Word, Space, Time: Digital Perspectives on the Classical World
An interdisciplinary conference organized by the Digital Classics Association
April 5 – 6, 2013 University at Buffalo, SUNY
One of the best aspects of the Digital Classics Association conference held recently at the University of Buffalo (April 5-6, 2013) was the way it was bookended by two veteran digital humanists who had rather different perspectives on what is needed in the future. Gregory Crane (Perseus) and Geoffrey Rockwell (Voyant Tools, TAPoR) offered trenchant but sometimes conflicting analyses of where we are now, and quite different prescriptions for the future of the larger classics DH enterprise. I’ll give my best shot at analyzing what they said, but would love to hear in the comments from others who were there and had different takes.
In his opening remarks, “Open Philology,” Crane described the nature of his new appointment to a Humboldt Professorship at the University of Leipzig, a job that comes with $12 million of essentially unrestricted start-up funds. His goals, he said, are two:
- to advance the role of Greco-Roman culture and classics Greek and Latin in human intellectual life as broadly as possible in a global world; and
- to advance philology (in the sense of the analysis of the ancient world in its entirety based on every scrap of written evidence) to support dialogue among civilizations.
Gregory Crane, 2011 (source: http://bit.ly/ZlHjXQ)
This new position and its unprecedented funding prompted the question that hovered over the conference, and which was formulated by Rockwell later as an acronym: “What Should Crane Do?” WSCD, indeed? If the goal is to advance philology worldwide to support a dialogue among civilizations, what is the best way? Write another article for AJP, or a print monograph? No. we must a) get all our sources available as widely as possible, and b) help people deal with them. “Everything else,” he said, “is just us having fun.” The rebuke to the profession as more interested in “being invited to fancy talks” than in making the classics available and accessible to all seemed a bit unfair to those of who spend most of our energy teaching, but there was an uncomfortable degree of truth in it when you think about the culture of print academic publishing. “How do you support a reader in Indonesia who does not speak English or a European language? That’s the challenge,” Crane said.
His plans are threefold: an Open Greek and Latin project, somewhat similar in concept to the existing Perseus, but containing searchable .pdf multitexts of classical authors, aggregating and leveraging the many hard-to-access but high quality print editions in the public domain; a site that focuses on E-learning for classical languages (few details given); and the Scaife Digital Library, an open repository for peer-reviewed scholarship.
One of the most appealing elements of Crane’s vision is its catholicity. He has hired an Arabist to start integrating medieval Arabic texts into the new Open Philology project, and in theory it could embrace all historical languages. The reason for beginning with Greek and Latin, he argued, is not because they are “best,” but because they lie at the crossroads of many kinds of knowledge networks. This vision of philology embraces science, trade, intellectual and cultural history writ large, not just the venerated totems of classical literature (another dig at publishing norms in classics). Philology uses texts to understand the world of the past in all its aspects, and Open Philology aims to provide a massive new infrastructure to make it accessible.
Geoffrey Rockwell, 2010 (source: http://bit.ly/YL0QSF)
Geoffrey Rockwell gave the concluding remarks to the conference. A philosopher based at the University of Alberta, Rockwell has been influential in the development of language analysis tools, most recently Voyant Tools. He offered some interesting historical context for Crane’s kind of universalist thinking. He traced the roots of the desire to use technology get access to many documents at once, “the dream of frictionless research,” all the way back to the elaborate reading machine designed by 16th century military engineer Augostino Ramelli. There has been a persistent desire for machines that will unify knowledge and send us “like greased lighting toward the truth,” he said, despite the fact that no machine has ever been shown to make us wiser. H.G. Wells had faith that getting all of knowledge into one place would lead to the unification of the human race—“not unlike Gregory Crane,” he said with a wink.
With this gentle satire he made it clear that he would pursue a more modest, incremental approach. What is needed at this point are infrastructure experiments, he said, rather than a new, totalizing system. He seemed to favor linking together different kinds of independent efforts, perhaps along the lines of one of his other major projects, TAPoR, which is a gateway to the tools used in sophisticated text analysis and retrieval. He argued that we should be focusing on a set “Primitives”—the broad types of data that we have about the ancient world: Places (space), People (prosopography), Periods, Passages, Citations, Things (buildings, etc.), and Perspectives. We have to start collecting these separately, then get them talking to each other. Pleiades does a great job aggregating information about places and making it readily linked with other kinds of data. Where is the Pleiades for prosopography? For historical periods? If we have a common, agreed vocabulary, then these different kinds of data can start being linked in very powerful ways. It’s a linked data concept of a kind being already aggressively pursued in other corners of classics DH.
Crane and Rockwell are in agreement that ivory tower elitism is a serious problem, and that one solution is to set up ways to foster participatory research and crowdsourcing. Rockwell favors exploring modeling, counterfactual history, and gaming as modes of research and teaching. Where they most differ, perhaps, is in their desire to engage the field as currently constructed and try to change it. Peer review, a topic not mentioned by Crane, is for Rockwell an important way forward. We must get beyond a world in which anything digital is automatically greeted with applause, he argued. While Crane seems generally happy to circumvent existing academic channels by acquiring outside funding, Rockwell would work DH into the existing academic prestige economy.
Crane’s e-learning initiative is very intriguing, in that Perseus itself has always been rather disconnected from actual teaching practices and pedagogy. The attitude of the profession more generally toward pedagogy he parodied as “teaching–that’s so sweet that you do that.” This may be true of the APA program committee, but certainly not of the profession as a whole. In fact Rockwell identified the interest of classicists in pedagogy as a key advantage we have over other fields. He pointed to many examples at the conference of projects with serious scholarly and pedagogical aspects.
Crane seems to place high faith in semantic mark-up as the key to e-pedagogy, and sees it as the litmus test for a truly digital textual edition. “Linguistic annotation is the basis for the digital edition, what distinguishes it from the print edition,” he said. Rockwell did not address this aspect of Crane’s remarks, but seems not to place the same emphasis on textual mark-up as sine qua non. At any rate, his Voyant tools is designed to analyze plain text.
I have ignored here the many other fascinating talks, posters, and workshop sessions that took place in Buffalo. The organizers received a loud and long ovation at the end, richly deserved. This was an extraordinary event. Neil Coffee has promised that full video of all the talks will be posted if the quality of the recording is sufficient, and I’ll add links as they become available. Thanks to the organizers for an extraordinary two days!