A Response to the B2C "Cultural Hegemony" in Humanities Computing: Pliny

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. John Bradley

    King's College London

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For a number of years now the WWW has acted as
the dominant paradigm for the delivery of digital resources for the humanities. At King College London’s CCH and indeed at other computing humanities centres with which I am familiar, a “digital project” is in almost
all cases equated to a project that delivers its results to a user community over the WWW. This, of course, is natural
and understandable. There is a large community of
potential resource users who have access to the WWW, and are already familiar with using a browser. Because access is browser-based it is relatively easy for a humanist in his/her office to start to use them. Furthermore, the technologies
that allow materials to be delivered in this way–in
particular XML and XSLT – are now mature, and
within the grasp of many within the humanities computing
community. The downside is that the browser provides
limited capabilities for interaction with the resource – the user can only view it on the screen, print it out and
potentially save a copy (many browser users don’t know even how to do this).
Recently these limitations have begun to hit home, and groups both within Humanities Computing (HC) and
outside it have been working on strategies for tackling it. Within HC, the TaPOR portal is an excellent of example of the kind of thing that can be done within the WWW
model. It provides an interesting working arena where users provide their own texts and select from a set of operations that can be applied against them. Improving the experience
of the browser user has also been in the air recently
outside of HC as well with the development of Ajax
and other Web 2.0 initiatives. These use sophisticated
browser-based extensions to allow for a richer user
experience of WWW- delivered materials.
In addition to these browser-oriented developments,
there has been more radical rethinking of how interaction might be enriched from the commercial sphere. There the kind of interaction that is browser-based has been
labelled “B2C” (“business to customer”). In B2C
transactions the customer was seen as an individual who needs little more than choose the product, indicate how s/he wanted to pay for it, and specify where the goods where to be shipped to. When businesses wanted to
sell goods to large businesses over the internet – “B2B” (“business to business”) – the process became more complex: one complex computer system representing the buyer needed to interact with the computer system representing seller, and the client was no longer going to be using a browser, but instead a computing system run by the client such as the purchasing system. Out of this work arose the whole model of web services, and with it a host of related technologies and standards. For an overall view of developments in this area from a
business perspective see the ebXML website which purports to enable “enterprises of any size, in any global region, to conduct business using the Internet”.
It has been my contention for some time that the
humanities end user needs more like B2B access to
resources than B2C. After all, it has been (with people like Rosanne Potter or John B Smith) the central view
of digital humanities from the very beginning that
humanities computing was about allowing the researcher
(the “end user”) to use the strengths of the machine to
engage with materials of study in new ways. Simply using the computer (via the browser) to view and print materials would surely seem to them as a betrayal of
several of the most important goals of humanities
computing! By applying the B2B way of thinking to
humanities computing we see that we need to give end users tools that support rich access to materials made available from digital archives so that they can do
interesting, independent things with them.
So, what kind of interesting thing could be done? The
recent Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities, held at the University of Virginia and sponsored in part by UVa’s IATH, discussed some of these issues, and it emerged that one of areas for new tools was in the area of “scholarly interpretation”. The tool envisioned at this meeting supported established scholarly practice,
which was understood to be based on the act of
developing a scholarly interpretation out of acts of
reading and note-taking, the organising of these notes as a means to support the development of an interpretation, and then writing about the structure that emerged. During the breakout group that discussed this issue in some
detail, it was agreed that there were no existing
computing tools that could support the interpretive act in this way. Interestingly, having seen the idea described during the breakout session, about half the people in the room (there were 18 in all) wanted to build something to support it, and all wanted to use it! It was also interesting
to note that the approach that emerged was rather
conservative in that unlike much HC thinking it focuses
on supported established non-computing scholarly
practice rather than opening up new approaches. This was clearly surprising to some present at the summit.
Pliny is a prototype of such a tool. It reflects some recent writing (see Bradley 2003, 2004 and Bradley and Vetch 2005) I have done on the subject of scholarly interpretation and annotation. It is also influenced by our work at CCH
on the Online Chopin Variorum Edition (OCVE) which
included some facilities for user annotation and note
management. It takes up the model of a computing
application that, although it interacts with resources
available over the Internet, provides its user with the ability to enrich materials found there with notes that are similar to annotations that they might make in a printed resource.
Furthermore, since, these notes are digital, they are
potentially available for further manipulation, and Pliny
demonstrates some of things users might want to do with their note collection. The focus is on using the machine to assist the researcher to develop his/her interpretation in a largely traditional way.
Technically, Pliny is built on top of Eclipse. This is not a coincidence. Eclipse, an open source software product described (at least until recently) on its website as “a kind of universal tool platform - an open extensible IDE for anything and nothing in particular”, provides a rich “plugin” model for software development that supports independent tool development, but promotes interactivity between these tools. This approach would allow others to extend any tool kit they might build within Eclipse in such a way that sophisticated interaction with Pliny and other independently developed tools would be possible.
In my demonstration I will be showing a mature Pliny prototype, and explain how I believe that it can support the interaction with digital materials in ways that support the development of a scholarly interpretation of them, and this in ways that are compatible with existing widespread scholarly practice. I will show how Eclipse supports not only the development of this tool, but the development of a whole set of independently built tools that would
provide a much richer level of interaction between them than is practical elsewhere. Finally, I will describe how Pliny currently interacts with existing resources over the Internet, but how resource delivery within the Humanities might change to provide a richer and more sophisticated experience by taking on more of the B2B model.
Bradley, J. (2003). Finding a Middle Ground between ‘Determinism’ and ‘Aesthetic Indeterminacy: a
Model for Test Analysis Tools. In Deegan M. (ed) Literary and Linguistic Computing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Vol. 18 No 2. pp 185-207.
Bradley, J. (2004). “What you (fore)see is what you get: Thinking about usage paradigms for computer assisted
text analysis” in Text Technology (forthcoming).
Preprint available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/jdb/papers/FofT/index.html.
Bradley, J. and Vetch, P. (2005). “Supporting annotation
as a scholarly tool: experiences from the Online
Chopin Variorum Edition”, a presentation given at the ACH/ALLC conference 2005, Victoria BC, Canada. http://www.cch.kcl.ac.uk/legacy/staff/jdb/papers/
ebXML: Enabling a Global Electronic Market (2005). Website available at http://www.ebxml.org/
Garrett, J. J. (2005). Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications. In adaptive path website. http:
Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities (2005).
University of Virginia, 28-30 September, 2005. http://www.iath.virginia.edu/dtsummit/
TAPoR: Text Analysis Portal for Research (2002-5). http://tapor.humanities.mcmaster.ca/home.html
Web 2.0 Conference (2005). http://www.web2con.com

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website: http://www.allc-ach2006.colloques.paris-sorbonne.fr/

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None