Man and Machine, or The algorithms of porosity

Yesterday I have been to my first DH Seminaire at EHESS, a series of meeting that started in 2011 aimed at discussing and mapping the emergence of Digital Humanities in America and in Europe while at the same time pushing towards a multilingual European network, with a number of initiatives, inspired by the Paris Manifesto (sorry, Manifeste, obviously, French style). The approach they adopted was wide and comprehensive, addressing different aspects and issues, as the definition they gave of the term DH shows. For them DH meant:

  • research practices and activities that adopted digital tools in a more systematic way
  • epistemological models (McCarty was indeed mentioned at the meeting yesterday) characterising the so-called “e-sciences”
  • ways of disseminating research using new communicational and networking tools (under the name OpenEdition they combined together blogs, online journals, events and academic books, creating a rich, multidimensional research environment that still did not show its entire potential, in my view)
  • transforming academic policies for human and social sciences, emphasising a need for a renovation in research infrastructures
  • opening up opportunities to discuss the relation between science and society

You can read (in French) about the meetings in 2011, 2012, 2013, as well as a series of Comptes Rendus (not sure of the French spelling here) on the blog Philologie à venir (pretty much focused on the seminar activities).

Yesterday meeting was obviously in French so I will not attempt to write a full report (besides, I am sure there will be an “official” one soon enough). I just want to focus on a couple of very interesting suggestions I got from what I could understand (my French is rusty at best). The meeting was meant to introduce what is happening in Switzerland DH-wise, and the two speakers were both from Lausanne. The first one, Claire Clivaz, after listing the different Swiss universities involved in DH, talked about the materiality of the digital, introducing and intriguing distinction between hybridity, the term most frequently used when speaking of the “mixing together” of man and machine, and porosity. The term hybrid conjures up something monstrous (Frankestein was an hybrid, so to speak), and even etimologically the monstrous is there. On the other hand, porosity is a more “natural” way of contamination, of mixing up elements. Biologically, “Porosity is a measure of how much of a rock is open space. This space can be between grains or within cracks or cavities of the rock”. And precisely the metaphor of a rock was the one she used to make her point, using as a source Plato’s Ion, when Socrates speaks about the “stone of Heraclea“:

This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration.

In the digital this porosity is not lost, but is reshaped differently, thanks to ontologies, internet of things, all things that eventually leads to a metamorphosis of objects and to the possibility of post-humans. As I said before, I am not sure I fully understood all the nuances of what she was saying, but I find all this really fascinating. I will have to think it over, starting by re-reading Plato’s dialogue.

The second speaker, Frederic Kaplan, talked about the big data of the past, that you can find in Venice State Archive, extremely rich, a real labyrinth that gives the physical impression, when you walk through the shelves, of a “Google memory of the middle ages”. The problem is: how to bring this into digital? This is what they are trying to do with the Venice Time Machine. Obviously is something that one cannot do alone, the only way is through collaboration using dedicated algorithms. Kaplan mentioned William Thomas III essay, Computing and Historical Imagination, written in 2004, using it to make two very specific, and key, point:

  • in the so-called spatial turn in the humanities algorithms played a very important roll
  • today there is a strong neeed to educate a new generation of historians, with skills that were not available, nor, perhaps, needed in the past

He went on to describe the kind of a google map of the past, asking if this was achievable, technologically and epistemologically. The first step would be the digitization of the existing data (i.e the archives), which will create a suitable map for the more recent period, when memory and archives were organised in a way we can understand fully. For the period in which these kind of data is not there, what we need is a simulation. To be honest, I found this interesting but I have some doubts about the epistemological issues involved. Perhaps, more than a simulation, we need to adapt the instrument to a different way of organising knowledge. It might be that this was exactly what he meant, and that something was lost in translation, I don’t know.
Another very good point he made was the idea of a convergence of education and research, that is becoming more important in a digital environment.

At the end of the day, it was indeed a stimulating afternoon.


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