Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Project report available

The report of this project by the Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture group is now available as a pdf (web version coming soon). Lasting Change (available by clicking here) is a Knowledge Synthesis on the Digital Economy funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada from August to December 2010.

We would be happy to learn of people's reaction to the report via this blog.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this report either directly or indirectly.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Funders and Sustainability

Here's an interesting initiative on the part of the ACH to try to get DH funders to put guidelines in place for sustaining the results of the research they fund (reposting from Humanist List):

Bethany Nowviskie, on behalf of the ACH (Association for Computers in the Humanities) is seeking ideas for an open letter they are drafting to the funders of digital humanities projects, advocating for the establishment of data curation or management plans and open source / open access guidelines.

You can add your comments/thoughts to this Google doc or you can contribute to the discussion on DHAnswers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sustainability, History and Math

OK, so I'm finally posting.  Granted, at this point, I don't know if anyone is reading this anymore.
 For the past few weeks, I have been working on a project in Ontario, Canada that is looking into the future sustainability of digital projects in Canada as a part of the federal governments policy on Canadas Digital Advantage. 
Because the project is based in Canada and addressing specifically Canadian concerns, we are coming to conclusions regarding sustainability that are radically different than, say, our American or British colleagues might.  For example, one of the holes in our knowledge on the digital academys influence economy comes from the sheer lack of quantitative studies regarding the cross pollination between what are (or start as) academic projects and the broader economy.  That is, no one has done any studies on the Canadian milieu, looking at specifically Canadian projects and how much those digital projects have contributed to the Canadian economy.  
 The present project, which is funded by SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), is working on an incredibly, almost laughably, short time frame.  Though we expect to have a white paper ready for December 1, 2010, we are only really scratching the surface of what is out there in terms of scholarship on sustainability and are more often than not discovering that what is not out there is just as interesting as what is.
But that isnt exactly what I want to talk about
Neurotic Imaginings
All while doing this project on sustainability, I have had a recurrent image in my head. 
 See, in my other life I am an early modernist.  Actually, I think of myself primarily as an early modernist who has only a tangential interest in DH and the possibilities that it offers. 
 Im not so hip as to be a DH evangelical, but I do realize that the future of our discipline will involve closer integration with the digital world, to the point that those who do not stay at least partially abreast will be as antiquated in the future as bibliographic index card catalogue users are today. 
 Thus, sustainability is a problem not because things will be lost it is inevitable that things will be lost but because we have the opportunity to intervene in the process of forgetting, hopefully for the better.
The image that keeps coming into my mind in this project is here. 
Rithmomachia BoardThis is a game from the medieval period called Rithmomachia.  For those of you with small Latin and less Greek, , means number and the suffix derived from , meaning battle. 
 The game itself is devilishly complex to a modern mind if only because it relies on knowledge of the relationships between whole numbers.  Gameplay involved moving pieces that designated whole number across a board that was twice as long but just as wide as a chess board.  One player could take the pieces of the other player by arranging the pieces/numbers in an arithmetic, geometrical or musical harmony (or any combination of them).  
It was called the Philosophers Game partially because it was only played by the erudite and partially because Rithmomachia was supposedly created by Pythagoras, though that genealogy is highly doubtful.    
Throughout the early modern period, the game was associated with hermetic magic and was played by some of the more well known figures of the European renaissance. 
Of course, we dont know about it anymore.  It has been totally forgotten by the culture in general and by all but those few interested scholars.  Why?
Well, you see, there was another game that was introduced to Europe at about the same time as we start seeing descriptions of Rithmomachia and that game was Chess. 
Both games are roughly as old as each other and both games were equally popular in the later middle ages, but only one of them has continued in cultural memory.  You can argue that the reason for that is that Rithmomachia is just inherently more difficult as a game describing musical harmonies of numbers is not as easy as, say, your pawn can open with a two space move or a one space move. 
I am not convinced by that, however. 
I think that the real reason for Chess living in our cultural memory and Rithmomachia as being forgotten comes down to the fact that the first universities took on Rithmomachia as a strategy by which to teach basic numeracy skills.
Its a strategy we are seeing today in the move to bring games (video games and otherwise) into the library system and into the classroom, and it is perfectly sound insofar as it does work. 
If you engage students, through games, through active learning principles, then students are more likely to retain the information or skills that you are trying to teach.  So I cannot fault the medieval scholastics who decided that they would put Rithmomachia into the curriculum.  They were only doing what modern scholars are trying to do by using Mass Effect as a way to explicate narrative non-linearity.  The theory, such as it was (and is), is sound. 
The thing is, as the years turned into decades and the decades turned into centuries, the university ossified, and with it, so did the game.
Universities are inherently conservative institutions as bureaucracies, they are specifically designed to make it difficult to change things. 
When you have an institution such as a university taking on a new technology, like a game or a communications system, not only will it be difficult to integrate into the prevailing administrative structure, but there is always the threat that once it has become integrated into that administrative system, it will ossify. 
The administration of knowledge will weave its way in and around the new technology of knowing to the point that it becomes either culturally irrelevant and forgotten (Rithmomachia) or culturally irrelevant and clung to out of a mere sense of tradition (Im looking at you, robe and mortarboard).
The point is that the cultural amnesia regarding Rithmomachia brings up some of the most fundamental aspects of sustainability insofar as we have to ask, how much can we trust universities (these incredibly conservative institutions) to sustain digital projects that are by definition ongoing sources of knowledge? 
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the longest running continuously developing projects in the academy, but it is predicated on a very conservative model of knowing that there are words out there as objects of definition and that they will be described. 
No one would possibly suggest that the OED is not invested in what Bakhtin called the centripetal force, that works to bring language and meaning together under an objective umbrella.  Despite its yearly updates and continual re-editing, the OED is presenting an ossified image of the English Language and that is partly to do with the fact that it is housed under the auspices of a university.
So if we are looking to investigate long term sustainability, we have to ask the question of what are we willing to trade off?
If we want sustainability within the present institutional settings, then we have to accept the possibility that eventually, our beloved digital tool or project (be that project as genuinely useful as the Walt Whitman Archive or EEBO), will ossify and be forgotten. 
If we dont change the university culture a culture that has existed for a thousand years then we are likely to simply end up with projects that are snapshots of what was rather than producers of the new knew. 
If we do change the university culture, then that is a project that extends well beyond the individual institution or individual nation and demands a rethink of what it is we do in the academy, from the ground up. 
Of course, in the writing of a small white paper, due in such a short time, I doubt that we will come up with anything that will possibly answer how the university as an institution can be rebuilt.  
So which is it?  Or perhaps I am being reductive?

