Archive for the ‘ HUCO 510 (2011) ’ Category

Crowdsourced Intelligence and You

This post should have gone up ages ago, as part of a course assignment for HUCO 510.  Sometimes you just get side-tracked.  Anyway, this week something happened that gave me the perfect topic to complete my assignment.  Enjoy.

~~

On May 2, 2011 Osama Bin Ladin, one of the most feared terrorist leaders in the world, was killed.  Nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, attacks orchestrated by Bin Laden, US Navy Seals successfully carried out the assassination.  A nation rejoiced.

And, as that nation rejoiced, within minutes of the news being made public on the Internet and on television, all social media websites were abuzz.  One can imagine the sheer volume of the expressions of support, opposition, incredulity, happiness, sadness, congratulations and disgust that flooded the web.  Or, one can simply search “osama” on the Twitter index.  The President would later televise an address to the nation confirming the death of the man who had been cast in the role of nemesis to an entire people and way of life.

It is during these kinds of world-changing events that the most interesting insights about our society are discovered.  Megan McArdle, editor for The Atlantic, made one such discovery, as she browsed her Twitter feed on the fateful day.  One tweet in particular caught her eye.  Being one of Penn Jillette’s 1.6 million followers, she read the following quote, apparently in response to the death of Bin Laden:

“ I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

Amid the—no doubt—millions of reactions, some of them shocking, this short sentence at least had the ring of reason.  And it was attributed to perhaps the most famous civil rights activist in North America.  A combination of Jillette’s celebrity as a performer and this level-headed response to the event in contrast to many much less level-headed responses made it viral; within hours of it going up on Twitter, many of Jillette’s followers had retweeted the quote, and it had become a trending topic on the social network, in the midst of the Bin Laden furor.  McArdle, unlike many others, did not retweet the quote, though she did initially feel the urge to pass it on.  She hesitated, however, because it didn’t “sound” like Martin Luther King, Jr.  And for that hesitation, I am sure she was later grateful, when it was soon discovered that the quote was misattributed.

Besides the end to privacy (which I’ve repeatedly discussed on this blog), another quality of modern communication technologies that we must all adapt to is the speed at which information travels.  Networks like Twitter and Facebook increase the rate of transmission exponentially.  The cult of celebrity has also found fertile earth in these virtual spaces.  If I had been the person to publish the quote on Twitter, with my 80 or so followers, rather than Jillette, the quote would not have been so popular, and the backlash would not have been so severe.  The fact that the initial tweet reached 1.6 million people dramatically increased how quickly the quote spread from that point.  So where did Jillette get the quote?

Despite some media outlets implying that he did this deliberately to mess with his followers, it seems clear now that it was accidental.  Jillette copied the quote from a Facebook user’s status update that read:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” MLK jr

In viewing this, it is clear that Jessica Dovey, the Facebook user, was adding her own interpretation to an authentic quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jillette tried to copy it to Twitter, but given the 140 character limit for tweets, was forced to edit it down.  Apparently he did not realize the first sentence was not part of the quotation.  Jillette later apologized repeatedly for the tweet, stating that it was a mistake.

“Why all the fuss over this?” one might ask.  It seems that most people are upset not so much by the misattribution as they are at the criticism of the popular reaction and the media circus that has surrounded the assassination.  Dovey and Jillette, and McArdle as well, who went on to write a blog post and editorial in The Atlantic online about her discovery of the misattribution, have faced a great deal of criticism since the quote was first shared.

We live in a world of memes, in a place where information—regardless of its accuracy or authenticity—is shared at an exponential rate, and where fiction can be accepted as fact based on who says it and how many believe it.  The only thing surprising about this particular incident is that the mistake was discovered and the truth of it spread online as fast as the initial tweet did.  If it had taken a day or two longer for someone like McArdle, with a platform to spread the information, to discover the mistake, would anyone have noticed?  Probably not.  It is not like people haven’t been misquoted or misattributed in the past.  What’s noteworthy is the speed at which this particular misquote proliferated.

I find this interesting because, as I have stated, it gives evidence of how communication has changed in our society.  Many of us rely on sources like Twitter to engage with current events.  It serves us well to be reminded that, in spite of the many benefits of crowdsourced intelligence, the onus for fact-checking is on the reader.

