Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Traces of Use

When he figured that April was the cruelest month, I think TS Eliot was off by four. I find that the early summer stretches into an endless vista of exciting possibilities for new research and teaching. I make far too many commitments, all of which come back to haunt me in late August. Other than dropping in to do light maintenance, for example, I haven't had time recently to write much new material for the Programming Historian. The last time that I did, however, I noticed that visitor logs tell an interesting story.

To date, the front page has received around 12 thousand hits, as people arrive at the site and decide what to do next. At that point, most of them leave. They may have ended up there by accident; they may bookmark the site to look at later. The next two sections are prefatory. The first (around 4 thousand visits) suggests why you may want to learn how to program. The second (almost 5 thousand visits) tells you how to install the software that you need to get started. My interpretation is that about a fifth of our visitors are already convinced they want to learn how to program, which I think is a good sign. The actual programming starts in the next section (2 thousand visits) and goes from there (while the number of visitors for subsequent sections slowly drops to about a thousand each). These numbers could be interpreted in various ways, but to me they suggest that (1) historians and other humanists want to learn how to program, (2) good intentions only get you so far, and (3) if you do stick with it, it gets harder gradually.

These are pretty crude metrics, although more informative ones than I'm getting from, say, the sales figures for my award- winning- but- otherwise- neglected- monograph (buy a copy today!) My friends who work in psycholinguistics have much more sophisticated ways of determining how people read and understand text, with devices that track the subject's gaze and estimate the moment-by-moment contents of their short term memory. I want people to get something out of the Programming Historian, but I don't need that level of detail about what they're getting.

In The Social Life of Information, Brown and Duguid have an anecdote about a historian who goes through batches of eighteenth-century letters rapidly by sniffing bundles of them. When asked what he is doing, he explains that letters written during a cholera outbreak were disinfected with vinegar. "By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, he was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks." Brown and Duguid go on to note that "Digitization could have distilled out the text of those letters. It would, though, have left behind that other interesting distillate, vinegar."

Probably, but not necessarily. Digitization simply refers to the explicit digital representation of something that can be measured. We are content at the moment with devices that take pictures of documents, and those devices have been steadily improving. We wouldn't be as content with the scanning quality of 2002, when The Social Life of Information was published, and we'd, like, totally hate the scanning quality of 1982 or 1962 ... just ask my students when they have to work with microfilm. That said, high resolution infrared spectroscopy makes it possible to build chemical sniffers that outperform human noses. They also make it possible to go through an archive and digitize the smells of every document.

Saying that we can digitize any trace that we can discover and measure isn't the same thing as saying we can discover and measure any trace that we might need at the moment, episodes of CSI notwithstanding. The material world is almost infinitely informative about the past, but the traces that are preserved have nothing to do with our interests and intents. And one shouldn't draw too fine a line between the analog and the digital, because digital representations are always stored on real-world analog devices, something Matt Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Mechanisms.

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