Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mapping the History of Death

This wikipedia map records the shifting geography of places where population and death have caused the overflooding of traditional cemeteries.

Nineteenth-century cities like London and Paris faced the problem of overcrowding by corpses. In response, they resorted to the building of mass cemeteries and crematoria on the edges of town.

Which answer a government takes, when faced by large numbers of the dead, tells you a great deal about the government. If you're a state and there are too many dead bodies, building crematoria is one answer; outlawing death is another. Different kinds of politics lie behind each: crematoria require architects, surveyors, and a certain kind of flexible theology; outlawing death requires a strong, centralized ruler, but no bureaucracy is needed at all.

A very clever map would animate rises of population (in one color, say a bubbling orange) followed by problems with cemetery overflow (in oozing purple), followed by marks delineating several possible outcomes: blue dots marking the appointment of state-appointed cemeteries; gray dots marking crematoria, and red dots marking sites where death is illegal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bad Taste as a Measure of Political Corruption

In Britain's nineteenth-century debates over bureaucratic expansion, expert authority, and wasteful expenditure, architectural design offered a new rubric for evidence of how far the public trust had been abused: the measure of “taste.”

In 1808, Mr. Windham paired his objection to wasteful expenditure on a new Exchequer building with condemnation of the “bad taste which prevailed in the pretended improvements.” Mr. Fuller, cautioning that any expenditure should not be a waste, critiqued the recent rebuilding of the House of Lords, joking that “its pilasters appeared nothing better than a set of elongations.”

The measure here was not personal taste, of course; rather, it represented Hume-inspired, objective taste in beauty; “taste” as a scientific measure of the degree to which architects and committees had conspired towards a fit, public end, immediately recognizable by the uneducated masses as well as the designing elite.

A critic of parliamentary building projects explained:

The effect which a fine specimen of art, more especially in architecture, creates on the mind, is not alone confined to the critic or the man of taste; it does not result from knowledge or reflection, it arises not from an acquaintance with the rule and compass; but it is the result which beauty and excellence, shewn in harmony of proprotions, grandeur of dimensions, and due arrangement of ornament, will never fail to produce.

The spectator, when he feels thus, pauses not to inquire whether the canons of Vitruvius, or any more modern teacher of the art, have been strictly observed; nor does his admiration decrease one tittle when he is informed by some critic at hand that every law of architecture has been violated in the structure.

Now that the government started building architecture for the people, tasteful buildings would be the immediately accessible signs for the people of what sort of a government they had. Good buildings would tell the people that they had a good government. Poor buildings would evidence a corrupted state that employed wortheless architects on the basis of nepotism and privilege.

“Bad taste” was, moreover, flexible as a marker: Not only did it signify the abuse of public taste by malicious experts; it could also signify the zone where economy and bureaucratic interference had gone too far and interfered with expert wisdom. The 1828 committee that inquired into so much waste in public spending found that the “inconvenient line” and poor taste in which the Council Office was produced were the result of cost-cutting around Soane’s original designs. Here, cost-cutters were to blame rather than designers. When the committee asked about a stray balustrade placed upon the roof of a “dwarfish front,” Soane replied that it was the fault of financially-fiscal, tampering officialdom, medaling with his designs: “he had nothing to do either with the putting it on or taking it off.”

Where “taste” appeared in the public landscape, it demonstrated that the bureaucracy had recruited a real architect, negotiated certain limits, and given room to the architect’s imagination. “Bad taste” as a measure of abusive management promised a rule for showing that the balance of power between the expert and the bureaucracy was out of whack.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Floods of Heaven

For twenty years now, the consequences of this course have been hard to see: hard, because whenever the signs of damage appear, the free market was quick to label a “culture of dependence.” A term that originated in the 1970s to attack American blacks’ use of welfare, the term “culture of dependence” has been extended to a broadening sphere of parties that have any relationship with government or law. New Orleanians’ ruined houses were the result of a “culture of dependence” on federal infrastructure funds. Policing the illegal trading of faulty mortgages and bandit short-selling represents a “culture of dependence” on the state. Community organizers, Sarah Palin suggests, instill a “culture of dependence” upon organizations of teachers and workers. Any individual or group with a relationship to government or law – any form of society, that is – stands at risk of imbibing a “culture of dependence.”

