In 1972, the physicist P. W. Anderson published an essay titled "More is Different," arguing against the idea of scientific reductionism (Science 177, no. 4047).

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a 'constructionist' one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. ... The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.

This is the second sense in which digital history is not about computers. Taken by itself (or in conjunction with a user and stand-alone application software), the properties of a single computer tell us almost nothing about the properties and possibilities of densely interconnected networks of people, machines and software. Researchers in artificial life and related fields have shown that routine interactions among simple, identical agents can result in complex and unpredictable swarm dynamics. The heterogeneous assemblages that provide a context for digital history are far richer, perhaps best captured with the metaphor of information ecologies.

Having more gives you completely different capabilities. Take the example of Amazon's database of customer information. When you look at an item, the system can provide you with pointers to related items: "people who looked at / bought this also looked at / bought x, y, z." As you look at and buy items, the system becomes smarter. Idiosyncracies of individual browsing or purchasing are ironed out as more data are collected. Over time, new associations may develop and old ones disappear, providing insight into historical trends. The Amazon book database is already so powerful that no humanist can afford to ignore it, but the strength of this approach is not limited to commercial applications. Suppose that scholarly books and articles were indexed in a similar way: "people who looked at / cited this also looked at / cited x, y, z." It becomes trivial to do kinds of literature review that are normally very difficult. One of these is to assess the downstream impact of a given work: which works cite this one? Another is to find related but isolated research groups, who may be citing an overlapping literature but are apparently unaware of one another's work.

Having more changes our ideas of what history and memory are. Roy Rosenzweig's essay on scarcity and abundance should be required reading for all historians. I've already written about information costs, so I won't go into detail here, except to say that historical projects have largely been defined by what we can't find or know, and that's about to change. Having nearly frictionless access to vast amounts of source material makes it possible to undertake projects that hinge on attested, but very-low-frequency evidence. Having more of everything also means that attention becomes a scarce resource. As scholars, our reputations and careers are increasingly shaped by the logic of the gift.

Finally, more is about to become an awful lot more. Technologies like RFID and MEMS make it possible to create vast sensor networks that continuously record data in unimaginable quantities, or that can track the history of practically any object of interest. CARPE researchers study the capture, archival and retrieval of personal experiences across a lifetime. If you thought Samuel Pepys left a lot of material, you haven't seen anything yet.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

What It's About 1: Links and Bias

In my last post I suggested that digital history isn't about computers, although it may have seemed more reasonable to think so in the mid-1980s. In fact, around that time the influential computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra made the provocative argument that even computer science isn't about computers. Referring to the subject as computer science, he wrote, "is like referring to surgery as 'knife science'..."

We now know that electronic technology has no more to contribute to computing than the physical equipments. We now know that programmable computer is no more and no less than an extremely handy device for realizing any conceivable mechanism without changing a single wire, and that the core challenge for computing science is hence a conceptual one, viz. what (abstract) mechanisms we can conceive without getting lost in the complexities of our own making. ... This discipline, which became known as Computing Science, emerged only when people started to look for what be common to the use of any computer in any application. By this abstraction, computing science immediately and clearly divorced itself from electronic engineering: the computing scientist could not care less about the specific technology that might be used to realize machines, be it electronics, optics, pneumatics, or magic.

To some extent, digital history inherits this indifference to underlying mechanism. We're better off to focus our attention instead on what the technology allows us to do.

Links, it is said, are the currency of the web. They make it possible to navigate from one context to another with a single click. For human users, this greatly lowers the transaction costs of juxtaposing two representations. The link is abstract enough to serve as means of navigation and able to subsume traditional scholarly activities like footnoting, citation, glossing and so on. Furthermore, extensive hyperlinking allows readers to follow nonlinear and branching paths through texts. So much is well known to humanists. Fewer seem to realize that links are constantly being navigated by a host of artificial users, colorfully known as spiders, bots or crawlers. A computer program downloads a webpage, extracts all of the links on it, and follows each in turn, downloading the new pages that it encounters along the way. Using tools like this, students of the internet can map the topology of subnetworks. Some pages serve as hubs, with millions of inbound links. Some are bridges that connect two network regions that are otherwise very sparsely interconnected. Done ceaselessly on a large enough scale, a dynamic and partial map of the internet emerges from spidering, and this serves as the basis for search engines.

Stop for a moment and think about search engines. Google handles more than ninety million search requests per day. For the vast majority of those searches, there will be far too many hits for the user to look at more than a tiny fraction of the results. Instead, he or she will concentrate on the top 10 or 20 hits. Google (and a few other companies like Yahoo! and MSN) are introducing biases into research results by ranking the hits. That's unavoidable, and historians, at least, take bias for granted. It is something to be thought about, not something that can be eliminated. I would argue, however, that search engine result ranking is the single most pervasive form of bias that has ever existed. When Google says that their mission "is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," they're not kidding. Do you know how search engines work? Can you afford not to?

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's Not About Computers

On January 3, 1983, Time magazine declared that the 1982 "man of the year" was actually a machine: the computer. "There's a new world coming again," Roger Rosenblatt wrote, "looming on the desktop." A series of articles provided a thumbnail history of computing, described different brands of hardware, predicted huge impact and "awesome" sales figures, introduced people like Jobs and Wozniak and walked through a simple programming example. There was even a glossary for "gweeps." (According to Time, a "gweep" was a hacker suffering from overwork. With 47,000 hits on Google today, the word is encountered just a bit more frequently than "absquatulate.") "All clear?" Otto Friedrich asked, "Those who think so are called 'computer literate,' which is synonymous with young, intelligent and employable; everybody else is the opposite."

1983 was probably a good year to start thinking about introducing personal computers into university coursework. Many people had been using them for years already, and it was clear that they would play a very important role in the decades to follow. Some historians and history educators were already there. Joanne Francis published Microcomputers and Teaching History in 1983. Richard J. Jensen's Microcomputer Revolution for Historians came out the following year, as did Roy Rosenzweig's article on using databases for oral history. Teaching history students how to use computers was a really good idea in the early 1980s.

It's not anymore. Students who were born in 1983 have already graduated from college. If they didn't pick up the rudiments of word processing and spreadsheet and database use along the way, that's tragic. But if we concentrate on teaching those things now, we'll be preparing our students for the brave new world of 1983.

So if digital history isn't about computers, what is it about? Stay tuned.

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