Advertisements

Needling the Old Guard: XML in Prosopography

The last few weeks we have been discussing the ongoing debate in the digital humanities between textual markup and databases. Reading K.S.B. Keats-Rohan’s “Prosopography for Beginners” on her Prosopography Portal (http://prosopography.modhist.ox.ac.uk/index.htm), I found it interesting that the tutorial focuses initially and primarily on mark-up. Essentially, Keats-Rohan outlines three stages to prosopography:
1. “Data modelling”—For Keats-Rohan, this stage is accomplished by marking up texts with XML tags “to define the groups or groups to be studied, to determine the sources to be used from as wide a range as possible, and to formulate the questions to be asked.” It does far more than that, however, since the tags identify the particular features of sources that need to be recorded. Keats-Rohan covers this activity extensively with eleven separate exercises, each with its own page.
2. “Indexing”—This stage calls for the creation of indexes based on the tag set or DTD developed in stage one. These indexes collect specific types of information, such as “names”, “persons” and “sources”. These indexes are then massaged with the addition of biographical data into a “lexicon”, with the application of a “questionnaire” (i.e. a set of questions to query your data points.) Ideally, it is suggested, this is done through the creation of a relational database with appropriately linked tables. A single page is devoted to the explanation of this stage, with the following apology:

It is not possible in the scope of this tutorial to go into detail about issues relating to database design or software options. Familiarity with the principles of a record-and-row relational database has been assumed, though nothing more complex that an Excel spreadsheet is required for the exercises.

…11 lengthy exercises for XML, but you’re assumed to appreciate how relational databases work by filling out a few spreadsheets?
3. “Analysis”—This is, of course, the work of the researcher, once the data collection is complete. This section of the tutorial includes a slightly longer page than stage 2 with 4 sample exercises. The exercises are designed to teach users how prosopographical analysis can be conducted.
It strikes me as incongruous that, for a research method that relies so heavily on the proper application of a relational database model, so little time is devoted to discussing its role in processing data. Instead, Keats-Rohan devotes the majority of her tutorial in formulating an XML syntax that, when all is said and done, really only adds an unnecessary level of complexity to processing source data. You could quite easily completely do away with stage one, create your index categories in stage two as database tables, and process (or “model”) your data at that point, simply by entering it into your database. What purpose does markup serve as a means of organizing your content, if you’re just going to reorganize it into a more versatile database structure?
Keats-Rohan’s focus on markup starkly emphasizes how XML is far more greatly valued than databases by humanities scholars. Since both are useful for quite different purposes, and relational databases have so much to offer to humanities scholarship—as prosopographies prove—I am baffled that such a bias persists.

The Implications of Database Design

In studying the database schema for the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE), several features of the design are immediately apparent[1].  Data is organized around three principal tables, or data points: the Person (i.e. the historical figure mentioned in a source), the Source (i.e. a text or document from which information about historical figures is derived), and the Factoid (i.e. the dynamic set of records associated with a particular reference in a source about a person).  There are a number of secondary tables as well, such as the Translation, Colldb and EditionInfo tables that provide additional contextual data to the source, and the Event, Person Info, Status, Office, Occupation and Kinship tables, among others, that provide additional data to the Factoid table.  In looking at these organizational structures, it is clear that the database is designed to pull out information about historical figures based on Anglo-Saxon texts.   I admire the versatility of the design and the way it interrelates discrete bits of data (even more impressive when tested using the web interface at http://www.pase.ac.uk ), but I can’t help but recognize an inherent bias in this structure. In reading John Bradley and Harold Short’s article “Using Formal Structures to Create Complex Relationships: The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire—A Case Study”, I found myself wondering at the choices made in the design of both databases.  The PBE database structure appears to be very similar if not identical to that of the PASE.  Perhaps it’s my background as an English major—rather than a History major—but I found it especially unhelpful in one particular instance: how do I find and search the information associated with a unique author? With its focus on historical figures written about in sources, rather than the authors of those sources, the creators made a conscious choice to value historical figures over authors and sources.  To be fair, the structure does not necessarily preclude the possibility of searching author information, which appears in the Source table, and there is likely something to be said of the anonymous and possibly incomplete nature of certain Anglo-Saxon texts.  In examining the PASE interface, the creators appear to have resolved this issue somewhat by allowing users to browse by source, and listing the author’s name in place of the title of the source (which, no doubt, is done by default when the source document has no official title).  It is then possible to browse references within the source and to match the author’s name to a person’s name[2].  The decision to organize information in this way, however, de-emphasizes the role of the author and his historical significance, and reduces him to a faceless and neutral authority.  This is maybe to facilitate interpretation; Bradley & Short discuss the act of identifying factoid assertions about historical figures as an act of interpretation, in which the researcher must make a value judgment about what the source is saying about a particular person(8).  Questions about the author’s motives would only problematize this act.  The entire organization of the database, in fact, results in the almost complete erasure of authorial intent. What this analysis of PASE highlights for me is how important it is to be aware of the implications of our choices in designing databases and creating database interfaces.  The creators of PASE might not have intended to render the authors of their sources so impotent, but the decisions they made both in the construction of their database tables and of the user interface, and of the approach to entering factoid data had that ultimate result. Bradley, J. and Short, H. (n.d.).  Using Formal Structure to Create Complex Relationships: The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire.  Retrieved from http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~jbradley/docs/leeds-pbe.pdf PASE Database Schema. (n.d.). [PDF].  Retrieved from http://huco.artsrn.ualberta.ca/moodle/file.php/6/pase_MDB4-2.pdf Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. (2010, August 18). [Online database].  Retrieved from http://www.pase.ac.uk/jsp/index.jsp


