Text Comparison and Digital Creativity – Day II

Long overdue, here are my notes on the second day of the colloquium Text Comparison and Digital Creativity.




The day started with key note speaker Bella Hass Weinberg who stressed the point that even in the digital era the creativity of text comparison still lies with the researcher. She states: much of the research done concerning text comparison in the pre-computer era cannot be done by a computer. Translation involves hermeneutics, which means that text comparison is about interpretation, not just about linguistics. One of the main questions thus remains: when we analyze texts, what comes first: semantics or linguistics? Weinberg says semantics. When it comes to computers and text comparison, there are still big problems with machine translations and machine comparison of texts because this assumes the perfection of OCR. OCR can work for clearly demarcated letters, it does not work well for scripts that have different shapes according to the position they take in the word. Weinberg goes on to argue that many centuries earlier there was already very sophisticated text comparison without the aid of computers. She thus asks, ‘what can we do with the computer now that we could not do before?’ Computers have facilitated analysis, but in counting and comparing as a basic feature, not for the rest.

Unfortunately, Weinberg only discussed the current state of affairs in ICT and text comparison without contemplating the possible future developments. The next session, however, tried to show what kind of new developments have been made within the digital realm to assist textual comparison. Vika Zafrin, a digital humanities expert, talked about her research on distributed networks with/in text encoding and annotation. In her definition annotation stretches into hypertext resources such as social tagging (for instance, blog comments and comments solicited via specialized software. She gave the example of the Virtual Humanities Lab (VHL) from Brown University, which created an annotation tool/engine which functioned as a web based space for collaborative work. Zafrin argued that semantic encoding (for instance, what kinds of elements and attributes to use in a DTD) can also be seen as a form of annotation. She mentioned a tool with the help of which comments can be inserted directly into document schemata. She also mentioned some other digital tools: with Diigo you can highlight and annotate web pages. Zotero is a scholarly annotation tool: you can put notes and tags to your objects in your Zotero library. There are also new developments in media annotating, such as Vertov which allows for the annotating of multimedia files. As Zafrin showed, it seems that scholars are increasingly digging distributed networking. Although there are still issues concerning the credibility of scholarship on the Internet and the amount of quality control, Zafrin argued that internet scholarship has many pros too: it will enable scholars to find each other more easily, so it makes the conversation broader. Increased disciplinarity is also encouraged by distributed networking. Next to that Zafrin noted correctly that distributed networked tools are the only ones available for born-digital content.




Adriaan van der Weel talked about how new media are giving us new perspectives on knowledge production. In the digital era the tissue of our society still stays book based. Van der Weel explained this situation by pointing at the history of the textual medium. For the discovery of what the invention of Gutenberg actually meant, took quite a while. So it will equally take some time to find out what digital textuality actually means. What we did at first was appropriate the computer to the ‘book order’. In this sense digital textuality is still a hybrid since we adapted it to the book. Van der Weel spoke of a gestation period, in which the new medium needs to be both discovered and invented. What are the essential differences between what the computer can do and what we could do before? Important in this respect is that the book as a medium never functionally changed. But the nature of text did change with the change of medium. This is what Van der Weel called medial transformativity: there exist discontinuities between the textual mediums, for each medium has its own bias based in its technical properties. Van der Weel went on to elaborate on some possibilities the computer offers in the process of knowledge dissemination. He concluded by saying that to establish the true nature of digital textuality, we need to recognize that next to the process of discovery (the invention of the digital medium) we still need some time for the process of invention: we humanities scholars need to say what we want from the digital medium. We need to be widely creative and experimental to determine what we want: we need to be inventors.




In the next session Peter Øhrstrøm gave a nice overview of his endeavor to turn a seventeenth century book into a hypertext. The book Ogdoas Scholastica by Jacob Lorhard in which the term ontology was coined for the first time, lends itself perfectly for this because of its extensive use of dichotomies. Øhrstrøm argued that the representation of Lorhard’s ontology using modern hypertext provides a better and deeper understanding and overview of the history of ontology, Lorhard’s ideas of knowledge and knowledge organization and Lorhard’s use of ideas from other writers. Ben Salemans delved deeper into the question whether ICT can be seen as a methodological innovation: does it speed up new techniques or does it create a new domain of techniques? Although he remarked these are of course more questions for philosophy of science, he does argue that forms of ‘deductive’ science can also be helped by the computer. Finally John Lavagnino talked about the possibility of systematic emendation and the help of ICT.



       Wido van Peursen and Ernst Thoutenhoofd closed the day with their lecture about current and future text comparison and digital creativity, which also served as a wrap up and summary of the colloquium. As they argued, digital creativity is in principle a paradox. The digital stands for calculation and sorting where creativity stands for unpredictability and subjectivity. But digital creativity can also be seen as the ingenuity of human beings to create algorithms for the processing of language. A second paradox can be seen between presence (materiality, ‘what meaning cannot convey’, textual carriers, physics) and meaning (interpretation, attribution of meaning, texts and meta-physics). Van Peursen argued that there has been an increased interest in the material carriers of text, connected to the technological innovations. There are however challenges to the use of the computer in interpretation. The question is: what does the computer contribute to our interpretation of the text? A third paradox exists between scholarly (interpretation, analysis and subjective) and scientific (sort, quantify etc.) research. Does the computer thus give text comparison a more ‘scientific’ character? To some extent it does, but Van Peursen also argued that scholarly judgment and experience are still needed. Finally, he asked whether we only imitate the classical instruments or whether we also develop new research strategies. In this respect it seems that there is a process going on of both continuation and innovation, where the developments in knowledge creation and representation seem both to revolve around the reconsideration of notions like data, information and knowledge. We seem to be heading towards new forms of collaborative knowledge creation and in this way we are now in a transitional phase between the order of the book and the digital order.


Ernst Thoutenhoofd ends the lecture with a short exploration of the notion of presence in virtual environments like Second Life, in which the experience of reality can be seen as a strictly cognitive event. Where in a sense all reality is virtual, the computer can serve the same function as reality, which is the mediation of presence. All our types of knowledge are also mediated and our experiences are also constantly being mediated. In this way the humanities can be seen as a mediation field. And this is something the humanities need to remember; we are not only studying our world but we are studying ourselves or the interactions between ourselves and our world in which we create each other in the same time.


One comment on “Text Comparison and Digital Creativity – Day II

  1. Pingback: Video Surfing « OPEN REFLECTIONS

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2008 by in Lectures and Conferences and tagged , , , , .

Open Reflections is created by Janneke Adema



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