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A Grand Challenge for the Humanities and Social Sciences

In the 1970s experimental networks emerged from the university and were, at first gingerly, picked up by the general public. At this stage the most interesting applications for these networks came out of the university world: the Ethernet protocol was developed in Robert Metcalfe’s (initially unsuccessful) Harvard dissertation (1973); twenty years later, in April 1993, Mosaic―the first graphical web browser, from which are descended all other browsers that we use today―was released from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In the next year, Web traffic grew at an annual rate of 341,634%. 1By 2004, just about a decade after Mosaic, the networks had become completely public in nature, and they are now thoroughly naturalized by the public. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 60% of Americans are online:

On a typical day at the end of 2004, some 70 million American adults logged onto the Internet to use email, get news, access government information, check out health and medical information, participate in auctions, book travel reservations, research their genealogy, gamble, seek out romantic partners and engage in countless other activities. That represents a 37% increase from the 52 million adults who were online on an average day in 2000 when the Pew Internet & American Life Project began its study of online life. . . . The Web has become the “new normal” in the American way of life; those who don’t go online constitute an ever-shrinking minority.

By 2005, the Pew Survey reports, the percentage of American adults online had increased—in one year—from 60% to 73%. 2But it is teenagers (12-17) who have the highest share of Internet participation (87% are online): they regard e-mail as “something for ‘old people,’” and they have “embraced the online applications that enable communicative, creative, and social uses. [They] are significantly more likely than older users to send and receive instant messages, play online games, create blogs, download music, and search for school information.” 3

The challenge for scholars and teachers is to ensure that they engage this outpouring of creative energy, seize this openness to learning, and lead rather than follow in the design of this new cultural infrastructure. And, in fact, over the last fifty years, a small but growing number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences have been using digital tools and technologies with increasing sophistication and innovation, transforming their practices of collaboration and communication. Some have been true media pioneers, testing the limits of the systems, policies, and funding sources that support digital scholarship. These digital groundbreakers have provided breathtaking views into what could be achieved with a more robust humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure. What new heights would be reached if a leveraged, coordinated investment, as outlined in this report, were undertaken?

Were such an infrastructure available, scholars would not be the only beneficiaries: everyone online could explore connections within a cultural record that is now scattered across libraries, archives, museums, galleries, and private collections around the world, under varying conditions of stability and accessibility. A better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our past would result, as well as a richer framework for learning and scholarship.

In spite of high-profile efforts such as Google Book Search, 4most of the human record has not yet been digitized, nor is it likely to be for some time to come. For the humanities and social sciences, then, an effective cyberinfrastructure will have to support the computer-assisted use of both physical and digital resources, and it will have to enable communication and collaboration using a range of digital surrogates for physical artifacts; in fact, it will have to embody an understanding of the continuity between digital and physical, rather than promoting the notion that the two are distinct from or opposed to one another. A cyberinfrastructure for humanities and social sciences must encourage interactions between the expert and the amateur, the creative artist and the scholar, the teacher and the student. It is not just the collection of data—digital or otherwise—that matters: at least as important is the activity that goes on around it, contributes to it, and eventually integrates with it.

Creating such an infrastructure is a grand challenge for the humanities and social sciences, and indeed for the academy, the nation, and the world, because a digitized cultural heritage is not limited by or contained within disciplinary boundaries, individual institutions, or national borders. The resources that make up our cultural record are often found far from the site of their creation and use, carried off as spoils of war, relocated to museum exhibitions or storage, or hidden away in private collections. We now have an opportunity to create an integrated digital representation of the cultural record, connecting its disparate parts and making the resulting whole more available to one and all, over the network.

Creating this integrated, networked cultural record will require intensive collaboration among scholars as well as cooperation with librarians, curators, and archivists; the involvement of experts in the sciences, law, business, and entertainment; and active participation from and endorsement by the general public. Enabling anything like seamless access to the cultural record will require developing tools to navigate among vast catalogs of born-digital and digitized materials, as well as the records of physical materials: it will also require addressing daunting problems in digital preservation, copyright, and economic sustainability. The return on this investment will be a humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure that will allow new questions to be asked, new patterns and relations to be discerned, and deep structures in language, society, and culture to be exposed and explored.

Librarians, curators, archivists, and the private sector are already joining forces with the objective of creating universal access to knowledge anywhere and everywhere. The Open Content Alliance has shown that commercial, nonprofit, and university content creators can cooperate in powerful ways to increase open access to cultural resources. Google has as its stated mission “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”—albeit not on open-access terms. From a technical perspective, Google Book Search has shown that we can digitize collections of millions of books, although it needs to be acknowledged that even those millions of books constitute only a tiny fraction of the cultural record that exists in archives, museums of all types, and rare book collections as well as, of course, in music, visual arts, maps, photography, movies, radio, television, video games, and other forms of new media.

Librarians speak increasingly today of building the “global digital library,” while museum curators talk of “heading toward a kind of digital global museum”; archivists have been experimenting with virtual finding aids that provide unified online access to records that are physically dispersed. 5Yet the digital medium is compelling and effective not just because it integrates materials otherwise divided in space and time, but also because it integrates these various genres in ways that make it possible to extend study relatively seamlessly across them. Every day, these nontextual materials proliferate faster than does text, and every day, they grow in importance to fields throughout the humanities and social sciences. Our communications environment already includes not just text but still and moving images, audio files, and social interactivity forums, making it imperative that the humanities and social sciences be included in the process of designing cyberinfrastructure.

As the Internet becomes home to more of our cultural heritage, the issues of access, management, and preservation become ever more critical. In their study “How Much Information,” Peter Lyman and Hal R. Varian have tracked the steadily increasing amounts of information produced each year, in all media. In 2003, analyzing chiefly 2002 data, they estimated production of 300 terabytes (TB) of print, 25TB of movies, 375,000TB of digital photography, 987TB of radio, 8,000TB of television, 58TB of audio CDs—and their estimates do not include software (such as video games) or materials originally produced for the Web, or more ephemeral forms of digital information such as phone calls or instant messaging. 6A Wall Street Journal article in late 2005 described the effort that the National Archives and Records Administration is making to manage the digital output of the federal government: from President George W. Bush’s administration, the expected volume of e-mail alone is estimated to be more than 100 million messages. 7

The challenge is indeed grand in scale; hence, now is the time for ambitious thinking about what advances in information technology and communications networks have to offer the humanities and social sciences, and, in turn, and how such advances can ultimately serve the public.

Footnotes

  1. Hobbes' Internet Timeline v8.0 http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/.
  2. http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/Internet_Status_2005.pdf.
  3. http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Generations_Memo.pdf.
  4. http://books.google.com/intl/en/googlebooks/about.html.
  5. See Deanna Marcum, “The Sum of the Parts: Turning Digital Library Initiatives into a Great Whole,”: keynote address to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, Denver, Colorado (8 June 2005); and Ben Williams, lead librarian at the Field Museum, quoted in James Gorman, “In Virtual Museums, An Archive of the World,” New York Times, 12 Jan. 2003.
  6. Peter Lyman, and Hal R. Varian, "How Much Information" (2003) http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003.
  7. Anne Marie Squeo, “Oh, Has Uncle Sam Got Mail: As Digital Documents Pile Up, The National Archives Worries about Technical Obsolescence.” Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec. 2005.

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