[1] One caveat: As I am no expert, what is apparent to me may not be what actually is.  This analysis is necessarily based on what I can understand of how PASE and PBE are designed, both as databases and as web interfaces, and it’s certainly possible I’ve made incorrect assumptions based on what I can determine from the structure.  Not unlike the assumptions researchers must make when identifying factoid assertions (Bradley & Short, 8).
[2] For example, clicking “Aldhelm” the source will list all the persons found in Aldhelm, including Aldhelm 3, bishop of Malmsbury, the eponymous author of the source (or rather, collection of sources).  Clicking Aldhelm 3 will provide the Person record, or factoid—Aldhelm, as historical figure.  The factoid lists all of the documents attributed to him under “Authorship”.  Authorship, incidentally, is a secondary table linked to the Factoid table; based on the structure, it seems like this information is derived from the Colldb table, which links to the source table.  All this to show that it is possible but by no means evident to search for author information.

The Commonplace Book—extinct form of critical reading and sensemaking?

I found Robert Darnton’s chapter on the Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book an interesting insight into how people made—and make—sense of what they read.  It made me wonder about how this tradition of reading has changed over time.  Darnton suggests that today’s reader has learned to read sequentially, while the early modern reader read segmentally, “concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book” (169).  The implication is that, from this transformation of practice, we have lost a critical approach to reading.  The commonplace book, Darnton describes, was a place where early modern readers collected bits and pieces of texts alongside personal reflections about their significance (149).  This activity was a hybrid of reading and writing, making an author of the reader, and serving as a method for “Renaissance self-fashioning”—the grasping for a humanist understanding of the autonomous individual (170).  Arguably, in adopting a sequential mode of reading and forgetting the practice of the commonplace book, we have lost a useful tool for making sense of the world and of ourselves.

At the beginning of the chapter, Darnton makes a curious allusion to the present reality, the Digital Age.  He writes: “Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book.” [Emphasis is my own] (149). Clearly he is referring to hypertextual practice, the connective structure of texts on the Web that are joined through a network of inter-referential links, and provoke a non-sequential mode of reading.  The Web has initiated a number of changes in how we read, write, create and make sense of texts.  Hypertextuality is certainly one them, but I think Darnton only touches upon the tip of the iceberg with this passing reference.  While the commonplace book as genre might be extinct, new hybrid forms of critical reading/writing have taken its place.  Take, for instance, the blogging phenomenon.  Many people today write blogs on a vast variety of subjects.  Most represent critical responses to other media—articles, videos, images, stories, other blog posts.  They are the commonplace book of the digital native.  The difference is that the digital native’s commonplace book is accessible to all, and (more often than not) searchable.  Consider also the phenomenon of microblogging in the form of Twitter.  As an example, I am going to look at my own Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/eforcier – I have attached a page with specific examples).  In 140 character segments I carry on conversations, post links to online documents and express my reactions to such texts.  It is, in fact, perfectly possible to consider a 21st century individual’s Twitter feed analogous to the early modern reader’s commonplace book.  These activities represent a far more complex mode of reading than Darnton assigns the contemporary reader.  It is a type of reading that is at times segmental, at times sequential, but is remarkable because of the interconnectivity of sources and the critical engagement of the reader that it represents.  What is most interesting is that, rather than emphasizing the notion of the autonomous individual, these digital modes of reading/writing emphasize collectivity and community—what could be described as a “Posthuman self-fashioning”.

