Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Digital Humanities in works of literature?

This post finds me jetlagged and happily worn out after my trip over the pond to the Social, Digital, Scholarly Editing conference in Saskatoon, followed in quick succession by Digital Humanities 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. 10 days, 6 flights, 2 countries, 2 conferences, 2 papers, 1 panel session, 2 chaired meetings and 3 posters later, I made my way home yesterday and decided not to work on the plane home (shock! horror!) but to treat myself to a nice novel. I picked up "Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger, and happily battered through it whilst airbourne - laughing to myself when the following paragraphs emerged...

Martin shook his head... "I used to work at the British Museum, translating ancient and classical languages. But now I work from home".

Julia smiled. "So they bring the Rosetta Stone and all that here to you?"...

"No, no. I don't often need the actual objects. They take photographs and make drawings - I use those. It's all become so much easier now everything is digital. I suppose someday they'll just wave the objects over the computer and it will sing the translation in Gregorian chant.  But in the meantime they still need somebody like me to work it out." Martin paused, then said, rather shyly, "Do you like crossword puzzles?"  (Niffenegger, A.  (2009). Her Fearful Symmetry, p. 129.  Scribner, New York.)

Later on in the book - set in and around Highgate Cemetry in London - the following is also said:

 "Perhaps we ought to make another sign to post at the gate," said James. "All uncertain grave owners please present yourselves during office hours when the staff can attend to your very time-consuming requests".

"We want to help them," said Jessica. "But they must call ahead. These people who pitch up on the cemetery's doorstep wanting us to do a grave search while they wait - it's beyond anything."

"They think the records are digitised," Robert said.

Jessica laughed.  "Ten years from now, perhaps. Evelyn and Paul are typing in the burial records as fast as their fingers can fly, but with one hundred and sixty-nine thousand entries -"

"I know."
Its not the first time I've seen digital humanities/ digitisation creep into fiction - I remember some ludicrous database in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code* - but it did make me think, people are starting to notice the kind of things we've been working on for (in my case) over a decade. It's great to see something that so relates to my doctoral work and published texts pop up in a work of fiction. Heck, the people at US immigration who ask you what you do when you say you are going to a conference might even understand what "Digital Humanities" means next! Maybe not.

Anyone else stumble across mentions of computing, culture, humanities and heritage in fiction? If so, I might feel another Tumblr coming on. Uh-oh...

* I dont have a copy of the Da Vinci Code, but the internet has provided an illegal online version, I copy the scene here. First one to send me a cease and desist and ask me to take it down wins.

She glanced at her guests. "What is this? Some kind of Harvard scavenger hunt?" Langdon's laugh sounded forced. "Yeah, something like that." Gettum paused, feeling she was not getting the whole story. Nonetheless, she felt intrigued and found herself pondering the verse carefully. "According to this rhyme, a knight did something that incurred displeasure with God, and yet a Pope was kind enough to bury him in London."

Langdon nodded. "Does it ring any bells?"

Gettum moved toward one of the workstations. "Not offhand, but let's see what we can pull up in the database."

Over the past two decades, King's College Research Institute in Systematic Theology had used optical character recognition software in unison with linguistic translation devices to digitize and catalog an enormous collection of texts – encyclopedias of religion, religious biographies, sacred scriptures in dozens of languages, histories, Vatican letters, diaries of clerics, anything at all that qualified as writings on human spirituality. Because the massive collection was now in the form of bits and bytes rather than physical pages, the data was infinitely more accessible.

Settling into one of the workstations, Gettum eyed the slip of paper and began typing. "To begin, we'll run a straight Boolean with a few obvious keywords and see what happens."

"Thank you."

Gettum typed in a few words:

LONDON, KNIGHT, POPE

As she clicked the SEARCH button, she could feel the hum of the massive mainframe downstairs scanning data at a rate of 500 MB/sec. "I'm asking the system to show us any documents whose complete text contains all three of these keywords. We'll get more hits than we want, but it's a good place to start."

The screen was already showing the first of the hits now.

Painting the Pope. The Collected Portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds. London University Press.



Gettum shook her head. "Obviously not what you're looking for." She scrolled to the next hit.

The London Writings of Alexander Pope by G. Wilson Knight.

Again she shook her head.

As the system churned on, the hits came up more quickly than usual. Dozens of texts appeared, many of them referencing the eighteenth-century British writer Alexander Pope, whose counter religious, mock-epic poetry apparently contained plenty of references to knights and London.

