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Verona 2015

Final Conference Del Laboratorio Di Informatica Umanistica

Over these months of January, February, and March of 2016 I have been a Visiting Professor at the University of Verona where I ran a seminar on the Ethics of Big Data that introduced PhD students to the digital humanities through thinking about data and infrastructure. With the publication of The Digital Humanist and a visit by Domenico Fiormonte and Teresa Mancini we organized a short conference on the digital humanities. The conference brought together the students who gave short presentations and those of us presenting about the book and discussing "Digital Humanities italiane e internazionale a confronto".

These were written live so they are full of typos and inaccuracies - email me with corrections or updates.

Prof. Soldani: Welcome

Soldani welcomed us for this conclusion of our digital humanities laboratory which included talks by Ferarini and myself over these three months.

Student Presentations

The doctoral students from

Damiano Migliorini: Ontologia dei Big Data

Damiano from philosophy presented on the understanding of ontology both in computing and philosophy. In computing they talk about "ontological engineering" - the categorizing of data. This comes from a dream of a universal library or language which in fact is a tower of Babel. In philosophy we ask questions about knowledge - how do we pass from the world to data to wisdom. Then he raised a number of ethical questions:

  • Is data neutral or benign?
  • Is data "jussive"?
  • Is data a dispotif of power?
  • Is big data a large library or something else ontologically?
  • Can we look at the infrastructure as structuring our sense of what is?

He ended by noting that we should think about how we create the infrastructure for doing the humanities.

Francesco Benoni: Dialogue AI and the future of philosophy

Francesco is a classical philosopher. In his field they already have all their digital text since the 1980s. It is a digitized field, so to speak. But the digital hasn't really changed how they do philosophy - just the speed. He asked what it would mean to try to change the way we dialogue in philosophy using AI. If we succeeded would that be the end of philosophy? He looked at pedagogical uses of computer-based dialogue. AI doesn't work, but the Plato

Interestingly, philosophy also provides a tradition of thinking about how we use

Carlo Vareschi: Who's afraid of the big bad DH? Portrait of the Digital Humanist as a Young Man

Carlo is studying British drama. He looked at David Lodge's "Small World" which shows us an early age of computing and the humanities as stylistics. Lodge describes the character Dempsey as thick, heavy with narrow eyes and gaga over computers. A Frankenstein. Lodge then confronts Dempsey with other characters including an author who is stunned to be shown that his language (style) is dominated by "grease". This leads to writer's block - the quantitative self-knowledge forces the author to reinvent his writing. Dempsey ends up having a twisted dialogue/affair with Eliza.

For Carlo this novel presents an ironic portrait of the field of digital humanities in its early years and how it engaged both the world of literary criticism and that of authorship.

Tania Triberio: Syntax-lexicography Interface - a digital approach

Tania studies Russian and in particular a class of words that are predicative for which there is no equivalent in Italian. She is using Valency Theory to show when these predictaves function as verbs or adjectives. She is building a corpus of uses looking at dictionaries, looking at Russian corpora and interviews. She hopes to then be able to provide a better model for bilingual dictionary entry for these that helps Italians understand how they are used and how to use them. She is now thinking about how to use HTML and XML to structure her data so she can then use style

Dora Renna: English and IT: Layering Infrastructures

Dora challenged us to think about how IT folk use English as infrastructure through our programming languages. She looked at the most widespread programming languages and they are all in English. She found some interesting alternatives like RoboMind (12 languages) and non-linguistic ones. She surveyed a number of programmers in Lecce. All of them said English is Fundamental (65%) or Important (35%). They used Java, PhP, C, Javascript - all in English. They said they would use English if they wanted to create a new programming language. They talked about all the ways they use English:

  • To get help on forums
  • To document so others can use what they do
  • To present at conferences

In short there is a hegemony of English to the field.

Stefano Bazzaco: Le Collezioni Digitali Del Progetto Mambrino

Stefano talked about the design of a scholarly digital edition of the cycle of Amadis de Gaula. They have page images, now they want to create a TEI-tagged text that will suit their research and publishing needs. For example, they have a genealogical tree of characters and a collection of summaries with an index of names. He looked at how TEI could be used to tag the text with in mind a model for how they want it look. He talked about the problems of overlapping hierarchies when you have page breaks in the middle of words. They have developed a model for a simple digital text that can being managed with the resources they have.

