Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Real Revolution in Scholarship?

I recently read this in a comment on an academic blog about the reference manger called Nvivo. The blog entry addresses the question of "how reference managers could help ... in our thinking process rather than hold our libraries." Nvivo is described as a popular content analysis software, that is, as something that is more suited to social scientists than to humanists. The author of the blog muses: "I have only thought of Nvivo (or the like) as useful in analyzing (qualitative) data such as interview transcripts, reports etc., but the same principles can be applied to processing academic sources during literature reviews." Perhaps this is true, but "literature reviews" seem to me not much more than annotated bibliographies, and thus preparations or "necessary conditions of the possibility" of real thinking, not yet thinking itself.

But be that as it may, what really interests me in this post is not Nvivo nor its ability to aid thinking, but a claim made by one of the commenters (if that is a word) who said:
The thing is that all this software is great and of course would sound like a dream 15 years ago, but it is still just translating scholar’s standard activities to digital interface. It’s just a new, faster way of using old methods. It’s maybe time to think about features that have no “analog” counterpart. Tagging is one such thing. Of course an index of a book is a kind of a list of tags. But once you can filter by tags, it becomes something else, it’s not even comparable to an index anymore.
It's always been my view that software and computers do just that: provide just new and faster ways of using old methods.[1] In fact, I would be highly suspicious of any feature that does not have an "'analog' counterpart.'" I would need much convincing that it could be a legitimate method. Nor does the example given inspire much hope. Tags are a lame example. As the commenter himself admits, they are "a kind of list of tags." To say that "once you can filter by tags, it [an index] becomes something else" and is not even comparable to an index anymore" is patently false. It is not just "comparable" to an index, it is essentially an index; and such filtered indexes have been important tools in scholarship since the Renaissance. The example provides thus just another example of new and faster way of using old methods.

Just to make sure, I have nothing against using computers and "new and faster ways of using old methods," just as I have nothing against outlines or outliners. I use them myself on a daily basis.

Nor does it mean that that there is no technology that allows us to do things we could never have hoped to do without it (and that actually requires new methods). I am thinking about an electron microscope, for instance.

1. To be sure, that allows mathematicians to "actually" do proofs that would have been impossible for human beings because they would have taken much too long using paper and pencil, but I would suppose even they are essentially "new and faster ways of using old methods," and that would be extremely suspicious, if they were anything else. From what I understand there are some that are even suspicious of such new and faster applications of old methods.


grasshopper said...

Hi, I am the author of that comment. Let me elaborate a little bit on my (I admit it) overly enthusiastic comment. What I meant was this: of course it is true that an index is esentially a list of tags, the tagged items being, not topics or files or books, but the numbered pages of books - I made that comparison myself after all. But the way we work with tags on a computer seems to me to go beyond those faster ways of using old methods (index). It enables you to quickly filter out content by a combination of many tags, which, again, is something that can be done with an index, but I suspect very few people really use indexes that way (i.e. searching for a match of a page number in three or more index entries). Besides, one can use the same tagging system for the contents of a single book and the whole library, plus images, mail and the internet. Perhaps an even better example is hierarchically structured tags such as in Scrivener, where parent tags are implied whenever the child tag is added or searched for (but, of course, not vice versa). It is a tree-like hierarchy, just like in an outliner or a system of nested folders, but with the power of tags (and without the shortcomings of the forlder system), because the topics/articles/items are not trapped *inside* these categories, but rather have these categories assigned to them as descriptors (as many of the as we like). Yet another example is all the benefits that searching brings to the way we work with digital files. Couple that with an AI system like the one in DevonThink where the sotware can automatically suggest similar snippets from the whole library and you’ve got a very powerful new way of working with documents that just wasn’t possible before.

Now, of course we could say that all this is in prniciple not new; one can conceive how tagging and searching work in a world without computers, but the way these digital methods function on daily basis enables us to use them in ways that, on paper, were just too laborious to be efficient or productive. So, maybe it really isn’t a revolution of principles, but I think it is also not just a faster way of using old methods either, because although these methods are possible in the analog world, they are too time consuming for their employment to make sense at all. I am sure that some elements of the methods of categorisation and classification we use now, for example, were indeed tried at some point in history (Lullism, art of combinations, commonplacing, etc. come to mind), but I think that digital scholarship enables us to approach content differently, not just faster. And maybe that is at least partly the reason why research is as difficult as has ever been, and is therefore not (at least not necessarily) better than before because of these conveniences.

On a general note, I think that we are approaching time when we will not need to make analogies with the physical world anymore to understand what we are doing digitally. The shift has been made recently in graphic design of UI and the whole debate on Apple’s skeumorphism.

Anyway, just wanted to clarify a bit and let me say that I am a regular reader of your very fine blog.

Derick said...

I too was surprised by the hype in the original article. Analog tagging methods for finding and analyzing qualitative data have been used in anthropology for 100+ years.



Tagging is only revolutionary if you don’t know the technologies that preceded the so-called revolution.

Derick said...

See also (from 1967):

and (from 1922):