 

Darnton, R. (2009).  The Case for Books. New York: PublicAffairs.  219p.

***

I have not include the appendix of selected tweets that was submitted along with this assignment, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist by viewing my Twitter page: http://www.twitter.com/eforcier

Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the “Generative Dance” of his Research

Perhaps the most interesting thing about James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of Shakespeare is the kind of scholarship that it represents.  Drawing upon dozens—likely hundreds—of sources, Shapiro presents a credible depiction of Shakespeare’s life in 1599.  Rather than limiting himself to sources that are exclusively about Shakespeare or his plays, Shapiro gathers a mountain of data about Elizabethan England.  He consults collections of public records that shed light either on Shakespeare’s own life or the life of his contemporaries, not just to identify the historical inspiration and significance of his plays, but to give us an idea of what living in London as a playwright in 1599 would have been all about.  This, to me, is a fascinating use of documentary evidence that few have successfully undertaken.

Before I go on, I should note that I’m currently working on a directed study in which I am being thoroughly steeped in the objects and principles of knowledge management.  It is in light of this particular theoretical context that I read Shapiro and think, “he’s really on to something here.”   In their seminal article “Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance Between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing”, Cook & Brown present a framework in which “knowledge”—the body of skills, abilities, expertise, information, understanding, comprehension and wisdom that we possess—and “knowing”—the act of applying knowledge in practice—interact to generate new knowledge.  Drawing upon Michael Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge, Cook & Brown present a set of distinct forms of knowledge—tacit, explicit, individual and group.  They then advance the notion of “productive inquiry”, in which these different forms of knowledge can be employed as tools in an activity—such as riding a bicycle, or writing a book about an Elizabethan dramatist—to generate new knowledge, in forms that perhaps were not possessed before.  It is the interaction between knowledge and knowing that produces new knowledge, that represent a “generative dance”.

Let’s return for a moment to Polanyi’s tacit and explicit knowledge.  The sources Shapiro is working with are, by their nature, explicit, since he is working with documents.  The book itself is explicit, since it too is a document, and the knowledge it contains is fully and formally expressed.  The activity of taking documentary evidence from multiple sources, interpreting each piece of evidence in the context of the other sources, and finally synthesizing all of it into a book, represents more epistemic work than is represented than in either the book or the sources by themselves.  The activity itself is what Cook & Brown describe as “knowing”, or the “epistemology of practice”.  The notions of recognizing context and of interpretation, however, suggest that there’s even more going on here than meets the eye.  In this activity, Shapiro is merging these disparate bits of explicit knowledge to develop a hologram of Shakespeare’s 1599.  This hologram is tacit—it is an image he holds in his mind that grows more and more sophisticated the more historical relational evidence he finds.  Not all of the patterns and connections he uncovers are even expressible until he begins the synthesis, the act of writing his book.  Throughout this process, then, new knowledge is constantly being created—both tacit and explicit.

Let’s also consider for a moment Cook & Brown’s “individual” and “group” knowledge.  Shapiro’s mental hologram can be safely classified as individual knowledge.  And each piece of evidence from a single source is also individual knowledge (though, certainly, some of Shapiro’s sources might represent popular stories or widely known facts, and thus group knowledge).  The nature of Shapiro’s work, however, the collective merging of disparate sources, problematizes the individual/group distinction.  What arises from his scholarship is neither group knowledge (i.e. knowledge shared among a group of people) or individual knowledge (i.e. knowledge possessed by an individual), but some sort of hybrid that is not so easily understood.

From a digital humanist perspective, we can think of Shapiro’s scholarship (and have) as a relational database.  All of the data and the documentary evidence gets plugged into the database, and connections no one even realized existed are then discovered.  We might have many people adding data to the database, sharing bits of personal knowledge.  And everyone with access to the database can potentially discover new connections and patterns, and in doing so create new knowledge.  Would such a collective be considered group knowledge?  Would individual discoveries be individual knowledge?  Would the perception of connections be tacit or explicit?  It is not altogether clear because there are interactions occurring at a meta-level, interactions between data, interactions between sources, interactions between users/readers and the sources and the patterns of interacting sources.  What is clear is that this interactive “dance” is constantly generating additional context, new forms of knowledge, new ways of knowing.

 

Cook, S. D. N., and Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing, Organization Science 10(4), 381-400.

Shapiro, J. (2006).  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  New York: Harper Perrennial.  394p.