Humane Ingenuity: My New Newsletter

With the start of this academic year, I’m launching a new newsletter to explore technology that helps rather than hurts human understanding, and human understanding that helps us create better technology. It’s called Humane Ingenuity, and you can subscribe here. (It’s free, just drop your email address into that link.)

Subscribers to this blog know that it has largely focused on digital humanities. I’ll keep posting about that, and the newsletter will have significant digital humanities content, but I’m also seeking to broaden the scope and tackle some bigger issues that I’ve been thinking about recently (such as in my post on “Robin Sloan’s Fusion of Technology and Humanity“). And I’m hoping that the format of the newsletter, including input from the newsletter’s readers, can help shape these important discussions.

Here’s the first half of the first issue of Humane Ingenuity. I hope you’ll subscribe to catch the second half and all forthcoming issues.


Humane Ingenuity #1: The Big Reveal

An increasing array of cutting-edge, often computationally intensive methods can now reveal formerly hidden texts, images, and material culture from centuries ago, and make those documents available for search, discovery, and analysis. Note how in the following four case studies the emphasis is on the human; the futuristic technology is remarkable, but it is squarely focused on helping us understand human culture better.


Gothic Lasers

If you look very closely, you can see that the stone ribs in these two vaults in Wells Cathedral are slightly different, even though they were supposed to be identical. Alexandrina Buchanan and Nicholas Webb noticed this too and wanted to know what it said about the creativity and input of the craftsmen into the design: how much latitude did they have to vary elements from the architectural plans, when were those decisions made, and by whom? Before construction or during it, or even on the spur of the moment, as the ribs were carved and converged on the ceiling? How can we recapture a decent sense of how people worked and thought from inert physical objects? What was the balance between the pursuit of idealized forms, and practical, seat-of-the-pants tinkering?

In “Creativity in Three Dimensions: An Investigation of the Presbytery Aisles of Wells Cathedral,” they decided to find out by measuring each piece of stone much more carefully than can be done with the human eye. Prior scholarship on the cathedral—and the question of the creative latitude and ability of medieval stone craftsmen—had used 2-D drawings, which were not granular enough to reveal how each piece of the cathedral was shaped by hand to fit, or to slightly shape-shift, into the final pattern. High-resolution 3-D scans using a laser revealed so much more about the cathedral—and those who constructed it, because individual decisions and their sequence became far clearer.

Although the article gets technical at moments (both with respect to the 3-D laser and computer modeling process, and with respect to medieval philosophy and architectural terms), it’s worth reading to see how Buchanan and Webb reach their affirming, humanistic conclusion:

The geometrical experimentation involved was largely contingent on measurements derived from the existing structure and the Wells vaults show no interest in ideal forms (except, perhaps in the five-point arches). We have so far found no evidence of so-called “Platonic” geometry, nor use of proportional formulae such as the ad quadratum and ad triangulatum principles. Use of the “four known elements” rule evidenced masons’ “cunning”, but did not involve anything more than manipulation and measurement using dividers rather than a calibrated ruler and none of the processes used required even the simplest mathematics. The designs and plans are based on practical ingenuity rather than theoretical knowledge.


Hard OCR

Last year at the Northeastern University Library we hosted a meeting on “hard OCR”—that is, physical texts that are currently very difficult to convert into digital texts using optical character recognition (OCR), a process that involves rapidly improving techniques like computer vision and machine learning. Representatives from libraries and archives, technology companies that have emerging AI tech (such as Google), and scholars with deep subject and language expertise all gathered to talk about how we could make progress in this area. (This meeting and the overall project by Ryan Cordell and David Smith of Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, “A Research Agenda for Historical and Multilingual Optical Character Recognition,” was generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

OCRing modern printed books has become if not a solved problem at least incredibly good—the best OCR software gets a character right in these textual conversions 99% of the time. But older printed books, ancient and medieval written works, writing outside of the Romance languages (e.g., in Arabic, Sanskrit, or Chinese), rare languages (such as Cherokee, with its unique 85-character alphabet, which I covered on the What’s New podcast), and handwritten documents of any kind, remain extremely challenging, with success rates often below 80%, and in some cases as low as 40%. That means 1-3 characters are mistakenly translated by the computer in a five-character word. Not good at all.

The meeting began to imagine a promising union of language expertise from scholars in the humanities and the most advanced technology for “reading” digital images. If the computer (which in the modern case, really means an immensely powerful cloud of thousands of computers) has some ground-truth texts to work from—say, a few thousand documents in their original form and a parallel machine-readable version of those same texts, painstakingly created by a subject/language expert—then a machine-learning algorithm can be created to interpret with much greater accuracy new texts in that language or from that era. In other words, if you have 10,000 medieval manuscript pages perfectly rendered in XML, you can train a computer to give you a reasonably effective OCR tool for the next 1,000,000 pages.

