Computer Science is a broad field with an even broader impact. Certainly, it is science rich in unexplored territory best surveyed through hypothesis, experimentation, and observation. It is also a toolbox that empowers experts from other fields to explore their own unanswered questions. For rapidly aging engineering types like me, it’s easy to explain how Computer Science enables physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers to hone their respective crafts. However, the impact of Computer Science actually stretches far beyond these more familiar areas. Increasingly today, it influences and informs the work of writers, linguists, historians, social scientists, theologians, and artists from all media. It may be a slight exaggeration, but I’ve never been one to shy away from bragging about my adopted field: Computer Science is the catalyst of a new renaissance.
I had an opportunity to back up the claim when I gave a talk entitled “Computing and the Humanities” for Lewis’ Arts and Ideas series on Monday. You can download the slides here and watch a recording of the presentation here. In the presentation, I give a number of examples of how computing is being used to identify and answer questions that have never been asked before. Computer Science gives scholars an unprecedented ability to collect, catalog, and characterize previously unimaginable quantities of data, identifying patterns that would otherwise be lost in the avalanche. Advanced distributed computing and data storage techniques, coupled with intuitive, engaging, and didactic web presentation tools, enable researchers spread all over the globe to collaborate on issues of shared interest. Documents that once lay as scraps in unorganized heaps now find new life as links to other documents, helping fill in details that mean the difference between speculation and well-reasoned hypothesis. Spatial data gathered from geographic information systems (GISs) can help explain why field generals decided to lead troops to their defeat, or how intellectual movements spread across continents, or how political or religious affiliations rose to and fell from prominence. Massive data storage, high-speed communications, algorithms for pattern recognition and trend spotting, intuitive user interfaces, tools for long-distance interaction and conferencing, and flexible data visualization techniques: these are what the machines of Computer Science contribute to our understanding of man.
Some, however, see the machines as intruders. Some resent efforts to quantify what is inherently unquantifiable. They argue against the assignment of numbers to issues of heart and soul. They criticize the growing field of culturomics, which seeks to characterize the emergence of cultural trends through data mining and crowd-sourcing, as reducing scholarship to an act of counting. These concerns would be valid if they fairly captured how computer technology is actually being used. By itself, applying tools from Computer Science to issues in the humanities and social sciences does not constitute scholarship, no more than digging through dirt with a pickaxe defines the work of an archeologist. Computers provide the tools, but it is in the interpretation of what the tools unearth that scholarship takes form.
My hope is that this presentation could provide a starting point for a semester-long Arts and Ideas series in the Spring. My engineering training makes me a dime store humanist at best. The exploration of how digital technology transforms and enables innovative research in the humanities and social scientists is best left to experts in those fields.