|Title:||Print Resources in History and Computing|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Print Resources in History and Computing
vol. 10, no. 1, February 2007
Print Resources in History and Computing
The Journal of the Association for History and Computing, JAHC, presents the latest print research in the use of computers and computing in historical studies. To that end, this column presents the latest print research in the application of computers to the field of history. However, this column recognizes that relevant print resources for readers of the JAHC cannot be narrowly defined by the fields of technology and history. Thus, print resources reviewed in this column address a broad array of disciplines and applications of computers and computing in these disciplines though always with attention to how such resources may inform and shape our practice of history.
Entries are listed in alphabetical order by author
In the Print Resources column in this issue, three of the four books reviewed consider the history of science. Nancy Webster reviews Peter Pesic's Sky in a Bottle, which traces the history of the question: Why is the sky is blue? Ranging from the ancients to the moderns, Pesic catalogues philosophical, scientific, and artistic efforts to define the color blue. Imitation of Life: How Biology is Inspiring Computing by Nancy Forbes and reviewed by Genevieve Williams provides a survey of scientific thinking about a postsilicon era in computing. In his book Memory Practices in the Sciences, Geoffrey C. Bowker considers three "memory epochs" and the implications of each period's reconstruction and reconfiguration of scientific knowledge. According to reviewer Mark Matienzo, Bowker's analysis remains "lucid and remarkably easy to follow" despite the complexity of the subject. Finally, Mary Hayes reviews Creating EAD-Compatible Finding Guides on Paper by Elizabeth H. Dow. Dow reminds archivists that even if they are not creating electronic finding aids now there is value in writing paper finding aids that are compatible with later EAD implementation.
Geoffrey C. Bowker. Memory Practices in the Sciences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. 312 p. $34.95. ISBN 0-262-02589-2.
Geoffrey C. Bowker's latest book, Memory Practices in the Sciences, continues his intellectual project set forth in his previous works such as Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (with Susan Leigh Star, 2000) and Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Science at Schumberger, 1920-1940 (1994). Specifically, he investigates the way that science structures history as the mediation of time and information through analysis of three "memory epochs" from the nineteenth century through to the present day.
Bowker first discusses the changing nature of geology in the nineteenth century as impacted by Charles Lyell's magnum opus, Principles of Geology (1830-1833). Lyell redeveloped geology radically through his statement that sets of geological forces were identical through time rather than there being isolated, abrupt changes. Since our knowledge of geology is limited to the most recent geological events, this prevented the geologist from studying the origin of the earth, as no traces of it were accessible for study. Bowker links Lyell's theses to the changing nature of time and memory as a result of the Industrial Revolution in three main areas, which all can be considered forms of a "second nature": the quantification of time into discrete, exchangeable units (time as currency); the regularization of time qua metaphor of mechanization (time as order); and the standardization of time necessary for globalization (time as coordinate). Bowker also asserts that Lyell's geology was a reaction to a rapid information explosion and served as a classification system for it, replacing the singularity of geological events with the systematization of a limited set of events.
Bowker's second area of analysis is cybernetics, which developed first in the United States following the Second World War. The overarching principle of cybernetics is the existence of an idealized set of machine forms, which allows for the description of any type of machine behavior. Cyberneticists viewed a wide variety of systems such as guided missiles, economies, and animal and human behavior as machines that responded to input to produce feedback. This universality of cybernetics was matched by its emphasis on collaboration of researchers across various disciplines with the ultimate goal of subsuming all of them into a metascience of cybernetics. This in turn required the development of a common language that could address the functional similarities of mind and machine. Bowker implies that cybernetics thus attempted to eradicate the differences in time scale across disciplines, replacing it with a "time with agency" that characterized past scientific developments and anticipated others through continuous adaptation. His conclusion is that these ideological aspects of cybernetics eliminate the need for history of science since it would inadequately capture the entirety of the constantly evolving system and inhibit the system from responding to feedback properly. In essence, memory must be destroyed to allow the subsumation of all disciplines and systems into cybernetics.
The remaining three chapters are dedicated to investigating the emerging science of biodiversity and its memory practices. Bowker's overwhelming emphasis on this topic is explained by the nebulosity of biodiversity as a field. In opposition to cybernetics, biodiversity seeks to classify all entities within the "web of life" yet preserves the interactions between them across spatiotemporal axes in an idealized unified database. However, researchers across disciplines, geographical area, and taxonomic specialty must interact for mutual benefit, but also protect their individual interests, which are often economic. Differing classification systems that have varying degrees of incompatibility and the inability of individual systems to classify everything efficiently further complicates the state of biodiversity. Accordingly, there is no monolithic database that has successfully flattened the landscape of biodiversity information while meeting the needs of all researchers. Bowker concludes by noting two competing modalities to deal with the explosion of biodiversity data: a modality of implosion, where all categories of organism are given a particular economic value, and a modality of particularity, wherein as many individual species as possible are identified, generating a complete list. Furthermore, as in the cases of geology and cybernetics, time mediates these modalities through background stasis (the boundary of culture) and foreground change (the boundary of nature).
