Lou Burnard
Head of the Humanities Computing Unit



Lou Burnard. Head of HCU Q- What is the HCU?

A- It's short for Humanities Computing Unit. This is a nice phrase because it is ambiguous. It could mean a computing unit that helps the humanities, or it could mean a unit which does humanities computing.

Q- What is the correct interpretation? And what is the HCU's history?

A- I'm not sure, because I don't really know if the second one makes sense. I don't know what humanities computing actually is. The Unit's history is a long one. In the mid-nineteen seventies the University realized that it needed to do more to promote the use of computers in the humanities. It appointed Susan Hockey, a very skillful academic politician who wrote one of the first books on using computers in the humanities. She got a research grant to develop some software for use in the humanities, that resulted in the Oxford Concordance Program. It was a very succesful program that got extensively tested amongst a large number of different universities and at the same time pushed the development of the field. This happened during the early eighties, and as you know, in the academic world you get a grant to do one thing, that gets you another grant to do another thing, and there are suddenly lots of things happening at the same time. Another key moment afterwards was the development of the CTI (Computers and Teaching Initiative), a government funded venture to promote the use of computers in the teaching of specific subjects. We became a national centre, and the University was proud of having us here in its Computer Services. There was also the Oxford Text Archive, which started in 1976. The Humanities Computing Unit itself didn't come to being until… let me think. Susan left, Marilyn Deegan was then appointed and ran the CTI centre and the CHC, and there was also the Office for Humanities Communication, funded by another national project with the British Library. Marilyn strengthened the links with the University and the Libraries, and she was very good at getting funding and communicating with the classic humanities faculties. This was in the late eighties, when the idea of a digital library was becoming popular. Then she left and I was asked to try to run all the different bits of the humanities services together as a rationalization in 1995.

Q- What is the position of the Humanities Computing Unit within Oxford University?

A- Part of my argument about this concerns the nature of disciplines. A discipline is a social construct, a better word might be club, or gang, or posse. In Oxford, it's been very difficult for such a posse to exist, because the teaching of the humanities is fragmented across the colleges. Each college organizes the teaching of the humanities disciplines; some are very small, some are very big, some are rich, some are poor… They vary enormously, and this works very well for the individual student, because the student-staff ratio is very good in Oxford, most teaching is done in groups of two or three or four. The downside to this is that there is no real base for the humanities students as a whole. The Faculties provide libraries, organize examinations and lectures and that's about it. We spend a lot of time trying to encourage and strenghten the Faculties. For example, the HCU reports to a committee for computing in the Arts that brings together representatives from all the Humanities faculties. That committee is responsible for the fact that the number of support IT staff within the faculties has increased from zero (in many places) to two or three. IT staff provide fairly limited area support, because they have a lot of work keeping the equipment running, advising on what computers to buy, teaching lecturers to use computers, etc. So what we at the HCU do, is providing very detailed expertise in ways of using the technology that are not just word-processing. When you talk to the heads of each of our sections they can tell you more about this. One thing I feel very proud of is the Development Team, which is a partnership between computing expertise and subject specifical expertise, but Sarah will tell you about that. It's more a marriage of equals than a master-servant relationship, and this is the key to its success. Other universities have fallen into the trap of making the computer people the servants, or sometimes the other way round.

Q- Why is the phrase "humanities computing" paradoxical? Is it because computers and humanities are opposed? Or because in an information society as ours is said to be there should be no need for a unit assisting humanities academics? (They would ideally already know how to do everything themselves…)

A- That is certainly one point of view I have sympathy for. People say that when you use computing you change the nature of the humanities; it is a really different way of engaging with the material. Digital text can be processed in so many different ways that it's different not just in degree but in kind. Was that Hegel? I think Hegel said something about a qualitative change that results from a quantitive change. To take a very trivial and obvious example, if I am interested in the etymology of English and I want to find all words that entered the English language from Spanish sources in the XVII century, words like "armada"…

Q- I wonder why that entered…

A- (Laughs) I could do this by opening my dictionary at the letter "A" and looking through all the list, but of course I wouldn't, and so that kind of research would be difficult to do at all. When I use the computer to do it for me, of course it does exactly the same thing, but the difference is that computers don't get tired and bored, don't have to be fed and are much quicker. So this is a quantitative change, because you can do it in a few seconds instead of a year, but it's so much of a change that it's almost a change in quality.

Q- Yes, because it then lets you, the linguist in this example, free to think about other things….

A- Interpretation.

Q- You don't have to be concentrated with the mechanics anymore, the machine does these tasks.

A- In other respects, I'm not so sure that humanities computing is changing the nature of the humanities. The area I'm most interested in is the encoding of texts: the representation in computer comprehensible form of the insight, the understanding, of a text which the scholar has. We all know that the meaning of a text is the result of a complex interaction between the reader and the material, it isn't something inherent or intrinsic in the text. What fascinates me about computers is the way that they function with texts at all. You have to make those readings explicit, you have to code it. Computers do not know anything, they have nothing to know with, no capacity for knowledge. In the earlier example of the dictionary, there has to be a way of telling the computer which of the words in the dictionary entries are the etymology, and moreover, what particular string of words relating to the etymology is about Spanish. That's the aspect I'm most interested in: finding a way of making human interpretations explicit for a machine.