Gettum shot a quick glance to the numeric field at the bottom of the screen. This computer, by calculating the current number of hits and multiplying by the percentage of the database left to search, provided a rough guess of how much information would be found. This particular search looked like it was going to return an obscenely large amount of data.

Estimated number of total hits: 2, 692

"We need to refine the parameters further," Gettum said, stopping the search. "Is this all the information you have regarding the tomb? There's nothing else to go on?"

Langdon glanced at Sophie Neveu, looking uncertain.

This is no scavenger hunt, Gettum sensed. She had heard the whisperings of Robert Langdon's experience in Rome last year. This American had been granted access to the most secure library on earth – the Vatican Secret Archives. She wondered what kinds of secrets Langdon might have learned inside and if his current desperate hunt for a mysterious London tomb might relate to information he had gained within the Vatican. Gettum had been a librarian long enough to know the most common reason people came to London to look for knights. The Grail.

Gettum smiled and adjusted her glasses. "You are friends with Leigh Teabing, you are in England, and you are looking for a knight." She folded her hands. "I can only assume you are on a Grail quest."

Langdon and Sophie exchanged startled looks.

Gettum laughed. "My friends, this library is a base camp for Grail seekers. Leigh Teabing among them. I wish I had a shilling for every time I'd run searches for the Rose, Mary Magdalene, Sangreal, Merovingian, Priory of Sion, et cetera, et cetera. Everyone loves a conspiracy." She took off her glasses and eyed them. "I need more information."

In the silence, Gettum sensed her guests' desire for discretion was quickly being outweighed by their eagerness for a fast result.

"Here," Sophie Neveu blurted. "This is everything we know." Borrowing a pen from Langdon, she wrote two more lines on the slip of paper and handed it to Gettum.

You seek the orb that ought be on his tomb. It speaks of Rosy flesh and seeded womb.

Gettum gave an inward smile. The Grail indeed, she thought, noting the references to the Rose and her seeded womb. "I can help you," she said, looking up from the slip of paper. "Might I ask where this verse came from? And why you are seeking an orb?"

"You might ask," Langdon said, with a friendly smile," but it's a long story and we have very little time."

"Sounds like a polite way of saying “mind your own business.”"

"We would be forever in your debt, Pamela," Langdon said, "if you could find out who this knight is and where he is buried."

"Very well," Gettum said, typing again. "I'll play along. If this is a Grail-related issue, we should cross-reference against Grail keywords. I'll add a proximity parameter and remove the title weighting. That will limit our hits only to those instances of textual keywords that occur near aGrail-related word."

Search for: KNIGHT, LONDON, POPE, TOMB

Within 100 word proximity of: GRAIL, ROSE, SANGREAL, CHALICE

"How long will this take?" Sophie asked.

"A few hundred terabytes with multiple cross-referencing fields?" Gettum's eyes glimmered as she clicked the SEARCH key. "A mere fifteen minutes."

Langdon and Sophie said nothing, but Gettum sensed this sounded like an eternity to them.

"Tea?" Gettum asked, standing and walking toward the pot she had made earlier. "Leigh always loves my tea."

4 comments:

Unknown said...

I've used passages from Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" as epigraphs a couple of times--that was my first exposure to the idea of distant reading, back in the late 80s as an undergrad:

"She explained to me that a suitably programmed computer can read a novel in a few minutes and record the list of all the words contained in the text, in order of frequency. “That way I can have an already completed reading at hand,” Lotaria says, “with an incalculable saving of time. What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings?" (186)

Ryan Cordell said...

I've been thinking about this ever since Matt Kirschenbaum tweeted that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was "the first digital humanities novel." I read it recently and must agree—covert digitization and large-scale text mining in an attempt to solve centuries-old codes! It's a pretty great read to boot. I plan to assign it in my next DH-inflected undergrad class.

Christof Schöch said...

Thanks for this addition to my list! Besides the wonderful Mr Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore which Ryan already mentioned (I have commented on it here: http://dragonfly.hypotheses.org/175), a novel which is probably the first stylometric murder mystery in the history of crime fiction should also be mentioned: Mitzi Morris' Poetic Justice (I have reviewed it here: http://dragonfly.hypotheses.org/225).

Scott Weingart said...

From this conversation: https://twitter.com/scott_bot/statuses/273539900178038786

Calvino; Penumbra; Asimov's Foundation Trilogy; The Intuitionist; Thief of Time; Cthulhu; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Ready Player One; Anything by Doctorow.