Transkribus is one of the tools that works in just this fashion, and it has been used to transcribe 1,000 years of highly variant written works, in many languages, into machine-readable text. Thanks to the monks of the Hilandar Monastery, who kindly shared their medieval manuscripts, Quinn Dombrowski, a digital humanities scholar with a specialty in medieval Slavic texts, trained Transkribus in handwritten Cyrillic manuscripts, and calls the latest results from the tool “truly nothing short of miraculous.”

[Again, you can subscribe to Humane Ingenuity to receive the full first issue right here. Thanks.]

Engagement Is the Enemy of Serendipity

Whenever I’m grumpy about an update to a technology I use, I try to perform a self-audit examining why I’m unhappy about this change. It’s a helpful exercise since we are all by nature resistant to even minor alterations to the technologies we use every day (which is why website redesign is now a synonym for bare-knuckle boxing), and this feeling only increases with age. Sometimes the grumpiness is justified, since one of your tools has become duller or less useful in a way you can clearly articulate; other times, well, welcome to middle age.

The New York Times recently changed their iPad app to emphasize three main tabs, Top Stories, For You, and Sections. The first is the app version of their chockablock website home page, which contains not only the main headlines and breaking news stories, but also an editor-picked mixture of stories and features from across the paper. For You is a new personalized zone that is algorithmically generated by looking at the stories and sections you have most frequently visited, or that you select to include by clicking on blue buttons that appear near specific columns and topics. The last tab is Sections, that holdover word from the print newspaper, with distinct parts that are folded and nested within each other, such as Metro, Business, Arts, and Sports.

Currently my For You tab looks as if it was designed for a hypochondriacal runner who wishes to live in outer space, but not too far away, since he still needs to acquire new books and follow the Red Sox. I shall not comment about the success of the New York Times algorithm here, other than to say that I almost never visit the For You tab, for reasons I will explain shortly. For now, suffice it to say that For You is not for me.

But the Sections tab I do visit, every day, and this is the real source of my grumpiness. At the same time that the New York Times launched those three premier tabs, they also removed the ability to swipe, simply and quickly, between sections of the newspaper. You used to be able to start your morning news consumption with the headlines and then browse through articles in different sections from left to right. Now you have to tap on Sections, which reveals a menu, from which you select another section, from which you select an article, over and over. It’s like going back to the table of contents every time you finish a chapter of a book, rather than just turning the page to the next chapter.

Sure, it seems relatively minor, and I suspect the change was made because confused people would accidentally swipe between sections, but paired with For You it subtly but firmly discourages the encounter with many of the newspaper’s sections. The assumption in this design is that if you’re a space runner, why would you want to slog through the International news section or the Arts section on the way to orbital bliss in the Science and Health sections?

* * *

When I was growing up in Boston, my first newspaper love was the sports section of the Boston Globe. I would get the paper in the morning and pull out that section and read it from cover to cover, all of the columns and game summaries and box scores. Somewhere along the way, I started briefly checking out adjacent sections, Metro and Business and Arts, and then the front section itself, with the latest news of the day and reports from around the country and world. The technology and design of the paper encouraged this sampling, as the unpacked paper was literally scattered in front of me on the table. Were many of these stories and columns boring to my young self? Undoubtedly. But for some reason—the same reason many of those reading this post will recognize—I slowly ended up paging through the whole thing from cover to cover, still focusing on the Sox, but diving into stories from various sections and broadly getting a sense of numerous fields and pursuits.

This kind of interface and user experience is now threatened because who needs to scan through seemingly irrelevant items when you can have constant go-go engagement, that holy grail of digital media. The Times, likely recognizing their analog past (which is still the present for a dwindling number of print subscribers), tries to replicate some of the old newspaper serendipity with Top Stories, which is more like A Bunch of Interesting Things after the top headlines. But I fear they have contradicted themselves in this new promotion of For You and the commensurate demotion of Sections.

The engagement of For You—which joins the countless For Yous that now dominate our online media landscape—is the enemy of serendipity, which is the chance encounter that leads to a longer, richer interaction with a topic or idea. It’s the way that a metalhead bumps into opera in a record store, or how a young kid becomes interested in history because of the book reviews that follow the box scores. It’s the way that a course taken on a whim in college leads, unexpectedly, to a new lifelong pursuit. Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.