A series of shocks are shaking Americans into reconsidering those stories. Disaster, like the sun, falls on the good and the bad alike; provisions against disaster, like a law-abiding financial sector, are a necessity for a functionally operating society.

The more we look at history, the deeper the case of interdependence appears.

Read my full story here:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obsolescence and the Scholar's Tools

When I moved house from San Francisco to Chicago this summer, I sold the filing cabinet, threw away some books of old slides, and recycled piles of old notes. I kept the ones that I thought were most useful. They were heavy: expensive to ship. I thought about the burden of old tools. I thought of one of my committee-members who proudly proclaimed last spring that he'd sold his book collection. What?! -- we all exclaimed. His notes were in spiral-bound copies, he explained. He didn't need the books themselves at all.

Much as we depend upon the permanence of objects for our own archival research, those objects have a consumption-value besides their use-value, and the two are easily confused.

Books are a luxury, a prop; perhaps a fetish. Which makes me wonder: are the notecards a fetish as well? The unread spirals -- a fetish? I don't know: but I do have a hunch that what matters most of all is the tool that helps us immediately, in present time, to tell a better story. If my dancing spiraling notes help me see the skeleton of an article being formed: if they help me weave tomorrow's talk and lecture, then they do their job better than all the lasting piles of notes I could possibly leave behind.

Digital scholarship and fancy new software both promote dangerously ephemeral records. Andrew Keating and Jim Sparrow, both digital historians whom I admire, have separately asked me the same thing. I'm writing my current article with the Personal Brain: will those notes still be accessible thirty years from now? When I'm preparing my lectures as a tenured professor, shouldn't I want to have notes that will have lasted?

Maybe. But here's a contention: most scholarly tools are ultimately ephemeral. I have notecards from my quals and xeroxes used to prepare my dissertation. No scholar I know flips through his old notecards in the evenings for fun. Many fine lecturers I've known enjoy the challenge of rewriting their last year's lectures again from scratch: rethinking the old problems, revisiting the old friends, readjusting the ideas to respond to contemporary concerns, new scholarship, or even ongoing politics.

In history as in film-making, the product is what counts. People read the book: the book remains. They hear the lecture, not the work behind it. The conversations, notes, and plans flitter away, trash on the breeze. This much seems clear to me: It is far less important what happens to the software I use than whether I'm able, in a shorter and more efficient way, to produce the next article and the next book.

And yet we still pay the movers to ship our books.


All of this brings us back, of course, to the war between the written and the spoken word. The historical account upon which Jacques Derrida deracinated philosophy was the story, new in the 1960s, about what had happened to our ancestors at the dawn of written language. Archaeologists were unveiling how ephemeral speech had waned in importance as it was, for official and symbolic purposes, replaced by written law.

Digital history, it seems to me, is performing a similar intervention on written words: wearing slowly away at the fetish value of written learning. The digital is promoting in place of the permanent/written an ephemeral kind of scholarship that asks to be outdated by new thoughts and new archival ruptures. If the traces, the ephemeral, the consumerist/fetishized stuff of notecards and heavy books vanish, and in their place remains a network of threaded-together ideas, consolidating every so often into a fine, deep essay? Then, I imagine, digital history is doing us all a great favor.

Not least of all by untethering the mobile scholar from her dozen thirty-five-pound boxes of notecards, that awful shackle of the past.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This is a paper being written.

(click to zoom)

I've been admiring Jerry Michalski's brain for a while now. By note-taking in a free-form, web-linked network, brain-users claim that they find themselves retaining more facts while making stronger and more imaginative connections.

Here's what it ends up looking like, in practice, for the essay-writer. one ends up organizing the notecards as one takes them down: continuously grouping ideas into an expanding cloud of relationships and themes. At a far earlier stage than in standard-essay writing, I can see the structure of the new chapter here already emerging: two poles, one about centralized governance and one about its opposite. Below them, a cloud of subpoints: the history of precedents for centralized government in Britain; the history of precedents in transport government per se; the particular actors at work behind the rail; their arguments pro and con centralization on a variety of particular points.