[Cross Posted w/ HASTAC, The Miscellany]

Monday, October 25, 2010

SPARC Canadian Author's Addendum

There are an increasing number of useful tools out there for academics interested in public licensing. The SPARC Canadian Author's Addendum is one of them:

In brief, it's a PDF that you can attach to any publishing contract that allows you to post your article on your own web page, include it in your institution's open access repository, republish it, etc., without going cap-in-hand back to the journal for permission to do so, after you've ceded them your copyright for the privilege of being published. Here's how the site describes this document:

"Traditional publishing agreements often require that authors grant exclusive rights to the publisher. The SPARC Canadian Author Addendum enables authors to secure a more balanced agreement by retaining select rights, such as the rights to reproduce, reuse, and publicly present the articles they publish for non-commercial purposes. It will help Canadian researchers to comply with granting council public access policies, such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Policy on Access to Research Outputs. The Canadian Addendum reflects Canadian copyright law and is an adaptation of the original U.S. version of the SPARC Author Addendum. The addendum is available in both French and English."

(On behalf of Darren Wershler)

Notes on Copyright

One issue that comes up immediately is the difference between the knowledge economy of the academy and the larger Canadian knowledge economy. There are points of overlap, certainly,  but they function according to different rules. 

The academy is a citation economy -- we're rewarded for copiously pointing to earlier sources and recontextualizing their worth in terms of the present milieu. Zizek -- after Deleuze -- argues that really, this process of locating something in the past and and recontextualizing it in the present is the origin of anything New. Knowledge creation always involves the repetition of something that could have happened but was betrayed be the actual course of history, and therefore remained in embryonic form.