On the Response to My Atlantic Essay on the Decline in the Use of Print Books in Universities

I was not expecting—but was gratified to see—an enormous response to my latest piece in The Atlantic, “The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper,” on the seemingly inexorable decline in the circulation of print books on campus. I’m not sure that I’ve ever written anything that has generated as much feedback, commentary, and hand-wringing. I’ve gotten dozens of emails and hundreds of social media messages, and The Atlantic posted (and I responded in turn to) some passionate letters to the editor. Going viral was certainly not my intent: I simply wanted to lay out an important and under-discussed trend in the use of print books in the libraries of colleges and universities, and to outline why I thought it was happening. I also wanted to approach the issue both as the dean of a library and as a historian whose own research practices have changed over time.

I think the piece generated such a large response because it exposed a significant transition in the way that research, learning, and scholarship happens, and what that might imply for the status of books and the nature of libraries—topics that often touch a raw nerve, especially at a time when popular works extol libraries—I believe correctly—as essential civic infrastructure.

But those works focus mostly on public libraries, and this essay focused entirely on research libraries. People are thankfully still going to and extensively using libraries, both research and public (there were over a billion visits to public libraries in the U.S. last year), but they are doing so in increasingly diversified ways.

The key to my essay were these lines:

“The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure…A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the [research] library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations.”

Although I highlighted statistics from Yale and the University of Virginia (which, alas, was probably not very kind to my friends at those institutions, although I also used stats from my own library at Northeastern University), the trend I identified seems to be very widespread. Although I only mentioned specific U.S. research libraries, my investigations showed that the same decline in the use of print collections is happening globally, albeit not necessarily universally. In most of the libraries I examined, or from data that was sent to me by colleagues at scores of universities, the circulation of print books within research libraries is declining at about 5-10% per year per student (or FTE).

For example, in the U.K. and Ireland, over the three years between the 2013-14 school year and the 2016-17 school year, the circulation of print books per student declined by 27%, according to the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), which represents all university libraries in the U.K. and Ireland. Meanwhile, SCONUL reports that visits to these libraries have actually increased during this period. (SCONUL’s other core metric, print circulations per student visit to the library, has thus declined even more, by 33% over three years.) Similarly, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), which maintains the statistics for university libraries in Canada, notes that during these same three years, the average yearly print circulation at their member libraries dropped from 200,000 to 150,000 books, and their per-student circulation number also dropped by 25%.

Again, this is just over three recent years. The decline becomes even more severe as one goes further back in time. In the 2005-6 school year, the average Canadian research library circulated 30 books per student, which slid to 25 in 2008-9; by 2016-17 that number was just 5. Readers of my article were shocked that UVA students had only checked out 60,000 books last year, compared to 238,000 a decade ago, but had I gone all the way back in the UVA statistics to two decades ago, the comparison would have been even more stark. The total circulation of books in the UVA library system was 1,085,000 in 1999-2000 and 207,000 in 2016-17. Here’s the overall graph of print circulation (in “initial circs,” which do not include renewals) from the Association of Research Library (U.S.), showing a 58% decline between 1991 and 2015, but an even larger decline since Peak Book and an even larger decline on a per student basis, since during this same period the student body at these universities increased 40%.

These longer time frames underline how this is an ongoing, multi-decade shift in the ways that students and faculty interact with and use the research library. All research libraries are experiencing such forces and pressing additional demands—the need for new kinds of services and spaces as well as the surging use of digital resources and data—while at the same time continuing to value physical artifacts (archives and special collections) and printed works. It’s a very complicated, heterogeneous environment for learning and scholarship. Puzzling through the correct approach to these shifts, rather than ignoring them and sticking more or less with the status quo, was what I was trying to prod everyone to think about in the essay, and if I was at all successful, that’s hopefully all to the good.

What’s New Season 2 Wrap-up

With the end of the academic year at Northeastern University, the library wraps up our What’s New podcast, an interview series with researchers who help us understand, in plainspoken ways, some of the latest discoveries and ideas about our world. This year’s slate of podcasts, like last year’s, was extraordinarily diverse, ranging from the threat of autonomous killer robots to the wonders of tactile writing systems like Braille, and from the impact of streaming music on the recording industry to the disruption and meaning of Brexit. I’ve enjoyed producing and being the interviewer on these podcasts, and since I like to do my homework in addition to conversing with the guests live, I’ve learned an enormous amount from What’s New.

