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Thanks... My subject today is digital tools in the context of the Digital Humanities.
Although tools built outside the DH community have currently taken our attention – tools for big data analysis, for example – there has been tool building in the DH in specific domains (centred primarily around texts) for a long time – perhaps even 50 years now. Even with all this effort, I think it is fair to say that the influence of these DH-oriented tool efforts has been infinitesimal within the humanities as a whole. Our non-DH humanist colleagues do not seem to be very interested in either the tools we produce, or the perspectives and methodologies that they support.
I have acted as a developer myself for many years: TACT (a long time ago now) as a tool that fit within the DH mainstream vision for tools and I believe had then an influence within our community for some period of time, more recently Pliny (which is definitely outside the DH comfort zone, as it were, and I believe has had no influence within the DH community at all!). Furthermore, at my current department at King's I’ve been a participant for about 15 years in the construction of many digital resources that might be thought of as tools for their particular discipline, and have found that these generally HAVE had a positive influence there.
For the last year or so I’ve been thinking that if we want the digital humanities tool building to take up its proper place within humanities scholarly endeavour, the question of how its tools fit with the range of activities that constitute that scholarly endeavour is an important one. Given the evident failure so far, perhaps some thinking about the fundamentals that underlie that relationship would be worth undertaking.
I don’t think that I’m alone in my views that this thinking about fundamentals underlying tools for humanities scholarship is worth doing. We see this statement in Joris van Zundert's HUMANIST post recently in the topic "evidence of value is evidence of worry". As he says here, part of the challenge we face when thinking about tools from a DH perspective is related to possible theoretical underpinnings behind tool building in the DH. Zundert puts it here as a problem in hermeneutics – we haven't thought enough about how the tools we are interested in connect to what one wishes to understand in the humanities, and what one wishes to do there.
Now, hermeneutics is a big word and it is attached to big ideas and (mixing my metaphors) deep waters. I'm not at all sure that I'm the right person to discuss them even for 10 minutes or so without sounding a little ridiculous! However, as I said a moment ago, I have had a concern about how the tools we build actually fit into the humanities. My first attempt to approach this question – at a presentation I gave at the Irish National University in Maynooth a few years ago left me with the feeling that some significant work was worth undertaking here, and so I have spent a little time since then reading and thinking about what the issues might be. As a result, perhaps I have a right to say something about this kind of bigger picture, even if it can only be rudimentary!
I think I can at least offer a useful overall categorisation of digital tools that might contribute to thinking about the ways in which tools facilitate our understanding of things. I intend today to introduce briefly this tool categorisation model. So here goes...
In an attempt to do proper humanities research on the topic of tools, I did a bit of a literature review, and from this, I found approaches to thinking about tools that seemed to me to open up some pathways towards a "hermeneutical" discussion.
Among the papers I found were a few that proposed a philosophy for tools. James Feibleman's article from 1976 (indeed actually named "The Philosophy of Tools") claims that "although tools are no less important than languages" for supporting human development, that "they have been underestimated". In his paper he goes on to develop something like a basic ontology for tools, which allows him to explore the different roles that tools have played in human society. Some of his ideas have directly inspired what I have to say to you here today.
Feibleman is writing before the significant advent of computing technology into society and so much of his discussion is about physical tools such as hammers, microscopes, or violins. Beumie Kim and Thomas Reeves, on the other hand, write their paper from a context of "Instructional Science" in 2007 where the computer, as a tool itself, and as a provider of tools, had been around for years. They are, therefore, in a position to extend Feibleman's thinking with the significantly different nature of tools in the digital realm. Putting Feibleman and Kim and Reeves thoughts together provides for three categories for tools that I want to talk about.
Here we see both of them defining the idea of what tools are for in a similar fashion – as objects for human enablement or enhancement.
So, out of my reading of Feibleman and Kim and Reeves, I would like to propose a simple 3-category grouping for digital tools. These three categories help us to notice three kinds of places for tools in working with things, and which (as far as I am aware) have not been discussed elsewhere in the DH tool discussion.
What is interesting to us here is the recognition that, based on which type of tool it is, the nature of the interaction with their human user is quite different, and I hope you are not put off by my perhaps simplistic schematic representation of these three kinds of interactions. The first type, called by Feibleman "tools for effectors", are tools that help us build things. I will call these tools by what seems to me to be a more natural name of "tools for making". These tools, like, say, woodworking tools or violins, allow us to make things like cabinets or musical performances. The picture here shows how they interact with the human user: the human user has an idea – in the head (!) – of something that she wants to make, and then she uses this kind of tool to make that thing "in the world". Through the tools, the user's ideas develop into an outward expression in the world that then exists external to the individual who thought of it.