Though there aren't really specific exceptions in current Canadian copyright law (as there are in the States) that make academic use of copyrighted cultural objects easier, we have a fairly wide berth in our daily practice of teaching and research (but only as long as we don't draw attention to what the daily practice of scholarship entails -- plenty of it is technically enfirngement, e.g. showing video clips in class without clearing them through the library, photocopying articles for students that they could obtain through library resources, etc.). It would be good to see exceptions for academic use enshrined in new copyright legislation, but there's nothing helpful in Bill C-32, so I assume that we'll be stuck in a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" regime of daily academic practice for the foreseeable future.

Problems arise at the points where the citation economy overlaps with the larger cultural economy, because the popular (and somewhat Romantic) belief is that ideas emerge ex nihilo and fully-formed, without any debt to tradition, and that all uses of such ideas should be remunerated.

As Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out in Copyrights and Copywrongs, our major mode of cultural production (bricolage) is now entirely at odds with our common-sense belief that the intent of copyright is to wring every last cent of revenue out of the cultural objects that we (or our ancestors) created. Over the last decade, Lessig, Vaidhyanathan, Geist, Coombe et. al. have been at pains to demonstrate that this was not the intent of the creators of copyright, that it was invented as an artificial right granting a short-term monopoly to creators in order to provide them with enough time and enough money to create something else rather than sit back and realize profits from one object on perpetuity. Short-term copyright was designed to drive the creation of knowledge, in other words, but this is not what it does now. What copyright does now is encourage "individuals" (including, and especially, corporations) to corral as many copyrights as they can into a silo and then charge as many people as possible for their use.

I'm a pragmatist. I'm pretty sure that the two best things that could happen to encourage knowledge creation (shorter copyright terms and exceptions for academic use) are off the table  right now for political reasons. So: in a cultural moment when it's pretty clear that copyright terms aren't going to get shorter, and that there aren't going to be any exceptions in copyright law for academic use, the only pragmatic course of action is to begin to think about how academics can use copyright to enforce the circulation of our work rather than to limit it. This is what public licensing (e.g. Creative Commons or the General Public License) does: it attaches a series of clauses to a copyrighted object that insist that people who make use of that object to create something must also release their creations under a public license so that others can do the same. Open access journals, knowledge repositories at universities and other venues that use public licensing are also vitally important. 

The reason is that one of the keys to sustaining knowledge in a digital economy is to *circulate* it. We're living in an age of digital incunabula. New storage media and storage protocols emerge almost as quickly as the ones that we had thought were working just fine are abandoned. Much of what we produce for the next few decades, at least, will be lost forever, largely because there's an enormous profit to be made by companies that can develop near-monopolies on media formatting, forcing other alternatives (including their own earlier products) into the dustbin of history. The only way around this situation for academics is to commit to open protocols and open venues, so that knowledge can be included in as many different kinds of containers as possible. We're engaged in a gamble with posterity, and limiting ourselves to one technology or one repository for our research makes little to no sense at all.

It's important to emphasize, then, that the interests of academics engaged in knowledge creation and sustenance are markedly different than those of for-profit business. The increasingly popular paradigm of "knowledge work" (see esp. Liu, and Mosco & McKercher) tries to proceed as if there is no difference, and that the academy and business are both interested in the process of continuing education in the same ways, but it's simply not the case. The success of open source models in some contemporary businesses (mostly in the IT sector) means that there are some like-minded entities outside the academy, but at this stage, there simply aren't enough of them. We need to be thinking about educating not just our students about the importance of circulating knowledge, but members of the private sector, and government bureaucrats as well.

Moreover, there's still substantial resistance to open content practices inside many parts of the academy. Even at schools like Concordia, which officially endorse open access, publishing in for-profit international peer-reviewed journals still counts for more than publishing in open content journals (which are few and far between). Universities that really want to stand behind notions like open access need to consider what this means in terms of criteria for achieving tenure, merit and other institutional forms of reward.

(On behalf of Darren Wershler)