I hope you have too if you’re a subscriber to the podcast or just the occasional listener, and would love your feedback about what we can do better, and topics you would like to hear us cover in the future. One surprising and rewarding thing we’ve noticed about the podcast is how new subscribers are going back and listening to the show from Episode 1. Podcasts do seem to encourage binging, and the fact that we keep our podcasts to roughly 30 minutes means that you can easily go through both Seasons 1 and 2 during a relatively short timespan while commuting, walking your dog, or relaxing this summer.

The overall audience for What’s New has also gone up considerably over the last year. In the last 12 months we’ve had about 150,000 streams, and each episode now receives 5-10,000 listeners. These are not chart-topping numbers, but for a fairly serious educational podcast (with, I hope, intermittent humor) it’s good to find a decent-sized niche that continues to grow.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen yet, you can subscribe to What’s New on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts, or simply stream episodes from the What’s New website. Word of mouth has been the primary way new listeners have heard about the podcast, so if you like what we’re doing, please tell others or leave a review on iTunes, as that remains the starting point for most podcast listeners.

And as a jumping off point for new listeners or those who may have missed a few shows during the school year, here’s a summary of this year’s episodes:

Episode 17: Remaking the News – how consolidation in the news industry and the rise of the internet has changed professional journalism, with Dan Kennedy

Episode 18: Making Artificial Intelligence Fairer – exploring the biases endemic to AI, which come from its creators, with Tina Eliassi-Rad

Episode 19: The Shifting Landscape of Music – how the music industry moved from vinyl records to cassettes, CDs, downloads, and now streaming, and what this evolution has meant for musicians, with David Herlihy

Episode 20: A New Way to Scan the Human Body – pioneering the use of nanosensors within the body and its potential applications, with Heather Clark

Episode 21: Election Day Special: Michael Dukakis – on 2018’s Election Day, the three-term governor and presidential candidate spoke candidly about the state of politics

Episode 22: Bridging the Academic-Public Divide Through Podcasts – a recording of yours truly giving a keynote at the Sound Education conference at Harvard, which brought together hundreds of educational and academic podcasters and podcast listeners

Episode 23: The Regeneration of Body Parts – new research and techniques for stimulating the growth of limbs, eyes, and organs, with Anastasiya Yandulskaya, Brian Ruliffson, and Alex Lovely

Episode 24: The Urban Commons – how 311 systems, which allow citizens to provide feedback to municipalities, have changed our knowledge of cities and they ways residents and governments interact, with Dan O’Brien

Episode 25: Touch This Page – the history and future of tactile writing systems, and what they tell us about the act of reading, with Sari Altschuler

Episode 26: Seeking Justice for Hidden Deaths – between 1930 and 1970 there were thousands of racially motivated homicides in the U.S., and one project is attempting to document them all, with Margaret Burnham

Episode 27: Tracing the Spread of Fake News – looking carefully at the impact of untrustworthy online sources in the election of 2016, with David Lazer

Episode 28: How College Students Get the News – the surprising results of a large study of the news consumption habits of college students, with Alison Head and John Wihbey

Episode 29: The Web at 30 – celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the World Wide Web with a discussion of how it has reshaped our world for better and worse, with Kyle Courtney

Episode 30: Controlling Killer Robots – how major advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have led to the dawn of deadly, independent machines, and how an international coalition is trying to prevent them from taking over warfare, with Denise Garcia

Episode 31: European Disunion – how Europe has regularly escaped the fate of dissolution, and what Brexit means in this longer history, with Mai’a Cross

Thanks for tuning in!

When a Presidential Library Is Digital

I’ve got a new piece over at The Atlantic on Barack Obama’s prospective presidential library, which will be digital rather than physical. This has caused some consternation. We need to realize, however, that the Obama library is already largely digital:

The vast majority of the record his presidency left behind consists not of evocative handwritten notes, printed cable transmissions, and black-and-white photographs, but email, Word docs, and JPEGs. The question now is how to leverage its digital nature to make it maximally useful and used.

This almost-entirely digital collection, and its unwieldy scale and multiple formats, should sound familiar to all of us. Over the past two decades, we have each become unwitting archivists for our own supersized collections, as we have adopted forms of communication that are prolific and easy to create, and that accumulate over time into numbers that dwarf our printed record and can easily mount into a pile of digital files that borders on shameful hoarding. I have over 300,000 email messages going back to my first email address in the 1990s (including an eye-watering 75,000 that I have sent), and 30,000 digital photos. This is what happens when work life meets Microsoft Office and our smartphone cameras meet kids and pets.

Will we have lost something in this transition? Of course. Keeping a dedicated archival staff in close proximity to a bounded paper-based collection yields real benefits. Having a researcher who is on site discover a key note on the back of a typescript page is also special.

