I have been working in or around what we today call eHumanities for over 30 years. I know that what I, and others, were doing 15 to 30 years ago can't really be called eHumanities, but, if you will just for the moment allow me to extend the present into the past. Having such a long-term view of these sorts of developments, and having sat through more seminars, workshops and development meetings than I care to remember, what is striking about all these past eHumanities initiatives is that none of them currently exist. They have all promised to be the next big thing, promised to sort humanities computing out, to provide just those tools which will bring the humanities into the computer age, to build the tools that the humanities need. What is blatantly clear, however, is that none of the hundreds of initiatives and projects that I have witnessed over the past 30 years have any existence now. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) no longer exists (though it was resurrected as Cyber 1 in 2004). The explosion of CD-ROMs in the 1980s and 1990s, now seem to be pitiful relics of a pre-WWW world. The TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technology Program) of the 1990s spent over 22 million pounds and achieved little of lasting influence. Even The e-University Project, which finished in 2004, has had little lasting influence. The only initiatives that have lasted have been archive based projects. Ones where large archives, or concordances between archives, have been slowly digitized and offered on-line.
So let's return to Bamboo. Bamboo is offered as:
“... a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, and inter-organizational effort that brings together researchers in arts and humanities, computer scientists, information scientists, librarians, and campus information technologists to tackle the question:
How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?” (http://projectbamboo.org/what-bamboo)There are a number of familiar assumptions embedded in this project. First of all, it is clear from the Project Bamboo Directions specification that one of the basic assumptions of this project is a one stop humanities services provider. Such a strong SOA model for any community must assume at least two things. First, that the present situation of service provision within the community is a problem, and, second, that the service needs of the community are definable and amenable to SOA tools.
The first of these assumptions is not only false, but not just a little insulting. There is a general assumption among IT departments and university administrators that the humanities are Luddite and need sorting out. In fact, e-Humanities, on-line performance, web-arts, and other humanities web work is healthy, exciting and thriving. It does not need sorting out. What it does need is something even approaching a sustainable level of infrastructure funding.
The second assumption, though related to the first, needs a bit more consideration. There is a fundamental assumption that to effectively and correctly make use of academic computing, it must conform to some sort of Services Oriented Architecture (SOA). This is understandable when considering that university administrators always seek something that they can measure and control. However, why they don't think that this is necessary with the Sciences, whose ICT has always been fragmented, task specific and decentralized, is never explained. The fact that computing in the humanities is constantly striving for the unique, the critical, the local and the subversive, simply confirms to the auditor and administrator that something is fundamentally wrong. Therefore, something centralized, uniform and accountable will sort this "chaos" out nicely.
This approach has been tried and tried again over the past 30 plus years, but fortunately to no avail. It has always failed because the two basic assumptions have always been wrong, and remain wrong. Unfortunately, the powers of control and accountancy do not give up that easily. I am not really at all worried that this time they might succeed and enforce a uniform methodology onto the Humanities -- this really isn't going to happen. What worries me, yet again, is that another large pot of money is going to be dumped down the proverbial drain. Money that is desperately needed for some actual humanities research.
A small peak at what Bamboo wants to do shows the same failure, and the same inevitable outcomes. This stage of the project is exploratory and consultative. They have been convening a number of workshops, and setting up a larger "community" of consulting committees. This seems, on the surface, to be the right thing to do. Set up a broad consultation to get the broadest consensus as to what services are needed. Then commence a development program that takes the community input, translate this into a plan, and then build the services. This is an all too familiar model of SOA and is represented explicitly in the Bamboo project.
The problem is that this model, in all its applications, ignores the most difficult and problematic bits of its implementation. The only certain and unproblematic link in the above model is the link between the Plan and the Build. Questions about the representativeness of the Community, of how the Exploration is conducted, of what is chosen and what is ignored in the Plan are all treated as unproblematic. The outcome of this naive approach is that a partial model of the consultation -- The Whole Thing model below, is transformed into an even more partial, local and planable model -- the More Realistic Vision below.
The problem with SOA, and this model of eHumanities services, is that as the model becomes more defined, the less it has to do with what the humanities do, until it gets to a point where what is realistic bears no relationship with the realism of humanities research.
So what is the real mistake here. Well, it is partially that the model of Service Architecture, while it may be applicable to well defined service contexts, simply does not apply to humanities teaching, research or production. However, I think that the larger error is a complete misunderstanding of what flexibility, locality, and innovation entail. Project Bamboo, inadvertently, highlight this error in its own name. The project defines "bamboo", and hence the proposed metaphor, as:
“In the natural world, bamboo is a highly flexible organic material that serves multiple purposes: it can live as a single stalk on a desk or grow quickly into renewable forests; be used for constructing buildings or decorating them; become as strong as hardwood or as flexible as cloth; … We envision our approach for arts and humanities digital services to be similar: configurable, flexible, sustainable, and reliable – hence the name, Bamboo.” (http://projectbamboo.org/why-name-bamboo)What they completely miss in this metaphor is that while it is true that bamboo is a "highly flexible and organic material", the fact that it serves many purposes does not arise from any form of design or planning in the making of bamboo. None of the properties of bamboo that make it so incredibly flexible, both literally and it terms of the uses it can be put to, were designed for these purposes. In fact, the amazing properties of bamboo were not designed at all.
This is the point. What characterizes the humanities, and almost all of important human endeavour, is the ability to turn the mundane, common and innocuous into the new and innovative. What is needed in the eHumanities is the basic resources and the freedom to explore and innovate. What is not needed is yet more expensive programs designed by system engineers and administrators who have no understanding of what constitutes the useful, the innovative, or the important in the humanities.