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  • John Unsworth's Remarks about Cyberinfrastructure and Bamboo

This wiki space contains archival documentation of Project Bamboo, April 2008 - March 2013.

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John Unsworth, Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, presented these remarks at Bamboo workshop 1d at Princeton University on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cyberinfrastructure and Bamboo

David Greenbaum asked me to say a few words this morning, connecting the Bamboo discussion with the ACLS cyberinfrastructure report, which has been referred to a few times in that discussion, and which you can find at www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure.

So, to begin with, I would like to propose a patron saint for cyberinfrastructure, something that, remarkably, we forgot to do in the ACLS report.   My nominee is Benjamin Franklin.  Why Ben, you might ask?  It is partly that Franklin was a tinkerer with new technologies, a printer and a publisher, someone who established the first circulating library in the US, a politician with more than a dash of provocateur, and a pragmatist who figured out some important aspects of how to make revolution sustainable.  Franklin was also famous for his maxims, and one of the best known of those he delivered at the Continental Congress just before signing the Declaration of Independence.  On that occasion, he said "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall hang separately."

That's my short-hand defintion of cyberinfrastructure, actually -- the environment in which we all hang together, as opposed to the one in which we all hang separately.

Comparing Bamboo to the ACLS report, I would say it is a wonderful thing that these workshops have expanded the number of people and institutions who are invested in the discussion of cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences beyond -- way beyond -- what we enfranchised through a comparatively anemic series of town-hall meetings.  But a lot of the buzz just under the surface, in discussions about Bamboo, is about "them"  (Berkeley, Chicago) and "their" proposal, and about how in the world "they" are going to solve the big problems the rest of us are worried about, beginning with the problem of excluding...us.  That dynamic has to change, if *we* are going to hang together: rather than standing apart and criticizing, *we* need to engage the problems we have identified.  That is cyberinfrastructure in practice, at a social and institutional level.

So here are some of the things I heard here yesterday that resonate with the ACLS report:

On the one hand, we need to figure out how to change the attitude of our colleagues toward technology -- but we can't do that just by telling them that they should spend more time doing things that seem ancillary to their research objectives.  On the other hand, we also need to figure out how to ensure that our colleagues engage with the technological questions that really require their attention (decisions that will shape research outcomes, for example, or opportunities to teach differently or to reach different public audiences, as well as the critique of the technologies themselves).

On the one hand, we have to be careful, as Arno said yesterday, not to be seduced by the example of Google maps: tools that address very simple and general needs can have a great breadth of application, especially if they are mounted on top of enormous piles of data, but they aren't likely to help us answer the in-depth questions we ultimately want to ask in humanities research.  On the other hand, as Mike Furlough pointed out, we need to resist the impulse to say nothing academic can be commercial, and nothing commercial can be academic.

Someone else said yesterday that technology, for humanists, means the technology they don't use: the rest of it is naturalized and invisible (which is how cyberinfrastructure ought to be).  The border between visible technologies -- the ones that invite 'tactical incompetence' -- and invisible cyberinfrastructure is always shifting, though, and as Greg Crane and others pointed out yesterday, we need to be careful that we're not fighting the last war, or running headlong into 1998.

Someone said yesterday (and I said, before I came here) that we also should avoid reinventing the wheel...and certainly, in general, part of Bamboo, and part of successful cyberinfrastructure is encouraging people to discover what's already been invented -- but another part is making those inventions available to be further developed and perfected.  So, let's not re-invent the wheel, but let's not assume that wheel has been perfected, either.

There were lots of other remarks that pick up on issues identified in the ACLS report -- how to reward humanities faculty for creative engagement with technology; how to transform graduate education; how we provide a counterweight to the natural tendency of provosts to spend local funds on local problems, and encourage them instead to address collective problems; how it is not enough to do the same things better and faster, because new tools and methods should help us tackle new problems; how cyberinfrastructure can encourage collaboration in disciplines that have not been accustomed to it.  All of these things are discussed in the ACLS report -- but the point here is not that the ACLS report validates what's going on in Bamboo; quite the reverse.  I think these Bamboo meetings are instead an important validation of the ACLS report.  The fact that you have all come here, and that this is the fourth in a series of workshops packed with people, and with more just outside the door, shows that we are in fact at a very different point now than we were five years ago, when the process of developing that ACLS report began.  In five years, we have in fact reached emergence, and as our Australian colleagues pointed out yesterday, we are now at a moment when real change seems possible.

My last remark is a caveat: as part of "hanging together," let's be cautious about uncritically accepting examples of success, and let's be serious about the value of understanding failures.  The sciences are often cited as having figured out how to do cyberinfrastructure -- but if you talk to the people in schools like mine who try to help them collaborate, you realize that science is far from having figured out how to build big infrastructure that people will actually use.  And in our own communities, we still tend, quite naturally, to speak of our own endeavors, especially in the presence of funders, as though they were successful, or more accurately, as though they were just about to be successful, but we rarely share with one another the details of their ultimate failure.  We can learn a lot from square wheels, but we have to know about them and we have to be willing to discuss them candidly, in order to perfect them.
 

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