However, although the analog world can foster great serendipity, it does not have a monopoly on such fortunate discoveries. Digital collections have a serendipity all their own.

Please do read the whole article for my thoughts about how we should approach the design of this digital library, and the possibilities it will enable, including broad access and new forms of research.

Robin Sloan’s Fusion of Technology and Humanity

When Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History 15 years ago, we spent a lot of time thinking about the overall tone and approach of the book. It seemed to us that there were, on the one hand, a lot of our colleagues in professional history who were adamantly opposed to the use of digital media and technology, and, on the other hand, a rapidly growing number of people outside the academy who were extremely enthusiastic about the application of computers and computer networks to every aspect of society.

For the lack of better words—we struggled to avoid loaded ones like “Luddites”—we called these two diametrically opposed groups the “technoskeptics” and the “cyberenthusiasts” in our introduction, “The Promises and Perils of Digital History“:

Step back in time and open the pages of the inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, and prophecies of an optimistic digital future call out to you. Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman confidently proclaims an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that will displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.” John Browning, a friend of the magazine’s founders and later the Executive Editor of Wired UK, rhapsodizes about how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Not to be outdone by his authors, Wired publisher Louis Rossetto links the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”

Although the Wired prophets could not contain their enthusiasm, the technoskeptics fretted about a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—“the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”

Reading passionate polemics such as these, Roy and I decided that it would be the animating theme of Digital History to find a sensible middle position between these two poles. Part of this approach was pragmatic—we wanted to understand how history could, and likely would, be created and disseminated given all of this new digital technology—but part of it was also temperamental and even a little personal for the two of us: we both loved history, including its very analog and tactile aspects of working with archives and printed works, but we were also both avid computer hobbyists and felt that the digital world could do some uncanny, unparalleled things. So we sought a profoundly humanistic, but also technologically sophisticated, position on which to base the pursuit of knowledge.

* * *

Robin Sloan is a novelist who has published two books, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, that are very much about this intersection between the humanistic and the technological. Beyond his very successful work as an author, he has had a career at new media companies that are often associated with cyberenthusiasm, including Twitter and Current TV, and he has also spent considerable time engaging in crafts often associated with technoskepticism, including the production of artisanal olive oil, old-school printing, and 80s-era music-making. In this larger context of his vocations and avocations, his novels seem like an attempt to find that very same, if elusive, via media between the incredible power and potential of modern technology and the humanizing warmth of our prior, analog world.

Unlike some other contemporary novelists and nonfiction writers who work in the often tense borderlands between the present and future, Sloan neither can bring himself to buy fully into the utopian dreams of Silicon Valley—although he’s clearly tickled and even wowed by the way it constantly produces unusual, boundless new tech—nor can he simply conclude that we should throw away our smartphones and move off the grid. Although he clearly loves the peculiar, inventive shapes and functions of older technology, he doesn’t badger us with a cynical jeremiad to return to some imagined purity inherent in, say, vinyl records, nor will he overdo it with an uncritical ode to our augmented-reality, gene-edited future.

Instead, his helpful approach is to put the old and new into lively conversation with each other. In his first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan set the magic of an old bookstore in conversation with the full power of Google’s server farm. In his latest novel, Sourdough, he set the organic craft of the farmer’s market and the culinary artisanry of Chez Panisse in conversation with biohacked CRISPRed food and the automation of assembly robots. 

But this was in the published version of the novel. In a revealing abandoned first draft of Sourdough that Sloan made available (as a Risograph printing, of course) to those who subscribe to his newsletter, he started the novel rather differently. In the introduction to this discarded draft, titled Treasured Subscribers, Sloan briefly notes that “these were not the right characters doing the right things.” I think he’s absolutely right about that, but it’s worth unpacking exactly why, because in doing so we can understand a bit better how Sloan pursues that elusive via media, and how in turn we might discover and promote humane technology in a rapidly changing world.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Sourdough yet, I’ve kept the plot twists mostly hidden, but as you’ll see, the following contains one critical character revelation. Please stop what you’re doing, read the book, and return here.]

Treasured Subscribers begins with a similar overarching narrative concept as Sourdough: a capable, intelligent young woman moves to the Bay Area and becomes part of a mysterious underground organization that focuses on artisanal food, and that is orchestrated by a charismatic leader. Mina Fisher, a writer, lands a new marketing job at Intrepid Cellars, led by one Wolfram Wild, who refuses to carry a smartphone or use a laptop. Wild barks text and directions for his newsletter on craft food and wine offerings over what we can only assume is an aging Motorola flip phone as he travels to far-flung fields and vineyards. In short, Wild appears to be a kind of gastronomic J. Peterman, globetrotting for foodie finds. The only hint of future tech in Treasured Subscribers is a quick mention of “Chernobyl honey,” although it’s framed as just another oddball discovery rather than—as Sourdough makes much more plain—an intriguing exercise in modding traditional food through science-fiction-y means. Wild seems too busy tracking down a cider mentioned by Flaubert to think about, or articulate, the significance of irradiated apiaries.

