15 March 2009

Project Bamboo: Opportunities lost

In January I went to the 3rd Workshop for Project Bamboo in Tucson, Arizona. Project Bamboo is an eHumanities project, funded by a well known foundation and lead by two very large US universities. I am not going to say who these players are, you can see the main website to figure this out. Also, I am not casting aspersions onto any of these institutions. The foundation has been a generous and visionary funder of many worthwhile projects. The two universities are leading Higher Education institutions with excellent reputations. I am interested, though, in saying a few things about the ongoing trend in university computing, especially in the humanities, towards large, centralized and service architectures. I am not the only one who finds this trend bizarre, out of touch and even damaging (see Lev Manovich, Alan Liu, Haidy Giesmar or Jussi Parikka for more on this).

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.


  1. Definitely in tune with your considerations Robin and thanks for reaching out to let me know.

  2. Hi Robin,

    Are you familiar with the DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) initiative? Some describe it as "the European Bamboo". Check it out at http://www.dariah.eu

  3. Hi Cesar,

    I do know about DARIAH, but I think that it suffers from the same mistakes as Bamboo, and the hundreds of earlier initiatives. I do want to emphasize that I am not casting aspersions onto intentions here. I think that those involved in DARIAH, Bamboo and the others are all well intentioned. It is just that they are not asking the right people the right questions. Hence, there are a lot of completely wrong assumptions being taken for granted.

    Someday, perhaps, someone will start engaging with those who have been working in the eHumanities for so long, and stop trying to "fix" it.

  4. Hi Robin,

    thank you very useful comments for somebody working on DARIAH. I am not as long as you in business of e-Humanities (or whatever it is called) but I agree that it is no use ignoring the lessons from humanities computing. I think, however, that for DARIAH it is exactly the aim to bring together digital humanities resources (and resource services) to allow humanities research (or experimentation as you call it). Would be interesting to hear more from you about how you would design such a space.

  5. From my understanding from Bamboo and Dariah I think your comparison of these with older initiatives trying to build up centralised solutions is not adequat. In my point of view the difference between those old fashioned one-solution-for-all projects and these new approaches is the focus: They don't want to offer comprehensive solutions but a framework which allows others to build their solutions quicker and especially which allows to reuse data more effectively. We are not talking about a big machine doing it all but rather implementing a power grid, standardising the sockets and the plugs, and offering two or three useful devices which can be plugged-in, well, useful for some at least.
    If we can agree on some standards here it could be the basis for a US/EU cooperation building up services and tools. No one will be able to sustain all of them financially but we can share the burden if we work in such framework.
    (I am not involved in Bamboo or Dariah, but in TextGrid (www.textgrid.de) which tries to establish this kind of framework for digital editions.

  6. Particularly to Tobias and fotis, I thank you both for your comments. Just to reply, I do know the difference between what Dariah, Bamboo and TextGrid are doing and what the earlier one-solution-fits-all did. In fact, the earlier solutions were never "a big machine doing it all", and the new SOAs make similar mistakes in assuming that there is a common, stable ground on which to build such a Grid.

    I do agree with Tobias that Dariah is at least a useful way forward, in that it is more about sharing what is going on than devising working practices. In a similar way to OKAPI (Berkeley) uses a minimal touch to bring diverse eHumanities resources together, Dariah could do the same for Europe. I also must emphasise that I do not oppose what Bamboo or TextGrid, or any other project, are doing. The more the merrier. I am making two points:

    1. There is a fundamental assumption in all of these projects that eScience has sorted itself out (not true), and that the eHumanities are way behind (also not true). The point is that what the humanities do is very different to what the sciences do. The digital work of humanities practitioners has always been innovative and effective, and remains so. The problem is that it is not unified nor standardised because that is not how the humanities work.

    2. Whatever is devised is ultimately local. It is not that there is some pure higher level where humanities somehow come together (except in quite trivial ways like we all write and publish). There is a fundamental misunderstanding in these projects between instrumental standardisation and connection, and disciplinary practice and collaboration.

    It think that these projects are doomed to failure not due to bad intentions, nor a lack of excellent staff, nor even investment, but due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the humanities are, how they work and what they are, in fact, doing. Do we need large digital repositories in the humanities? Yes, probably. Should they need to be well looked after and curated? Yes, as long as the curation doesn't limit our use of the resources. Do we need "a power grid, standardising the sockets and the plugs, and offering two or three useful devices which can be plugged-in"? No! Why not? because we already have that. The power grid we need is the web, and there are more appliances than you can shake a stick at. Innovation has to happen there, from humanities practitioners, using the tools we develop in our own critical spaces.

  7. Hi Robin.

    Thank you for your thoughtful remarks.

    Let me first say something about TextGrid, as I am not directly involved in it: The remarkable thing about it is not the Grid, but the attempt to create something to bring together tools for creating online critical editions. This is definitely a step forward from all those environments used in isolation from each other.

    Re the Grid: It has its uses as a resource sharing network, and I really like its idea of creating a global virtual space of resources. This will be not the general solution for all in the humanities, but has some uses in various research domains. E.g. the integration of deep web data resources is rather difficult with the web, or the secure sharing of large files across various partners in a manuscript analysis project in Europe, or text mining, or ...

    Working in e-Science, I hardly know anybody who would say that e-Science has sorted itself out. I also think that the more sensible people there I agree that Humanities are different from sciences because they have different subjects. And then there are very different subjects in the sciences, approaches, etc. Interestingly enough, I just come from a conference in Germany where they wanted to do an exorcism on the 'Geist' in Geisteswissenschaften and use more scientific methods in Humanities. This also came from humanists: http://www.uni-siegen.de/ifm/tagungen/enhancing_humanities/agenda/. I think I disagree. The only way forward can be to focus on the research questions.

    Coming back to DARIAH, I just come back from the management board meeting where the direction of DARIAH has been clearly defined as a network of centres based around methodological commons in Digital Humanities. How light-weight? This depends on what researchers will need (your comments are very welcome) and of course on the money :)

    Re the structure of the network: Good curation is for me out of question. I am not sure whether we need big repositories but we definitely need partners in networks like DARIAH willing to take on more responsibilities and support the development of local resources in places where they are not yet.

    If you allow me one more comment: Software engineers are not good as humanists but often humanists are also not good as software engineers. I think a challenge for a possible new digital direction in Humanities, will be to bring both together.