Federica Zoppi: Topic Modelling E Analisi Narrative: Un'Idea Per Lo Studio

Federica developed a hypothesis about how topic modelling could be used to study narrative. She rightly noted the difficulty of identifying the narrative words, which may not be statistically significant. The topics extracted might not tell us the narrative, but might help us understand what is happening alongside the narrative.

Flavia Palma: Decameron Digitale

Flavia described the difficulties of studying the Decameron in paper. She imagined a digital edition. In particular she imagined a hypertextual edition that would:

  • Connect the stories by the different narrators that cross the different days. She wanted to also look at the reactions to the different
  • Follow characters through like Calandrino
  • Follow themes like "la beffa" which is both the explicit theme of the eighth day and shows up elsewhere

These digital editions would help with really large texts like the Decameron that are hard to handle in print.

Silvia Panicieri: Crossing languages and defining identities: the pailmpsestic world of Agnes Lehóczky

Silvia is studying a Hungarian poet who moved to the UK, Agnes Lehóczky. Lehóczky's poetry is itself a palimpsest that deals often with architecture and layers. Silivia used Voyant to study one prose poem, "Prelude, On a Crowded Catacomb of a Ceiling: Meditation n Norwich Cathedral." Silvia talked about the Cathedral and its roof bosses, spectacular carvings up on the ceiling.

Using Voyant she pointed out how many of the most frequent words have a "sh" or "ss" sound like ceiling, city, say, sky. She did some neat graphics by exporting to Excel. She made a word cloud. She then imagined further analytics using Part of Speech (POS) tagging.

Lehóczky has been defined a "fiercely" contemporary poetry.

Mariaelisa Dimino: Il problema dell'edizione critica digitale di un imagetext

Mariaelisa is studying Alfred Kubin, a German poet and designer. His texts combine visual and textual codes. How would one create a digital edition of such image texts? Such texts offer problems about representation and technology. She showed the Durer print from 1525 that has the artist looking through a grid at a woman. There is a cultural and ideological bias to representation. Western epistemology tell us that images are art, not science. Computing evolves out of science and text - formalized languages. She ended by suggesting that we should draw on Johanna Drucker's work Graphesis that challenges the rational epistemology of visualization. We need ways of modelling that starts from the visual not the textual.

Francesca Dainese: From Big Data To ... Dear Data

Francesca talked about the visual design work of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. These designers exchanged postcards for a year with big data ideas. See

Lupi's company Accurat for a while was generating a two-page spread infographic for the Corriere della Sera. Psavec has been generating physical objects that represent information.

Presentation of the book

We then presented and discussed The Digital Humanist. I will post my thoughts on my blog later after editing them a bit.

Tiziana Mancinelli

Tiziana Mancinelli spoke next and she first talked about the parts of the book. She outlined how the book unfolds:

  • There is first a historical and sociological evolution of informatics. We have, instead of the usual tour of successful technologies, a view of the history that draws on the history and philosophy of science and technology.
  • They discuss the models, the tools and resources so far and then go on, and she quotes McGann, to ask what is to be done?
  • They write about the infrastructures that we depend on, the hegemony of code, the development of standards, and digital divide. They challenge the paradigm of the digital humanities - the model is inside a Western epistemology and bears its marks.
  • Finally, they ask how do we transmit our assumptions through technologies?

She mentioned McLuhan - as cultural memory shifts from the archive to the digital - what happens to the book? In DH we want to let in not only new technologies, but also new theories - how would a feminist infrastructure be imagined?

One thing they don't have is a chapter on modelling. Every book in DH has a chapter on modelling - but no one knows what it is really. Then she talked about RDF - semantic web - the end of the book goes from text to RDF. She also talked about the dangers of the algorithms and how these algorithms are power. Facebook as algorithm - we have to understand the power these free tools have and we have to be responsible for the way knowledge is transmitted.


We had a spirited discussion about language and English and DH. I disagreed with Domenico on how to respond to the domination of English in DH. I wanted to say that simply attacking organizations run by people who are themselves just as busy is a way of closing dialogue. We need to find a way to mitigate the difficulties without attacking those who, in good faith are trying to help. DH is seeing a fracturing of the community as groups (often linguistic) are breaking off for various reasons. This may be a good thing, and it is partly in response to the field becoming unwieldy and unfriendly to various subgroups, but it may also lead to many solitudes. We need, as Mancinelli mentioned, ideas about what to do next?



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