By itself, this seems like not such a bad setup for a novel, but the problem here is that if one wishes to explore, maximally, the intersection and possibilities of human craft and high tech, one can’t have a flattened figure like Wolfram Wild, who sticks with Windows 95 on an aging PC tower. (Given the implicit nod to Stephen Wolfram in Wild’s name, I wonder if Sloan planned to eventually reveal other computational layers to the character, but it’s not there in the first chapter.) In order for Sloan’s fiction to consider the tension between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm, and to find some potential resolution that is both excitingly technological and reassuringly human, he can’t have straw men at either pole. Had Sloan continued with Treasured Subscribers, it would have been all too easy for the reader to dismiss Wild, cheer for Mina, and resolve any artisanal/digital divide in favor of an app for aged Bordeaux. To generate some real debate in the reader’s mind, you need more multidimensional, sophisticated characters who can speak cogently and passionately about the advantages of technology, while also being cognizant of the impact of that technology on society. A clamshell cellphone-brandishing foodie J. Peterman won’t do.

Sloan solved this problem in multiple ways in the production version of Sourdough. In the published novel, the protagonist is the young Lois Clary, a software developer who gets a job automating robot arms at General Dexterity, and learns baking at night from two lively undocumented immigrants and their equally animated starter dough. General Dexterity is led by a charismatic tech leader, Andrei, who can articulate the remarkable features of robotic hands and their potential role in work. Also hanging out at the unabashed cyberenthusiast pole, ready for conversation and debate, is the founder and CEO of Slurry Systems, the maker of artificial, nutritious, and disgusting foods of the future, Dr. Klamath. And Clary ends up working at—yes, here it returns from Treasured Subscribers, but in a different form—an underground craft food market, which is chockablock with artisanal cheeses and beverages made by off-duty scientists and a librarian who maintains a San Francisco version of the New York Public Library’s menu collection. Tech and craft are in rich, helpful collision.

The most important character, however, for our purposes here, is the delightfully named Charlotte Clingstone, who is the head of the legendary CafĂ© Candide, and the stand-in for Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, pioneered the locavore craft food movement, and normally a fictional Waters would be a novel’s unrelenting resident technoskeptic. But in a key twist, it turns out at the end of Sourdough that Clingstone also underwrites futuristic high-tech foodie endeavors—including that “Chernobyl honey” that is a carryover from Treasured Subscribers. Clingstone both defends the craft of the farm-to-table kitchen while seeing it as important to explore the next phase of food through robotics, radiation, and RNA.

As Sourdough develops with these characters, it can thus ask in a deeper way than Treasured Subscribers whether and how we can fuse tech know-how with humanistic values; whether it’s possible to exist in a world in which a robotic hand kneads dough but the process also involves an organic, magical yeast and well-paid workers; whether that starter dough should be gene sequenced to produce artificial, nutritious, and delicious food at scale; and how craft-worthy human labor and creativity can exist in the algorithmic, technological society that is quickly approaching. The only way to find out is to experiment with the technical and digital while keeping one’s heart in the mode of more traditional human pursuits. Sloan’s protagonist, Lois, thus follows an emotional arc between developing code and developing bread.

* * *

I suppose we shouldn’t make that much of an abandoned first draft of a novel (he says 1,000 words into an exploratory blog post), but reading Treasured Subscribers has made me think again about the right middle way between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm that we tried to find in Digital History. Certainly the skepticism side has been on the sharp ascent as Silicon Valley has continually been tone-deaf and inhumane in important areas like privacy. Certainly we need a good healthy dose of that criticism, which is valid. But at the end of the day, when it’s time to put down the newspaper and pick up the novel, Robin Sloan holds out hope for some forms of sophisticated technology that are attuned to and serve humanistic ends. We need a bit of that hope, too.

Robin Sloan is willing to give both the artisanal and the technical their own proper limelight and honest appraisal. Indeed, much of what makes his writing both fun and thoughtful is that rather than toning down cyberenthusiasm and technoskepticism to find a sensible middle, he instead uses fiction to turn them up to 11 and toward each other, to see what new harmonious sounds, if any, emerge from the cacophony. Sloan looks for the white light from the overlapping bright colors of the analog and digital worlds. Like the synthesizers he also loves—robotic computer loops intertwined with the soul of music—he seeks the fusion of the radically technological and the profoundly human.