The second kind, which reverses the roles of the world and the human mind, is called by Feibleman "tools for receptors", and I am categorising them here as "tools for exploring". Tools like scientific instruments are this kind of tool. Here, the human user, instead of creating something in the world, becomes more receptive to something "in the world", and is able to observe better some kind of world phenomena. Whereas for tools for making the human imagination works first, and the in-the-world product follows thereafter, for tools for exploring, the world already has things in it of interest that are perhaps only partially understood, and the tool helps these things to be impressed in the human mind and human imagination. Something in the mind, rather than in the world, is the product of using a tool for exploring.
So, then, what is meant by my third kind, where the head, representing human understanding and imagination, appears on both sides? Here, the human has ideas about things, and the tools work to help their user enhance or improve these ideas. These kind of tools, which were identified by Kim and Reeves as Cognitive tools, I am calling tools for thinking. It is important to understand that this is not about communication between people – the head on both sides of the diagram is the same person – the thinking is in one head only.
This “one-head” characteristic – that the source for activity with the tool, and the product from it is in the same head is important. As Jerome McGann reminds us in his article Marking Texts of Many Dimensions, thinking as an activity is an autopoietic system, capable of looping back on itself in ways that have the potential to promote "unique moments of catastrophic change". Thus, tools for thinking, although perhaps not autopoietic in themselves, might facilitate autopoietic processes that, as McGann describes them, can be the agents of more radical changes than the adoption of the other two can have.
Tools for thinking perhaps did not enter Feibleman's model because he did his analysis before computing was much in the consciousness of society. However, as we will see in a moment, there are really important tools-for-thinking that actually predate computing, and at least one of them strongly suggests the potential significance of this kind of tool for our purposes here as well. Nonetheless, I think the nature of computing and computer-human interaction means that the connection between our minds and computing technology has the potential to operate in a particularly intimate and perhaps even autopoietic way.
So where do we DHers stand with regard to these three tool types in the digital humanities?
Tools for Making have been around in the DH for a long time – TuStep is a toolkit that has been around for about 40 years and was, from its conception, aimed at the production of elegant academic publications. The great interest in XSLT within parts of the DH community reflect an interest in this kind of tool as it provides a framework for turning XML materials like TEI documents into complex WWW objects. DHers also have also an interest in tools like Omeka (for producing sophisticated web sites), or Zotero, for producing and sharing bibliographic data.
Perhaps tools for making have been important within DH because of the enormous influence of the World Wide Web as a radically new publishing medium which has dominated thinking within the digital humanities from, let us say, the early 1990s until almost the present day. The focus on the DH until relatively recently on the task of making things is perhaps the reason that the Digital Humanities Manifesto, as recently as 2009, focused on the "generative" character of the DH – making things – as the primary model of the Digital Humanities.
Interestingly, in spite of the focus until quite recently on building things as a primary DH activity, much of the theoretical interest among DH toolbuilders themselves seems to focus primarily on my second kind of tool: the tools for exploring. The analogy often used for this kind of tool is the telescope – used, I believe, as an exemplar of that particular class of tools in the sciences: scientific instruments. We can see this particular perspective pretty clearly in Ramsay and Rockwell's wonderful discussion in the Matthew Gold’s book Debates in Digital Humanities. Why the parallel with "telescope" here? We can see in Descartes' claim from way back in 1637 that telescopes operate in this "tools for exploring" category: presenting things to us from the world that our unaided senses are unable to detect and that, by showing us things of which we were unaware, allow us to develop new ideas about the world.
Text analysis software started out being conceived of in terms of batch computing, and so was thought of more in terms of tools for making things: like concordances! However, with the introduction of interactive computing at the time of the emergence of the personal computer, text analysis software began to shift towards being thought of as tools for exploration of texts. Indeed, I was consciously aware of this shift towards a focus on exploring when I was creating TACT so many years ago now. Tools for exploring also play a role in more recent DH interests: one thinks of big data or social network analysis software as examples.
For those interested in considering digital toolmaking as potential works of scholarship, perhaps Ramsay and Rockwell, in their "Developing things" contribution, seem to unconsciously focus on this particular kind of toolmaking. By using this particular analogy of "telescope for the mind", they reveal this particular orientation most clearly.
And, the creation of this kind of tool does seem to fit better with the character of humanities scholarship than the creation of tools for making do, since traditional humanities scholarship does seem to be more about exploring cultural objects such as texts than it is about creating them. Indeed, I have heard that even the "making" of things like critical editions is downplayed these days by funding bodies such as the UK's AHRC. Instead, funding application proposers need to talk in terms of research questions – drawing attention much more strongly to the exploring character of the work they want to do. Perhaps this shift in orientation for what constitutes scholarship by the funding agencies is now also reflected in the humanities more broadly, and explains the recent inclusion of digital exploration approaches such as big data into the digital humanities. Creative digital publication (in spite of the Manifesto's playing up of "generative" activities) is no longer the primary conception of the DH.