Essentially I'm cutting out several phases in standard note-taking format: the phase of consolidating notecards. As I read and take notes, the points and themes form. No need to trace and retrace through an abstracted outline of points from each author; no need to write and reshuffle notecards. I can see the backbone of the essay right now, and I'm only beginning.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Portrait of the Blogger

Lovely weekend of exploring neighborhoods, sitting in the park, and browsing in Chicago's wonderful Myopic Books. Thanks to my new friend, photographer August Bach, for this portrait, which I love! (If you like August's work, he posts a photo-a-day by email to subscribers. Check it out!)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Storm the Widener! Open the Gates! Free the Prisoners!

University Presidents saying to the Publishers: Free our Libraries! A happy hope, surely, of broadening access to the stacks to the curious masses, yearning to break in and read. Inscape urges on the tide. Storm the Widener! Open the gates! Free the Prisoners!

Yet we must needs cast a wary eye towards the academic publishers and the account books of the university. Will the open publication movement survive? Servers cost money, digitization funded by Google is likely to come with strings -- and yet, what better use for library endowments?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Folksonomy vs. Navigation in Chains

Two tendencies are at war over digital publishing: the trend towards free navigation and navigation in chains.

Navigation in chains is a disturbing trend, encouraged accidentally by some of the hardest-working and smartest academics on the web. As RWMG points out in a comment below, Exhibitors and Mass Digitization projects expand different kinds of public access. I've been arguing that mass-digitization projects are the broadest hope for expanding public access to the treasures formerly locked away for the few. Exhibitors indeed play a valuable role by encouraging the expansion of mass digitization back in time, so that nineteenth-century books from the dawn of cheap printing are joined online by medieval manuscripts, Renaissance incunabulae, and tablets from ancient Persia.

What I'm worried about is the role of independent navigation and collaborative interpretation in both projects.

Traditionally, online exhibitors have tended to pre-package navigation through their online collections. One can "take the Itinerary" through ancient Rome -- more fun than most primetime shows, sure, but generally not where I'd head first myself. The big problem is that most of the categories first noticed and made available -- the names of major monuments, emperors, and styles of architecture -- are the most over-written subjects in the field.

Where's the fun in that?

Navigate your way through the collection based on known categories, and you won't see anything new. What about the natural curiosity that guides even an amateur through the stacks? What about the undergraduate or grad student who comes to the online exhibit with their own concern -- what Renaissance Rome can tell us about ribbon development, public places, or eminent domain? Such freely arising, spontaneous, and individual questions are the questions that drive individuals to do their own inquiry in the first place, rather than operating as passive consumers of books.

The braver alternative, which few of the exhibitors are using for reasons of authority and control, is to open up to the public the tagging of each manuscript. When you open up each manuscript you get, possibly thousands of overlapping keywords -- in digital searching, that's not a problem; it in fact means that more subtle descriptors like mood, use, or background details might be noticed and tagged by people who care about them, leaving the room for a later researcher to make headway in categories no one's noticed before.

No lesser institution than the Library of Congress has experimented with open tagging. This spring, they opened up 3000 images to open-tagging on flickr. Famously, within the first 24 hours, the public had added 11,000 tags. For visual images, those expanding, publicly-generated tags signify a new kind of searching and category formation hitherto unavailable to visual image researchers, who had to rely on their own eyes, their own skills of analysis, and the clumsy and slow manuscript delivery of image libraries, where images were tagged only with preexisting categories. With open tagging, image searching hypothetically means one could actually look through occurrence of the tag "poverty" in the nineteenth century and learn something. Or look through the tags relating to "women" auto-generated by users and start wondering about the papers that haven't yet been written:

Insofar as critical inquiry -- the engagement with texts, the arguing back against books -- represents one of the fundamental reasons for the humanities, a tendency towards navigation in chains is antithetical to what academics should be doing on the web. Encouraged by an uncritical reverence for the scholar's authority, navigation in chains is structuring a disturbing number of the collections now online.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Defensible indexing: A dangerous kind of search

Traditional searching mingles scholarly and unscholarly texts indiscriminately. Google Book Search, for instance, will give you nineteenth-century textbooks on political economy alongside radical screeds in the morning paper.

Some scholars are disturbed by this chaotic glut of information online. They want new tools to help them find the other scholars with awards and titles behind their name, who have published and been lauded; nor are conferences and university presses and google scholar and the thousand other tools for finding colleagues enough for them: they want to have their own Panopticon of a search, disciplining the little search hits into neat rows.

