Tagged: gender

Digital humanities, tacit knowledge, and (re)making the world in whose image?

This year, I helped set up a digital humanities speaker series for our department, titled Goals and Boundaries in the Digital Humanities. The series will bring in speakers from inside and outside IIT to discuss the current state of the art in digital humanities and explore disciplinary issues associated with the field. The speakers come from many backgrounds–different academic humanities disciplines, library and archive work, computer science, museum studies, design, and public history.

As I was working on it, I ran into some articles that seemed especially apropos given that our speaker series is part of a larger effort to define what we should be aiming for as we try to create a digital humanities program within the department.

‘‘Another Bobby Pin.’’ This cartoon appeared in the British Tabulating Machine Company magazine Tabacus in January 1957 (p. 13). (Courtesy of the British Tabulating Machine Company)

The first looks at the implications of tacit knowledge and the “commonsense” divisions thrown up between being, thinking, doing, and discourse. It struck an especial chord with me because of what I work on–in addition to the implications of race and privilege the author points out, there is a subtly gendered order at work here as well. Framing the debate as being between those who do (hackers) and those who can only sit on the sidelines and talk (yackers) implicitly leverages a long history of gendered categories–from those surrounding masculine professional expertise, to those enabling and privileging amateur tinkering.

The second article is a response to the first that hits on many of my concerns, and additionally points out how queer and postmodern analysis may in fact be deprecated by the hack ideal. I like how this piece encourages us to think about the hidden issues at work in the creation of canonical knowledge in the digital humanities: what exactly do we know as we’re trying to create new knowledge? And how does this old knowledge in fact predetermine much of the new?

I’m sure we’ll discuss these issues (and more) as we proceed through our seminar series. Anyone at IIT (and other local universities) is welcome to attend. The first meeting is on September 20th, in Siegel Hall, room 218 conference room.

Bletchley Park’s Colossus Rebuild

This summer, while doing research at the UK National Archives, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a side-trip to the Bletchley Park historical site in Milton Keynes.

The site of some of the most important codebreaking of World War II, Bletchley Park now functions as a museum of early British codebreaking and computing. A dedicated team there has painstakingly constructed a working model of the Colossus, the 1900-vaccuum tube behemoth designed and built by London Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers in 1943 to speed “Tunny” codebreaking operations using codebreaker William Tutte’s statistical method. The Colossus rebuild is a sight to behold–and hear–as you can see from the video below:

Though Turing and his electromechanical Bombes get a lot of credit for wartime codebreaking successes (there is a working Bombe rebuild at BP too), it was Flowers’s Colossi that sped up British codebreaking to the point of maximal utility. They were the first digital, programmable computers to harness the speed of electronics for time-sensitive, mission-critical work. His team produced 10 of the massive machines between late 1943 and the war’s end, frantically working out of a factory-like workshop in Birmingham after building the first Colossus at the Dollis Hill Research Station in London. Colossus II, installed just days before D-Day, was so critical to the success of the D-Day landings that (as B. Jack Copeland reports) the operators had to keep the machine running despite the floor being flooded–they put on thick rubber boots so that they didn’t get electrocuted.

You can see an image of Women’s Royal Naval Service members working on a Colossus here. (From I. J. Good, D. Michie, and G. Timms, General Report on Tunny With Emphasis on Statistical Methods, 1945, 332, HW 2/25, TNA). The workers have been identified as Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker (right) by historian B. Jack Copeland.)

While I was at the exhibit, I overheard a father trying to explain to his young son what the Colossus was, in terms he thought the boy might understand. Brandishing his iPhone, he said: “See, this phone is millions of times more powerful than that big computer.”

Call me back when your iPhone wins a war, I thought.