So, now we consider briefly the third kind of tool that I have proposed: the "tools for thinking", that Kim and Reeves called cognitive tools. In their article Kim and Reeves first draw a parallel between physical tools like woodworking tools and these tools for thinking. Woodworking tools change and enhance our way to do things in the physical environment. Cognitive tools, on the other hand, can be applied to thoughts in our head, and result in new thoughts there too. Thus, in the same way that tools for the physical environment enhance our physical abilities, cognitive tools enhance our mental processes.
It is interesting that this idea is connected in Kim and Reeves to digital tools, and perhaps the digital medium is particularly suited to this. Why might this be? Perhaps the GUI oriented, screen-oriented, "user interface" nature of modern computing should be called a "head interface"! The primary interaction in GUIs is between the user's mind and the computer. Things the computer shows on the screen affect our mind first, and are more likely, therefore, to affect our thinking too.
Technology – particularly since the 1960s digital technology – as a way to enhance human intellectual work, is not a particularly new idea – one thinker from the 1940s that has influenced this approach and predates computing, is Vannavar Bush with his Memex machine. One of the earliest thinkers about the place of specifically computing as a tool for thinking is Douglas Engelbart, who started down this pathway way back in the early 1960s, when he began to think about tools that he called "Augmentation tools" for intellectual work. In his highly influential report on the potential of the computer to support human intellectual work from 1962 he proposed the H-LAM/T model that places these tools in a system involving the human user together with the technology.
Engelbart's work affected hypertext theory, but doesn't seem to have otherwise much entered into the DH consciousness.
Although one can see the reason for thinking of digitally-based tools as the best framework for tools for augmenting thinking in the way that Engelbart imagined it, a few extremely important tools for thinking in fact pre-exist the digital world.
The most obvious example of a non-digital tool for thinking in many scientific domains at least is mathematics. Mathematics expressions provide a precise way of expressing mathematical ideas. However, the notation, and the rules by which it is manipulated, not only provides a way to express mathematical ideas, but also provides a way to work on and think about mathematical problems. The act of writing the mathematics down, and working with it clearly facilitates mathematical thinking and enables a level of thinking that is substantially beyond what could be done by human beings without it. Mathematics notation, then, as well as a way to present mathematical ideas to others, is also a tool for thinking: a tool to facilitate mental mathematical thinking.
Do we already have tools for thinking that operate like mathematics in the humanities? Some people talk about the utility of writing as a tool to support thinking. The activity of writing is not necessarily only for communication with others, but somehow also facilitates the development of clearer thinking about an intellectual issue. When thought of in this role – helping the writer explore ideas by writing about them, the lowly word processor becomes not only a tool for making papers, but also a thinking tool – for helping us to explore our ideas more effectively.
We can perhaps extend this way of thinking about writing into the area of note taking and manipulation – methodologies that many in the humanities claim is helpful to facilitate their thinking. Of course, notetaking is nowhere nearly as formally defined as mathematics is, so its connection to the ideas being worked on is, of necessity, much looser. Nonetheless, the process of taking and using notes is an activity to support thinking, and, indeed, my Pliny project and Pliny tool provides a model for notetaking in the context of a cognitive tool process.
I've presented these three categories of tools as if they were clearly separated classes, but some tools sometimes seem to blur the distinction between the classes.
Visualisation tools, for example, can be most usefully thought of as tools for exploring. Like the microscope, you prepare your sample data, you point the visualisation tool at it and adjust it to work, and hopefully see new things in the sample that you hadn't seen before: a typical "tools for exploring" process. However, there is another way to think about visualisation tools: they can be thought of tools for making: for making visualisations! This particular ambiguity arises, perhaps, from the nature of digital things: both input and output are data structures that the computer must interpret and present to us: it is in the nature of the digital that the same technology supports both the creation and then presentation of materials.
A second kind of blurring between categories might be seen in the piano. A performer might think of the piano as an instrument for making music. The music arises in the performer's head and is presented through the piano to the world. On the other hand, pianos also sit in composers' offices, where they can act as the tool to help make musical fragments that arise in the composer's mind more substantial so that they can be assessed as fitting into a current composition: here the piano is acting as a tool for thinking, in some ways like what mathematics does for some scientists. Do any of our digital tools operate in both these domains? What is it in the nature of the piano that makes it a tool that can function in these two quite different ways?