Q- That's sounds like a lot. The dictionary example seems very clear, but when we take other kinds of texts, interpretation is not only a question of appearance or position in the text, like it could be argued for the dictionary entry. It's much more conceptual. Are there different opinions on how text should be coded or tagged? How would you express more abstract information?

A- There are many many different views about this, many different opinions. Here are some other examples of what to make specific in a text: you might want to show that something is a proper name: the name of a person or the name of a place; this becomes a little more problematic. In older English texts, when you find "John the Baker", or "Albert the Blacksmith from some place", you're not sure of how much of that is the person's name, because in the medieval period people would often be referred to by their name, occupation or birth place. So, the concept of "name" is slightly different. If you are operating with a nineteenth century document and you find a place name like "Prussia", which was clearly defined geographically and politicaly but doesn't exist anymore, you have a problem. So without rather careful thought about the intention behind the use of a name, you might misclassify it. Prussia might be correctly tagged as a place name, but if we infer that there must be a correspondant geographical place now we would be wrong. In the same way we might have two different names for the same person, or a name for a person who doesn't exist. This reminds me about an argument I had with some Americans about how to tag the name of God.

Q- It sounds like one of those medieval disputes about the sex of the angels.

A- Maybe that's why so many medievalists use computers. Many of the profound debates of the Middle Ages, like the Aristotelian or Platonic view of the universe, this is what underlies the debate on how we use computers. Because computer are wonderful machines that operate on platonic abstractions, and we don't live in a platonic world. I know this is hard, but we live in a hard Aristotelian world and we have to accommodate this disparity. That's why all these debates really matter a great deal in Computer Science.

Q- What if the history of your personal involvement with computers?

A- I began to use computers years ago. I studied English Literature at Oxford and was interested in processing texts, in finding ways in which language is used. I became very interested in the consequences of the reader's involvement with the text. I wanted to find out if it was possible to find meaning or patterning within the text independently from the reader, things like statistical methods to count words, for example. I wanted to try to answer difficult questions about how language is actually used, independently of theories about how language is constructed. I don't want to imply that other methods have no value, because they do, but those are the ones I found more attractive to me.

For example, take the writer Samuel Beckett, whose works, as you probably know, constantly play with the idea of taking out all human emotions and reactions and yet somehow they are very moving, which is paradoxical. One of the first things I did with a computer was to take one of his texts, "Imagination dead imagine", which consists of a hundred and twenty sentences, arranged in a particular order, and then tried to rearrange them in the computer in different orders to see what the order reflected. This was in the early seventies, I wasn't then aware of the work of the Oulipo. But I couldn't do the research I wanted to because I had to earn a living as well. I was very fortunate to be at Oxford at the time, when the University was realizing that 80% or 90% of its students were in the Humanities faculties, that the University had a large computing facility supposed to be available for the whole University and not just to the Science subjects, and thirdly, that none of the people who ran the computing service knew much about the interests or needs of the humanities people. Oxford was one of the first universities in the country to do any work of this kind, in the early seventies there were scholars at Oxford's English Faculty who were producing concordances to Shakespeare using the computer.

I was concerned with reducing the amount of time and effort that was required to produce digital text. At first you had to type everything out to turn it into punchcards. The computers then were huge, had to be in special conditioned environments… I don't want to insist in being such an old and venerable relic of the past.

Q- Well, you have witnessed lots of changes from that time when it started up to now…

A- The trouble when you say that is that you're constructing a view of humanities computing as something with an origin that develops and is now achieving maturity, which is a very nineteenth century view of the question, a sort of evolutionary view. There is another more plausible view, which is to question the relationship between technology in general and the academic disciplines. There is a sort of symbiosis between the disciplines and the way they use technology, and it is not a simple one of heroic age, golden age, etc.

Q- No, I also think that there is a lot of romanticism in the way media theorists talk about computers. I meant, what is there behind your years-involvement with Information Technologies?

A- If I have to write my obituary, one of the things I'd like to have in it would be that I tried to encourage people to use and share resources, to create texts and books in the electronic form in the same way as I was brought up to believe that books in the physical form should be created and shared. A very strong influence on me as a child was the simple ability to use a public library. The fact that I could go there and find a book on any subject, even if I couldn't understand it, that I had a right to ask for that book and get it, that was the privilege of being in a civilized country with a democratic government and so on. These things that we perhaps now take for granted are not available in the digital world, and there is still a great danger that we will see the development of two classes: those who have access to digital culture and those who do not. And I think that's a big challenge for this society, we shouldn't allow the culture to fragment.

