Socializing Cyberinfrastructure

David Theo Goldberg, Director – University of California Humanities Research Institute
Kevin D. Franklin, Executive Director – University of California Humanities Research Institute

The sciences have been transformed dramatically by the application of cyberinfrastructure to addressing pressing questions. The humanities, arts and social sciences, by contrast, took to institutional cyberinfrastructural development and application relatively late, largely with the advent of the Web. Early experimentation in these latter domains largely involved the use of existing tools and processes–search engines for information retrieval, text analytics for information extraction, and video game engines for interactive application with real-time graphics, and applied them to new domains.

These turned out to be crucially important experiments on at least two scores. They opened up possibilities for thinking about the technologies and their developments in new light, leading in some instances to genuinely new technological insights and developments. But they also led the way in opening up a new generation of researchers in humanities, arts and social sciences to thinking about novel tool development and new applications. And they raised important questions about how these new technologies challenged traditional ways human beings think of themselves as human. We have traditionally thought about being human in relation to the natural world. We are now challenged to think anew about what it is to be human and its limits in a world dramatically technologically fashioned and transformed.

Cyberinfrastructure has enabled us to know a vaster range about a domain, to know it in greater depth, and to do so far more quickly than manually. It has also increased considerably our access to more information about a vaster range of subject matters, and to do so more quickly. Increasingly, it has made possible the connecting of available information, relating data sets or more discrete pieces of information, and now also increasingly, meanings in potentially novel and potentially provocative ways. So it is not just that cyberinfrastructure allows humanists, arts and social scientists to compose new and large data sets, and to circulate them in more open ways. If that were all, we might still sing its praises, but this would hardly be revolutionary. What has been so important about the application of cyberinfrastructure, its properly transformative potential, has been its more relational and networking capacities, what Cathy Davidson in the opening article of this special issue of CTWatch Quarterly calls Web 2.0 HASS applications. Both Davidson, in the opening article of this special issue, and Beemer et al., a network of scholars at the University of California, in the second article, recount aspects of this early history in the emergence of HASS cyberinfrastructure.

There have been three principal areas of HASS focus over the past dozen years or so. The first, both temporally and receiving the greatest emphasis and application of resources, has been facilitating the development of discrete digital projects. These interests have overwhelmingly assumed the form of digital archiving and text-mining tools and applications, or in the case of the arts robotic experiments, in regards to artificial intelligence or the development of games. There has been a wealth of recent projects—three-dimensional visualization tools and geographic information system maps, live telepresence dance performances, persistent digital archives of historical and cultural materials, experimental digital reading and writing, especially poetry, and so on. The latter part of Beemer et al, and the articles by Patricia Seed, Ruzena Bajcsy et al, and George Lewis elaborate a range of compelling open source projects in the humanities, arts and social sciences under current development. But these are just a sampling of the vast range.

The second, more recent, contribution has been the design, development, and implementation of cyberinfrastructure such as computing grids running on highspeed fiber-optic networks, like LambdaRail and Internet2, for large scale interactivity across and access to searchable, if expanding, archives and data sets. The latter increasingly are including visual and auditory materials applications development. In their article, Larry Smarr et al spell out a large scale project, the CineGrid, for hosting and sharing what is projected to become a comprehensive data base of the history of cinema.

The third area concerns critical discussion of implications of the digital turn for thinking about the human and how we may map and know the human condition at specific times as well as their transformations over historical time. These ontological and epistemological issues have a long philosophical history, and these critical discussions indicate how the cyberinfrastructural revolution, while genuinely novel, even revolutionary, nevertheless raise questions about being and knowledge long facing the human condition. An increasing range of humanities centers, both digital humanities and more traditional centers, have been organizing forums, workshops and working groups to address these issues.

Finally, a general question of considerable importance today concerns how to facilitate the development of critical techno-humanists able to converse in both the technical languages of engineering and computer sciences, on one hand, and the human sciences (including the arts), on the other. An important first step, which a number of engaged researchers are already in the process of taking, is to encourage ongoing conversations and interactions arranged around hands-on projects in what we call the human sciences. Vernon Burton et al, in the closing article of this issue, addresses some of the benefits, resource requirements, and challenges in establishing a university center to promote such collaborations between human scientists and engineers, computer scientists, and technologists. These interactions would identify the technological needs, interests, and possibilities at the interface of the human sciences and the digital. Techno-humanists will be better positioned to address collaboratively the engineering and social-humanistic challenges raised by digitization and preservation (stewardship), by textual, visual, and audio search engines, by data mining and analysis, by shared data bases and their management. This special issue of CTWatch, while introducing some of the interesting work going on at the interface of the human and computational sciences, the arts and engineering, also takes another, less tentative step in the direction of encouraging the development of techno-humanists fluent in both the humanistic and technological vocabularies.