Reply To: Project Evaluations

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Daniel Fawcett

For the purposes of evaluating a project, I chose the Mapping the Republic of Letters project out of Stanford University. I found this particular project most interesting because it examines a question that I have been wrestling with, too: what is the difference in social and information networks between pre-computing culture and modern, computational culture?
The project is so slick, well-designed, and visually appealing that it is easy to get distracted from the main problem: it’s actually not a digital humanities project at all! It claims to be one, and it certainly is pretty. It’s fancy, with all kinds of great links and nice looking design. But there’s a serious flaw with good design: it can mask systemic problems.In this case, the flaw is not in the project (which is actually very interesting), but in calling it a DH project.

I’m actually being overly harsh here. It IS a DH project, but more in the sense that it is using digital technology to solve a straight-forward humanities inquiry. The “digital” part of this project is in the ease of gathering the data and in the publishing format for it. (But, more on that in the other forum.)

Fundamentally, the Mapping the Republic of Letters project seeks to gather data on the letter-writing networks of great thinkers, such as Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo. The project gives information on the number of letters written by these thinkers, to whom they were written, when they were written, etc. The project then seeks to find nodal points, connections, and patterns in the letter-writing networks.

As I indicated previously, it looks spectacular. It’s a nice project to look at, and it’s fun to play around with the site. But, in the end, it is a project that is simply a “bunch of stuff”… maps, graphs, and charts. It’s not really terribly interactive. For example, it is not possible to click on a particular place on the map and see a list of all the respondents, but also the networks in which the respondents were enmeshed. Instead, the map is just a map. Static.

However, this project is absolutely visionary alongside the Terralingua site. In fairness, Terralingua doesn’t claim to be a digital humanities project. Instead, it is a project that is screaming out for DHres like us to re-imagine it.

In short, the Terralingua project looks at the problems of diminishing biodiversity and diminishing linguistic diversity, and suggests that they are symptoms of the same problems. This idea is fascinating, and could lend itslef to many DH applications: GIS displays that explore the world’s linguistic “hotspots” and “danger zones,” sound files that welcome people to each page and/or give some insight to the languages in question, or even active pages that track an estimate of language loss per day.