An experiment in writing in public, one page at a time, by S. Graham, I. Milligan, & S. Weingart

Original Proposal


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Shawn was approached in March of 2013 by ICP, with the idea of some sort of volume exploring ‘big data’ and history. Big history is almost by definition something that cannot be done by one scholar in isolation, and Shawn turned quickly to Ian Milligan and Scott Weingart. Together, we hammered out a proposal over a shared Google doc, and submitted it to ICP’s commissioning editor, Alice Oven. ICP sent the proposal out to five anonymous peer reviewers, whose quick and constructive feedback allowed us to develop a much better proposal. That proposal was accepted by ICP’s board in the middle of the summer of 2013.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One key element in our discussion with ICP was the idea that we wanted to do this work in public, that we wanted to live-write, test-drive, bounce our work, off the wider digital history community. There was a very understandable concern that this approach might cannibalize sales. After much discussion, we all of us agreed to a clause that we would clearly state that the final published product would be different in structure and coherence than what might appear online, and that we would provide a link to the purchase site for the physical and digital versions of the final product. If it can be demonstrated that sales are harmed by this version being available, we have agreed that this version will be shuttered. This seems reasonable. Good editorial guidance has already made this project better than it might otherwise have been, and neither we nor you would want you citing and building an argument on our work if this draft version contains flaws. We are excited by the success that projects like ‘Writing History in the Digital Age‘ have had with opening up the process of writing – Shawn certainly feels that his work was manifestly improved by participating in that experiment – and we are excited to see what will happen next.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Below you will find the major portion of our final proposal that was accepted by ICP.


4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Digital Humanities is partly about understanding what digital tools have to offer, but also (and perhaps more importantly), what ‘digital’ does to how we understand the past, and ourselves. We peel back the layers of a particular approach to big data using topic modelling and network analysis. These techniques, which are growing in popularity in the humanities, need to be examined critically as they have been ported from divergent disciplines and domains.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Historians’ Macroscope further provocatively argues that if historians are to continue as leaders in understanding the social and cultural past, a shift in training and standards is required. The digital turn has generated a plethora of born-digital and digitized sources, offering both challenges and exciting new avenues of inquiry. Using computational approaches like social network analysis and text mining enables new explorations of historical cultures and larger scale synthetic understandings of the past.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We call this book The Historians’ Macroscope to suggest both a tool and a perspective. We are not implying that this is the way historians will ‘do’ history when it comes to big data; rather, it is but one piece of the toolkit, one more way of dealing with ‘big’ amounts of data that historians are now having to grapple with. What is more, a ‘macroscope’, a tool for looking at the very big, deliberately suggests a scientist’s workbench, where the investigator moves between different tools for exploring different scales, keeping notes in a lab notebook. Similarly, an approach to big data for the historian (we argue) needs to be a public approach, with the historian keeping an open notebook so that others may explore the same paths through the information, while possibly reaching very different conclusions. This is a generative approach: big data for the humanities is not only about justifying a story about the past, but generating new stories, new perspectives, given our new vantage points and tools.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 The Digital Humanities have flourished at a moment when digital big data is becoming easily available. Yet, there is a gap in the scholarly literature on the ways these data can be explored to construct cultural heritage knowledge, for both research and in our teaching and learning. We are on the cusp of needing to grasp big data approaches to do our work, whether it’s understanding the underlying algorithms at work in our search engines, or needing to design and use our own tools to process comparatively large amounts of information. This book will fill that gap, and in its live-writing approach, will set the direction for the conversation into the future.

Key Advantages

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 A major advantage of this book is that it approaches the digital humanities from a historical perspective. Complementary monographs such as Reading Machines and Macroanalysis approach the field from an English literature perspective. We instead approach the question from the complementary disciplines of history and archaeology, with our prime focus on what the digital turn holds for the study of the past. To do this, we invoke the metaphor of a macroscope: a tool which enables historians to view large trends and patterns at a glance as microscopes aided in visualizing structures of the very small.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The lengthy monograph format offers key advantages. It permits an integrated approach to the approaches and tools of the digital humanities. Much of the scholarship currently appears in fragmentary venues – individual blogs, the Journal of Digital Humanities, even on Twitter – whereas this book offers an extended reflection. The fragmentary nature of the online discussion is also very platform specific, whereas The Historians’ Macroscope focuses on building data manipulation skills and advancing general principles rather than belaboring over individual lines of code. The book will provide the foundation for future online conversations, making it part of the growing ‘core’ readings for this interdisciplinary field. It will do so by synthesizing together tacit, ephemeral, and dispersed knowledge into one cohesive whole.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 When the book appears, detailed code will be used sparingly, and in “sidebar” format. We will write in a platform-agnostic fashion, as much as possible, since languages and platforms can and do go out of fashion and newer more effective languages are developed (what code there is will be shared in our project’s code repository at https://github.com/ianmilligan1/Historians-Macroscope). In some cases, we will use ‘pseudo-code’ and simplified exemplars, which illustrate the algorithms in such a way that the underlying processes can be easily understood and implemented in the reader’s language of choice (with pointers to quality pre-existing resources where the interested reader can learn more of the nitty-gritty of coding for themselves, such as The Programming Historian). For the purposes of building data manipulation skills and teaching the core concepts, we only assume that our readers will have access to a spreadsheet program, which can be found in Microsoft Office, Apple’s iWork platform, or for free with the OpenOffice suite.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 We believe that a book will reach a larger audience than is currently part of the Digital Humanities community, as it will allow us to reach a traditional academic audience as well as the current web-oriented consumers of digital methodology work. This is a critical point. We will offer a roadmap for people who want to move between the “macro” scale and the “micro” scale (and back again), and how to incorporate it into their workflow. This methodology offers considerable advantages, and we believe humanities scholars of varying technical levels will profit from being introduced to it.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Increasingly rapid advances in computing power and data mining techniques mean that the book has to be written with an eye to both short term software and method issues, and longer term, broader issues of theory. One key advantage of this proposal is that we would ‘live-write’ the book on a Commentpress platform (http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/) allowing us to enter into a dialogue with our intended audience at every stage of the book’s production, and to respond to the latest developments of both technology and theory.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 This kind of ‘open’ peer-review and community building approach has been used with some success on other projects, but is still quite rare. This draft online book and all of its comments would be allowed to stand after the project was completed, thus becoming a jumping off point for other discussions on how historians practice history.

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Source: http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=2