Presidential Libraries and the Digitization of Our Lives

Buried in the recent debates (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Public Historian) about the nature, objectives, and location of the Obama Presidential Center is the inexorable move toward a world in which virtually all of the documentation about our lives is digital.

To make this decades-long shift—now almost complete—clear, I made the following infographic comparing three representative presidential libraries, each a generation apart: LBJ’s, Bill Clinton’s, and Barack Obama’s. Each square represents the relative overall size of these presidential archives—roughly 46 million pages for LBJ, 100 million for Clinton, and 360 million for Obama—as well as the basic categories of archival material: paper documents, photographs and audiovisual media, and, starting with Clinton, email.

A small square that is mostly orange, representing the dominance of paper documents in LBJ's administration.
LBJ Presidential Library
A medium size square that is three-quarters orange, representing paper documents in the Clinton White House, and roughly one-quarter blue for email.
Clinton Presidential Library
A giant square that is almost entirely blue, representing the prevalence of email in the Obama administration.
Obama Presidential Library

The LBJ Presidential Library has 45 million pages of paper documents and a million photographs, recordings, and other media. The Clinton Presidential Library contains 78 million pages of documents, 20 million emails, 2 million photographs, and 12,500 videotapes. (Note that contrary to all of the recent coverage of Obama as “the first digital president,” given his administration’s rapid adoption of email in the 1990s, Clinton really should hold that title, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

We are still in the process of assessing all that will go into the Obama Presidential Library (other libraries have added considerable new caches of documents over time), but the rough initial count from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is that there are about 300 million emails from Obama’s eight years in the White House, and about 30 million pages of paper documents. The chart above would be even more email-centric for Obama’s library if I used NARA’s calculation of a few paper pages per email, which would equal over a billion pages in printed form. In other words, using a more rigorous comparison at best only 3% of the Obama record is print vs. digital.

More vaguely estimated above are the millions of “pages” associated with the many other digital forms the Obama administration used, including websites, apps, and social media (you can already download the entirety of the latter as .zip files here). Most of the photos (many of which were uploaded to Flickr) and videos were of course also born digital. (Update, 3/11/19: The Obama Foundation came out with a new fact sheet that says that “an estimated 95 percent of the Obama Presidential Records were created digitally and have no paper equivalents. It also says that there are roughly 1.5 billion pages in the collection, including everything I’ve detailed here.)

It’s unfortunate that it’s still relatively expensive and time-consuming to digitize analog materials. Nearly two decades on, the Clinton Presidential Library has only digitized about 1% of their paper holdings (about 700,000 pages). The Reagan Presidential Library charges $.80 to digitize one page of his archives. The Obama Presidential Center’s commitment to funding the complete digitization of those 30 million paper pages, in what seems like a more rapid fashion and with open access to the public, seems rather laudable in this context.

Ultimately, I suppose it’s best to say that Obama was “the first almost fully digital president,” and with the digitization of the remaining paper record, will become “the first fully machine-readable and -indexed president.” (Part of the debate in academic and library circles about this shift in the Obama Presidential Center/Library has to do with the role of archivists and historians to create good metadata for, and more thorough searches through, administration documents, but with a billion+ pages, I don’t see how this can be done without serious computational means.)

Meanwhile, all of us have more quietly followed the same path, with only a very small percentage of our overall record now existing in physical formats rather than bits. How we will preserve this heterogeneous and perhaps ephemeral digital record when we don’t have our own presidential libraries and the resources of NARA is a different and more worrisome story.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking

Generosity and thoughtfulness are not in abundance right now, and so Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s important new book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, is wholeheartedly welcome. The generosity Kathleen seeks relates to lost virtues, such as listening to others and deconstructing barriers between groups. As such, Generous Thinking can be helpfully read alongside of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think, as both promote humility and perspective-taking as part of a much-needed, but depressingly difficult, re-socialization. Today’s polarization and social media only make this harder.

Fitzpatrick’s analysis of the university’s self-inflicted wounds is painful to acknowledge for those of us in the academy, but undoubtedly true. Scholars are almost engineered to cast a critical eye on all that passes before them, and few articulate their work well to broader audiences. Administrators are paying less attention than in the past to the communities that surround their campuses. Perhaps worst of all, the incentive structures of universities, such as the tenure process and college rankings, strongly reinforce these issues.