Having now briefly introduced the three kinds of tools, I think we can see a few questions that might warrant further consideration. First, much of the theoretical thinking about toolbuilding in the DH has been centered on tools for exploring (things like Voyant), and the "exploring" nature of these tools fits perhaps with the current interest in the "exploring" side of DH: things like big data or social network analysis. Is this the appropriate, or perhaps even only, domain for finding a place for toolbuilding as an academic or scholarly pursuit?
Second, tools for making fit well with the alternative vision of DH as a "generative" activity. However, much of the tool building in this domain has not been conceived of as a scholarly activity, but described in terms of software development practices alone. (most of the talk I have seen about Zotero seems to make this point). Does this matter? Are we able to sustain developers of these kinds of tools in the current academic-centered DH atmosphere?
Finally, tools for thinking is a kind of meta-tool building activity which has been hardly explored or even noted in the DH. Is there a place for this? Is there a place for a tool that fits as well as mathematics does in the sciences as a tool for thinking in the humanities?
Tools for a whole range of Scholarly Activities (at DH2015)
How about Tools for the
whole range of scholarly
John Bradley (Department of
Digital Humanities, King's
Humanities and DH tools
"only about six percent of humanist scholars go beyond
general purpose information technology and use digital
resources and more complex digital tools in their scholarship"
2005 Summit on Digital Tools at the University of Virginia
Martin Mueller survey of use of "literary informatics" : "virtually
no impact on major disciplinary trends."
Edwards 2012, p 216
"despite significant investments in the development of digital
humanities tools, the use of these tools has remained a fringe
element in humanities scholarship."
(Gibbs and Owens 2012, abstract)
"evidence of value ..."
"Our computational tools are at their
core still highly hermeneutically
uninformed and inadequate. That is a
challenge that needs to be shared
rather than that it would be taken as a
cause to incite methodological trench
(Joris van Zundert, HUMANIST 28.737
16 Feb 2015)
Towards a philosophy for tools
"Tools are artifacts which enable man to
change material objects more than he could
Feibleman 1967 p 329
"Physical tools are utilized to enhance the
performances of human activities (e.g.
digging a hole in the ground) or do tasks
otherwise impossible (e.g., examining cell
structures of fruit flies).
Kim and Reeves 2007 p 209
Three tool paradigms
Tools for Making
Tools for Exploring
Tools for Thinking
"the current second wave of Digital
Humanities – what can be called 'Digital
Humanities 2.0' – is deeply generative,
creating the environments and tools for
producing, curating, and interacting with
knowledge that is 'born digital' and lives in
various digital contexts."
Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 (Schnapp and
Tools for MakingMaking
"Digital artifacts like tools could then be considered
as "telescopes for the mind" that show us
something in a new light."
Ramsay and Rockwell, 2012, p 79
"By taking our sense of sight far beyond the realm
of our forebears' imagination, these wonderful
instruments, the telescopes, open the way to a
deeper and more perfect understanding of nature."
René Descartes, 1637
Tools for ExploringObserving
"tools for cognitive activities are
comparable to the physical tools that
are invented for everyday human
activities in that they change and
enhance our way of doing mental
Kim and Reeves 2007, p 209
Tools for ThinkingThinking
"The ways in which human capabilities are thus extended are here called
augmentation means, and we define four basic classes of them:
1. Artifacts—physical objects designed to provide for human comfort, for the
manipulation of things or materials, and for the manipulation of symbols
2. Language—the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into
the concepts that his mind uses to model that world, and the symbols that he
attaches to those concepts and uses in consciously manipulating the concepts
3. Methodology—the methods, procedures, strategies, etc., which which an individual
organizes his goal-centered (problem-solving) activity.
4. Training—the conditioning needed by the human being to bring his skills in using
Means 1, 2, and 3 to the point where they are operationally effective.
The system we want to improve can thus be visualized as a trained
human being together with him artifacts, language, and
Engelbart 1962, pg 9
For many sciences,
mathematics can be
a cognitive tool
What might this be
for the humanities?
note taking and note
Tools for Thinking
Blurring of the classification?
as tools for making
as tools for exploring
as a tool for making
as a tool for thinking
For several years the focus on toolbuilding in the DH has
largely been on tools for exploring. Is this adequate to
support the continued interests of the DH?
Do we want to also promote tools for making as a kind of
scholarly activity. How do we describe this kind of work
so that it appears plausibly DH? Does it need to appear
as an academic activity?
Tools for thinking is a kind of meta-tool building activity
which has been hardly explored or even noted in the
DH. Is there a place for this? Can we build tools that
work like mathematics (or the piano) in the humanities?