At the beginning I was very lucky, because nobody thought that digital texts had any value. So for example, when I began with the Oxford Text Archive in 1976, we obtained copies of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and collections of texts from publishers who had no idea that this would amount to something. And they were probably right, I mean, in the form that we got them they really were very difficult to use. One of the things I found most interesting was the ability to share these digital resources between different people across the world. In the early eighties, the world of the electronic mail and Internet was just beginning. There was an electronic mail network within the UK, using one standard, and an American network with a different standard. I was one of the two or three people in the computing centre here in Oxford who managed to get an account in the computer in London, which at that time was the only connection between the UK and the rest of the world. It was a bit like the early days of the telegraph. During three or four years there were different standards and a lot of arguments about how to homogenize this. There was a tremendous sense of community between the people beginning to use these technologies, although they were geographically spread. They were few enough in number to know each other. In the early nineties I went to a conference in Warsaw, and this was the first time I remember someone standing up in public and saying that the Internet had to become a commercially viable resource. Most of the people there thought it was complete lunacy, how could anybody make money with the Internet? And yet within six years the whole system has changed completely, and we see Internet addresses on the back of the buses and everywhere.

In that respect at least, the standardization of ways of accessing computers has been an astounding success. Because I think the notion at the heart of this *is* standardization. During the early years of the OTA in the 80s it became apparent that almost every person who prepared texts for the computer did so in a different way. So the texts couldnt be shared easily, or at all. I'm not talking just about physical differences -- different sizeas of floppy disk or whatever -- and not just about differences resulting from different kinds of software, but also about very real differences of opinion about what should be encoded in a machine readable text, what should be made explicit. In 1987 there was a very influential workshop in New York which brought together fifty or more representatives from text archives and digital libraries (only they weren't called that then) around the world. The outcome of that conference was the Text Encoding Initiative -- a surprisingly influential international research project to establish Guidelines for the creation of electronic texts for scholarly purposes. I joined the TEI as European editor in 1990, and four years later we published the recommendations which now underly most scholarly activity in this field.

In the conference I went to in Rome last week, Allen Renear talked about what he called two informatic turns, two changes in the humanities: one is the fact which the technology used for the creation of all texts (understood in a loose sense, including music, drama…) that the humanities deal with is digital, and the second is that the business of academic humanities scholarship, the analysis of those texts, is also digital. This is a very exciting moment. It's worth asking what would happen if we tried to ignore this technology, assuming that we could. Clearly there is a kind of ignoring the technology by those people who simply use it without thought of its full potential, like just using the computer to write. I'm not so sure of that anyway, because it seems that the medium does affect the way we write. There is a luddite tendency in some areas in the humanities where people are afraid of the technology or think that it threatens them.

Jonathan Miller helping a user

Q- There are some people who think of the humanities as a religion, and see themselves as the preservers of the cultural values of the western world.

A- That is exactly right. The technology did not come from the moon though. We developed it. For us to pretend that it's not an integral part of our culture is extremely naïve. That sort of attitude reminds me of the movement towards the end of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of modern technology, when people like the decadents would deliberately refuse to have anything to do with the new technologies at all. This attitude contrasts with that of an earlier period, when people like Dickens were tremendously enthusiastic about the new discoveries, and yet alert to their bad implications as well. Victorian novelists didn't turn their back on it, they didn't pretend it wasn't happening. Computers have followed the trail of other modern technologies, for example motorcars. When they began they were very specialized: only certain people had them. One of the big realizations of the thirties was that you could mass-produce motorcars, and that changed the nature of motorcars and even of the world we live. The same happened with computers. There is a (probably apocryphal) story of Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, saying: "Oh, I think probably by the end of the century there will be maybe three or four hundred computers in the world". And now computers are just another essential part of modern consumer economy, you can buy your computer in the same shop as you buy your microwave, it's an entertainment machine. I think this is very strange. But I also think that we have to embrace the new technologies, and be able to recognize their potential for contributing to the things we care about most deeply, namely: the preservation of culture, the understanding of the texts and the generations of scholars who have studied those texts before us.

Q- Computers are neither good nor bad…

A- It depends on what we do with them. There is one thing I find a little worrying though. At DRH (Digital Resources in the Humanities Conference) we had a plenary speaker at the beginning, Derek Law, who gave a talk on "Mickey Mouse culture". He talked about the threat or challenge which the Internet poses to the serious academic. He asks which agencies are at the moment investing huge amounts of money and expertise in bringing culture to the masses. Who is trying to produce digital versions of history, cultural artifacts, museums…

Q- Microsoft?

A- Microsoft and Walt Disney. The academic world has been the guardian of this culture, but if it doesn't react quickly, if it doesn't see that it must cooperate with these agencies, it will be destroyed. On one side there will be the Mickey Mouse University, that will offer a history which will bear as much relationship to real history as Mickey Mouse does to a real mouse. On the other, there will be the academic history, that will be talked about only by a few old men in some obscure corner. But there is an opportunity for the academy here, if we try not to retreat into paranoia and snobbery. We can cooperate with these agencies and produce material that is more challenging and interesting. We can use the technology ourselves. If we ignore this, we'll be very irresponsible, closing our doors to the world like the monks of the dark ages. Maybe they had good reasons to do that then, but I prefer not to think that cultural dark ages are coming again, because this technology enables us to spread our culture better.

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