I read Generous Thinking in a draft form last year and thought an appropriate alternate title might be The Permeable University. Many of Fitzpatrick’s prescriptions involve dissolving the membrane of the academy so that it can integrate in a mutually beneficial way with the outside world, on an individual and institutional level. You will be unsurprised to hear that I agree completely with many of her suggestions, such as open access to scholarly resources and the importance of scholars engaging with the public. Like Fitzpatrick, I have had a career path that has alternated between the nonprofit and academic worlds in the pursuit of platforms and initiatives that try to maximize those values.

With universities currently receiving withering criticism from both the right and left, it is critical for all of us in the academy to take Generous Thinking seriously, and to think about other concrete steps we can take to open our doors and serve the wider public. The deep incentive structures will be very hard to change, but we can all take more modest steps such as thinking about how new media like podcasts can play a role in a more publicly approachable and helpful university, or how we might be able to provide services (e.g., archival services) to local communities. Fitzpatrick’s Humanities Commons, a site for scholars to connect not just with each other but with the public, is another venue for making the generosity she seeks a reality.

Much more needs to be done on this front, and so I encourage you to read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book.


February 12, 1809, and Wikipedia’s Evolution

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809, and this odd fact used to be featured at the top of their Wikipedia entries. As Roy Rosenzweig noted 15 years ago in his groundbreaking essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” this “affection for surprising, amusing, or curious details” was a key marker separating popular and academic history. At the time, Wikipedia was firmly on the popular side of that line.

Whereas history professors highlighted larger historical themes and the broad context of an individual’s life—placing the arc of one person’s existence within the complex patterns of historiography—the editors of Wikipedia often obsessed about single points and unusual coincidences, such as Al Jolson and Mary Pickford being in the same Ohio town during the 1920 presidential campaign, or Woodrow Wilson having written his initials on the underside of a table in the Johns Hopkins University history department.

Since Roy wrote that essay, I’ve kept an informal log of the lifespan of historical oddities on Wikipedia, which acts as an anecdotal measure of the online encyclopedia’s evolution, or perhaps convergence, with more “serious” history. When Roy gave Wikipedia that serious look in the pages of the Journal of American History—at a time when there was still furious opposition to its use in academic settings, with dire warnings from faculty to undergraduates who relied on it—the Lincoln/Darwin factoid had been on Darwin’s page for over a year, since July 18, 2004. It was placed there by an enthusiastic early Wikipedian with the handle Brutannica. (As Brutannica’s user page on Wikipedia helpfully notes, their handle was “an apparent misunderstanding of a character in the much-missed 18th episode of Pokemon, not from the world’s most renowned encyclopaedia.”)

The line about Charles Darwin having the exact same birthday as Abraham Lincoln lasted almost six years, until June 15, 2010, when Wikipedian Intelligentsium ruthlessly removed it over the objections of Playdagame6991. (Intelligentsium to Playdagame6991: “I don’t see how the bit about Lincoln is relevant.”)

Wikipedia’s early, long-lasting, and more shameful historical problems were of course massive omissions rather than trivial additions like the shared Lincoln/Darwin birthday. The lack of entries for many important women, the overemphasis on Pokemon and Star Wars over entire genres of culture, have been far more problematic than the appearance of Woodrow Wilson’s graffiti, and critical efforts have arisen to correct these imbalances.

But the slow-burn effort to correct the nature of historical writing on Wikipedia has been more subtle but still discernible over the last decade, evident in countless small contests like the one between Intelligentsium and Playdagame6991. It would be interesting to do a more systematic analysis of such battles to see how historical writing on Wikipedia has evolved into a form that seems today more recognizable and acceptable to those in the academy.

The Past, Evenly Distributed: Europeana at 10

I was honored to be asked by Europeana, the indispensable, unified digital collection of Europe’s cultural heritage institutions, to write a piece celebrating the 10th anniversary of their launch. My opening words:

‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,’ science fiction writer William Gibson famously declared. But this is even more true about the past.

The world we live in, the very shape of our present, is the profound result of our history and culture in all of its variety, the good as well as the bad. Yet very few of us have had access to the full array of human expression across time and space.

Cultural artifacts that are the incarnations of this past, the repository of our feelings and ideas, have thankfully been preserved in individual museums, libraries, and archives. But they are indeed unevenly distributed, out of the reach of most of humanity.

Europeana changed all of this. It brought thousands of collections together and provided them freely to all. This potent original idea, made real, became an inspiration to all of us, and helped to launch similar initiatives around the world, such as the Digital Public Library of America.

You can read my entire piece at the special 10th anniversary website, along with pieces from the heads of the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, and others. Allez culture and congrats to my friends at Europeana on this great milestone!

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