The final premise is that between all three epochs the burden of investigation is placed upon the present, through Lyell's geology to the most recent developments in biodiversity. Ultimately, all three disciplines synchronize first with second nature and matter with metaphor successfully to varying degrees. Bowker's analysis throughout the book is lucid and remarkably easy to follow despite the complicated interconnections within cybernetics and biodiversity that comprise its majority. Furthermore, one can recognize the implications of his investigation onto a variety of other disciplines. In all, Bowker has elegantly drawn from a wide variety of literature and has created a common thread between multiple disciplines without attempting to subsume them.
Elizabeth H. Dow. Creating EAD-Compatible Finding Guides on Paper. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2005. 151 p. $42.00 ISBN 0-8108-5166-0.
The ubiquitous nature of the World Wide Web has made electronic finding aids a major topic of discussion among archivists in recent years. Further, EAD (Encoded Archival Description) has surfaced as the vehicle most likely to endure in the online environment. And while repositories might not possess the personnel or funding required to implement EAD in the short term, it is a simple, yet prudent matter to initially prepare paper finding aids that contain the elements required by EAD. For Elizabeth Dow, the value of preparing paper finding guides with an eye toward online EAD implementation is clear - reinventing the wheel is never a good use of the archivist's time and energy.
With this book, Elizabeth Dow has written a well-organized, concise primer that provides the novice with the overall guidance to create paper finding guides that contain the requisite EAD elements in a form accepted by EAD standards. It is not an EAD text, yet this easy-to-follow guide succinctly provides the intellectual guideposts required to create paper finding guides with an eye on future EAD conversion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters, a glossary and bibliography that, through discussion and example, address topics integral to conventional finding aids and the differences between the traditional paper and electronic environments. In order to bring the user up to speed on the relevant conventions, she provides brief explanations of ISAD(G), DACS, EAD, and RLG. In the preface, she states that she "intend[s] this book to help you put together an archival finding aid that will convert easily to EAD." She stresses focusing on the differentiation and standardization of the finding aid's required data elements in order to ease the conversion process. And while her arguments do support the idea of online finding aids, she initially does not make a strong enough case for EAD vs. HTML. It is one of the book's few shortcomings. Dow does discuss this issue later in the book (and provides compelling reasons for the implementation of EAD), however the reader may determine early on that EAD conversion is not worth the time or resources to continue reading. Further, the limited discussion of XML included in Chapter 3, Anatomy of a Markup Language, doesn't adequately clarify those concepts to a reader in need of a basic if not comprehensive appreciation of XML.
Significantly, Chapter 5, Putting It All on Paper, and Chapter 6, Intellectual Access and Information Retrieval, get to the heart of the conversion process. Chapter 5 addresses the form and structural differences of the data elements that are found in the linear nature of paper finding aids and in their electronic cousins. Dow points out these differences that while obvious in hindsight, will prevent a clean text conversion if not addressed. Continuing this thread, the brief discussion included in Chapter 6 concerns the all important topic of standardization. In probably the most important chapter, Dow ties together the importance of providing the highest level of accessibility to the materials with the practice of using standardized authority files. She rightly emphasizes the importance of planning and implementation of file standardization in an electronic environment. That said, Chapter 7, Starting your EAD Collection doesn't seem to sufficiently communicate the skills and time commitment required to implement an EAD project. Almost anyone can become proficient in EAD, but it does take a significant commitment in time and energy to master its intricacies.
Even considering these minor criticisms, the book is a must read for any repository, large or small. Its usefulness cannot be overstated. This short work, just over 150 pages, provides comprehensive starting points for archivists preparing their collections for an online future. The many examples, glossary and bibliography provide a readily available reference that archivists preparing their collections for a future online will refer to again and again.
Nancy Forbes. Imitation of Life: How Biology is Inspiring Computing. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. xv + 171 pp. Notes, index. $25.95 (hardcover), ISBN 0-262-06241-0.
Once upon a time, attaching the cyber- prefix to anything was a sure ticket to instant buzz; from cyberspace to cyberpunk, it expanded technology's confines beyond the mainframe, the server room, and the desktop and provoked starry-eyed visions of the future.
Now it's biology's turn. Attach bio- to the front of anything and experience immediate immersion in the discourse of the future: bioengineering, biotechnology, bioinformatics, bioterrorism. As was the case with the cyber-explosion, this profusion of terminology - some of it changing definition almost hour by hour - is only the tip of the iceberg. Forbes's brief but detailed work takes a tour through the realm that has been the dream of futurologists and science fiction fans since the early days of cyberpunk: the fusion of computing and biology. This is a survey work, intended for the literate nonspecialist; techniques are described but not demonstrated, and the book is grounded in the history of computing and the names that made it a technological watershed. Prominent among these is digital computing pioneer John von Neumann, who not only laid important foundations for computer architecture, but compared the biochemical processes of life to computing.