Scholars worried about their authority have a recourse: a peer-reviewed search. Colleagues vet academic websites, describe the ones that are sufficiently rigorous and authority-driven, and provide the scholarly community with an authority-driven, defensible index of peer reviewed sites.

Here, to answer their prayers, is Nines, a defensible, authoritative, peer-reviewed index of online exhibits pertaining to the nineteenth century:

Now I love this idea, honest, and I'm probably going to use Nines a lot.

But I'm also disturbed by it.

A prying question: what if I *wanted* to search an index that included Sally Anne's genealogical website that houses manuscripts from her grandfather's family of tin miners in Cornwall? Sally Anne's family documents aren't going to show up on Nines. Nor is the amateur collection of online costumes by naval enthusiasts. Nor will the crowd-sourced documents uploaded and tagged by Flickr users.

Some of us (social historians?) tend to think that the mingling of authoritative and unauthoritative sources is a good thing. It returns the historian to the naive viewpoint of the reader outside an institution, the reader without a history in hand, who looks at the newsstand wondering which of the trends will prevail. It breaks down the logic of the canon, making possible new kinds of texts and sources that challenge our received narratives. Social history has always depended upon outsider archives, and the policing of archives has always been a danger to our more radical practices.


The bigger issue here is whether we still need peer review. Nines itself represents an intelligent attempt to extrapolate the peer review process from traditional publication to the internet. But peer review may itself be redundant. Google Scholar, for instance, already makes clear who-cites-whom. We've crowdsourced authority. If fifty scholars read my blog and cite it, you know I might be onto something. Why the expensive meeting of a board? Why the time-consuming meetings to review?

Moreover, there are the dangers above associated with delimiting noise with authority as a standard. Journals' practice of vetting their own particular standards around a particular interest is helpful for winnowing noise, of course. So is the practice of individual connoisseurs on delicious and other self-indexing programs. But indexing by authority is the opposite of creative inquiry. Indexing by authority means putting every scholar and member of the public in line to kowtow to the standardized canon of institution. It's a stifling situation. Indeed, our colleagues in the natural sciences are already finding out that "peer review stifles scientific inquiry." Peer review, as an index, isn't healthy for individual scholarship, and it doesn't serve the purpose of critical inquiry.

Woe betide any institution that sets up a defensible index that becomes the standard gateway for the nineteenth century, to the exclusion of the amateur and peripheral.

Surely it were better to pool as many tags as possible, make knowledge as abundant as possible, and develop one vast Collex project that indexes everything? Surely it were better, individual scholars, to place your photos on Flickr under Creative Commons, where they can be collaboratively noted, tagged, and commented on by the whole of the scholarly and curious world? Surely we'd all be better off ignoring peer review altogether.

On the scholarly web, intelligent readers should be wary of the defensible spaces that confine their reading rather than broadening it. Streamlining our reading habits along narrow lines encourages scholars to retreat within the defensible walls of their community rather than engaging, describing, and critiquing practices on the outside.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Kvelling over the University of Chicago

To be sure, all unrestrained shows of hyperbole are destined to be corrected by reality and winter, so I figure I'd better get it all out of my system now. Here, uncensored, my kvell.

First, there's Chicago as a wellspring of imagination, ideas, and intellectual activity, particularly for the digital humanities. Given free rein to explore, I'm hunting out the most interdisciplinary and experimental faculty at the university and interviewing them. Scott Branting, archaeologist at the Oriental Institute, is using GIS and medical modeling to develop pedestrian traffic maps of ancient Iron-Age cities. With nothing but corpses, a street grid, and the topography of a city, he can extrapolate a pretty remarkable prediction of where traffic flows (he tried it out on Cambridge, UK first. it predicts where the good coffee shops are.). Elisabeth Long, a librarian, has been experimenting with scans of medieval manuscripts so close that one can nearly conduct paint and orthography analysis virtually. Next on my list is John Padgett, a political scientist, who plugged in 60,000 renaissance Florentines and conducted network analysis on them. Conversations start with the particular and expand to the digital future of the humanities, the nature of the landscape in history, the possibilities for the teaching profession in dialogue with the public.

