Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Difference That Makes a Difference

I recently had a conversation with some colleagues about a PhD student in our program who is close to finishing his dissertation on a 20th-century topic. One of them expressed concern that he might be embarassed if he didn't consult a particular set of sources, that it would suggest that his research wasn't exhaustive enough. I was reminded of a conversation that I had with my supervisor Harriet Ritvo when I was first starting my own doctoral research.

"How do you know when to stop doing research," I asked her, "Don't you keep finding new sources?" "Of course," she said. "You always find new material. Your research is done when it stops making a difference to your interpretation." Since then, I've found that a number of historians that I admire have a similarly pragmatic criterion. In The Landscape of History, for example, John Gaddis writes, "Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical and biological scientists attending a conference I'd organized. He at first resisted doing this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I'm reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher. (p.48)

If the idea of exhaustive or complete research ever made sense, it doesn't any longer. Around the time that I asked Harriet about how I would know when I had finished my research, I also did a Google search for "Chilcotin," the place I was writing about. I got about 2,000 hits and looked at each one of them. If I were to start the same project today I would find far too much material to wade through. (Google now indexes 543,000 pages that mention the Chilcotin.) More to the point, new material is spidered by Google at an exponential rate, whereas my ability to read through it is increasing in a linear fashion at best. By the time I finished the study there would be far more unread material than when I started it.

One of the consequences of the infinite archive (or of what Roy Rosenzweig calls the "culture of abundance") is that we can't wait to run out of sources before ending a line of inquiry. We can't even pretend to do so. Instead, we have to focus on how much new information we are getting, on average, from what we're learning. Following the work of CS Peirce and William James, Gregory Bateson famously defined information as "the difference that makes a difference." When it stops making a difference, it's no longer information.

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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.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wikis and Philological Criticism

In "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," Jaron Lanier recently wrote that "Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure." Among other things, Lanier was arguing against the idea of the collective as "all-wise," something that Wikipedia's many other detractors have also tended to concentrate on. What most of these discussions miss is a feature of Wikipedia and other wikis that is, to my mind at least, what makes them so interesting: wikis automatically generate and maintain an extensive philological apparatus that is always available to the user.

It's fitting that Lanier should refer to close reading of the bible. After all, generations of textual scholars honed their critical skills on religious and classical texts, using exactly such 'faint traces' to determine the origin and authorship of sources, relate variants to one another and repair corruption. Such criticism, sometimes known as 'external' or 'lower' criticism was prelude to 'internal' or 'higher' criticism which "render[ed] a verdict ... on the source's significance as historical evidence" [Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History, s.v. "Criticism"; see also Greetham's excellent Textual Scholarship.]

Wiki software automatically tracks every single change made to a given page and lists the edits on a corresponding history page. For contested encyclopedia articles where there may be thousands of edits, it is possible to use sophisticated visualization tools like History Flow to study insertions, deletions, rearrangements, authorship, edit wars, and so on. Furthermore, every wiki page is also accompanied by a discussion page where authors and readers can annotate the texts. Both of these features are very valuable for close reading; neither is available in any of the more traditional encyclopedias that I'm familiar with.

Far too much emphasis has been placed on the content of Wikipedia, and not nearly enough on the practices of reading that it supports. Our students should be using wikis to learn the philological underpinnings of their craft, not told to avoid them because they are a 'bad' source.

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