This historical emphasis makes the ideas and technologies Forbes describes seem all the more remarkable. Many of them, such as nanotechnology and artificial life, will be familiar even to general readers; others, such as computer immune systems, are clearly ideas whose time has come. Each chapter of Imitation of Life focuses on a particular concept or technology, the chapter titles typically pairing a computing concept with a biological one. Hence: "Artificial Neural Networks," "Evolutionary Algorithms," "DNA Computation," and so on. Each chapter gives some detail on the background and development of its subject, often with brief explanations of computational and scientific concepts which are critical to understanding how the technology (or proposed technology) works. Forbes also explores the applications and potential applications, noting barriers to a technology's viability and speculating on future research.
The final chapter, "Biology through the Lens of Computer Science," reverses the emphasis which has prevailed until that point. Instead of discussing ways in which biological research has influenced and even been applied to computing, this chapter explores ways in which advances in computer science and technology are influencing biological research. This might merit a book all on its own: from the amassing and sharing of data to models of biochemical processes based on computer science concepts, Forbes argues that the partnership between biology and computing is a two-way street. Nonetheless, as her discussion of this aspect of the partnership is accorded a single chapter, is necessarily brief.
Forbes is a science and technology analyst for the U.S. federal government; as such, her discussion tends to focus on government and government-funded research. This is to be expected, given the cutting-edge nature of her subject matter: however, it is reasonable to speculate that the applicability of some of these technologies range beyond the research lab. Forbes's discussion of commercial applications is largely confined to recent history and the present, such as when she describes the ever-increasing ubiquity of the integrated circuit in devices Americans use every day. Admittedly, any discussion of commercial applications of cellular automata or DNA computation must remain speculative until these subjects are better understood and the barriers to their widespread use surmounted. On the other hand, any owner of a computer with an Internet connection will immediately see the potential benefits of a computer immune system.
Imitation of Life contains fewer than four pages of bibliographic notes, perhaps not surprising for a survey work dealing with a relatively novel area of research. A large number of these are personal communications, rather than published studies; since most of these date from the early 2000s, readers interested in following up on some of the ideas presented may wish to search for more recent published material. On the other hand, this bibliography, sparse as it is, speaks to the immediacy and the ongoing nature of Forbes's subject. Imitation of Life was published in 2004, meaning that most of the research for it was done a year or more before, and is being reviewed in 2006. The state of the frontier has certainly changed. Yet, for anyone wishing to explore current research in an arena which already yields groundbreaking results, Imitation of Life is a good place to start.
Peter Pesic. Sky in a Bottle. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005. 256 pp. $24.95 (hardcover), ISBN 0-262-16234-2.
My son has not yet asked my why the sky is blue. In college I was too intrigued by the beauty of Enlightenment French and the (pre) Existentialist side of the question of color to consider the scientific quest Voltaire merged into his thoughts and queries. Moreover, I now have had the opportunity to explore and understand this all-important question through a monograph: Peter Pesic's Sky in a Bottle. I would encourage others to read this book both for pleasure and as a resource into the history of scientific thought. If blue is so beautiful, why are dear, lifeless human bodies blue? Is there unity in nature? Who created the first color photograph? What is a cynometer? What is a wave? How did anyone solve these and other mysteries? In this book the reader will find a chorological survey of these queries and how answers were obtained.
The book's title takes its name from actual known experiments by Leonardo da Vinci, Horace Saussure, John Tyndell, and others to create the color of the sky in a bottle. Art traverses science in this inquiry and, according to Pesic, in life.
Sky in a Bottle is a delightful historiographical romp through the question of the blue (or appearance thereof) sky's history in Western civilization. This work is also a lesson in scientific knowledge building. Briefly, light, color, sound waves, wavelengths, heat and motion, and global warming - physics - are phenomena explored here.
The book's treatises led the reader through the evolution of progress and methods. Examining the work of many important scientists and "thinkers" through time, Pesic introduces the reader to the work of popularly known scientists and theorists as well as those known only known to experts in their respective fields. Sky is an example of how a timeline monograph should be written as we learn about Pierre Bouguer and his Optical Treatise on the Graduation of Light, Johann Lambert and his treatise on photometry, and the Lords Raleigh and their explorations.
Sky is a light read. However, the prose is well-formed without being breezy. Divided into 10 chapters, all including the word blue, the first is entitled "Out of the Blue" and last, "The Perfect Blue." Complete footnotes, experiment instructions arranged by chapter, and an addendum of correspondence between personages in the story fulfill curiosities that may arise as the reader moves through the book.
Rarely does Pesic introduce a term or concept without explanation. An occasional citation does appear out of place. (This is particularly true for literary citations.) To my reading, no female scientists or thinkers are included. This is an unfortunate oversight.
In sum, this is both a charming and useful monograph for a wide audience.