Second, there's Chicago as a radical opportunity to experience America. At a time when red state and blue have polarized the nation, finding liberals who can talk to middle America is rare. In the coastal universities, it is very rare indeed. Earnest Chicago, politically split between a free-market tradition of economic analysis and a deeply interventionist mode of sociological analysis, finds libertarians and hippies in conversation, strange intersections, and actual exchange. Last night at the Regenstein Library, a sign on the stairwell: "Got prayer? room 207." I stopped by to find a single librarian praying over a list of several dozen distressed undergraduates, name by name, spending a good five minutes on each concern over MCAT's and roommates and calling, lifting them up for guidance and company and love in whatever way. I stayed there and listened, genuinely moved by the practice. University towns often miss this kind of emergent American tradition; in Berkeley, the evangelicals kept to themselves, a little reclusive, perhaps suspicious of faculty accustomed to prognosticate their annihilation before modernity. Chicago has philosophers, economists, and historians willing to talk about American faith, its meaning, and their experiences, exploring both the conservative and progressive forms of religious practice.

In Eden the fruit falls from the tree without labor. In Chicago, one works hard, but the ideas are so abundant as to spring forth from the ground uncoaxed, spontaneous, and delightful. Bring it on, winter.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Exhibitor vs. the Card Catalog Junkie: Scholars, Academics, and the Public

In these first few months as Chicago's Digital Historian, I've given myself the task of having a lotta coffee. I'm having coffee with the GIS peeps, the archivists, the tech-savvy archaeologists... everyone, in short, who can tell me where the future lies.

Here's an assertion. When they go online, scholars go in one of two directions. Most of them, thinking they've been invited to curate a library installation of delightful rare books, create a gorgeous online exhibit. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go here and feast your hungry eyes:

Many fewer of them, but some very smart folks, imagine themselves to be hanging out around an enormous virtual card catalog, craning over their colleagues' shoulders. "Oh, I LOVE that book!" "And have you read his other works?" "That reminds me of this editorial I read the other day..." If you don't know what you're talking about, read this version of the chatter that sits on my desktop all day:

The card catalog junkies, not the exhibitors, are the way of the future, of course. They're the ones who take full advantage of the internet's full social capabilities: hanging out with scholars beyond their department. Sharing notecards. Sharing references. Experimenting in new exchanges, rapid-fire ways of seeing patterns and sorting data. They include grad students enrolled in digital history courses, twittering professors, helpful librarians, and dissertation-writers who make their notecards public to anyone who wants to read them. Mostly they operate for their own, finite, friendly, social purposes. Sometimes because online organizing helps their own creative process.

But the exhibitors operate out of some impulses with great staying power. The exhibitors operate out of fear and respect for their discipline. Terrified of promoting second-rate material, they only share their students' work if it's already edited. They also operate out of love of beauty, a respect for manuscripts, and a desire to connect the consumption-driven contemporary public to the noble minds of the past. That, and they're funded. Massively funded. NEH grants and Macarthur money sits behind a lot of their projects; that, rather than direction from the librarians or the universities, has meant the flourishing of so many digital exhibits.

On the surface, the exhibitors seem to care more about the public. They made these gorgeous installations for the benefit of an admiring public, right? It's *their* neat websites that smooth out the rough edges, present a ready-to-go taxonomy of searchable terms ("nineteenth century" "slavery" "abolition" "Abraham Lincoln"). Many even begin with ideas about encouraging their students to share, learn, and promote new scholarship online. They book computer-laden classrooms and learning sessions where their grad students work on collaboratively translating Greek.

Ironically, however, the exhibitors are actively dodging some of the most public opportunities for reaching the public. Presenting the public with a didactic, one-way model of the professor-as-podium, they present material risks being either so arcane that no one wants to read it but their colleagues, or so general that no one wants to read it but high-school students cramming for exams. Engaging, relevant, or dialogue-oriented it is not.

The card-catalog junkies end up engaging a much more public form of history. This morning, for instance, sharing my morning paper with some fellow-twitter-users, I was pointed to an editorial by an Americanist at William and Mary by an activist, and then shot it back to my friends, where a couple of consultants picked it up. There we were, the western world, talking about whether the current financial crisis is more like 1873 or 1929.

A public historian couldn't be more pleased.