Sunday, June 3, 2012

Who owns Plato?

I attended the workshop "édition des textes et recherche interdisciplinaire" at the École Normale Supérieure last week.  As I mentioned in a preceding post,  I'd been thinking about Eben Moglen's talk "Innovation under Austerity," and since I expected that introducing Moglen's argument might be a bit provocative for the traditional audience I expected at the ENS, I cleverly thought I would win them over, or at least delay their criticism, by paraphrasing one of Moglen's memorable soundbites:  "No one owns Plato."

Not so clever.  Apparently, when you gather in the august Salle des Actes at ENS, you can meet people who believe they do own Plato, and don't care to share with others who fall short of their standards, thank you very much.

 (In the foreground, keynote speaker Gregory Crane, director of the Perseus Project defensively photographs the photographer;  partially masked by the screen are the plaques on the walls of the Salle bearing the names of such distinguished scholars in many fields as Louis Pasteur and Fustel de Coulanges.)

Just for fun, I googled the phrase "plato download":  as the screen grab illustrates, google estimated something over 17 million hits for that phrase, including texts in Greek and translation in a variety of languages, podcasts and ebooks (as well as downloads of software packages named after the son of Ariston).  I also found the Wikipedia article on Ruhollah Khomeini noting that Khomeini considered Plato's views "in the field of divinity" to be "grave and solid".   (Since some of the would-be owners of Plato also object to Wikipedia, I can pass along its reference to Kashful-Asrar, p. 33 as the source of that assertion.)

So while I can appreciate highly theorized concerns about the preparation needed to appreciate Plato "properly", the Anglo-Saxon empiricist in me looks at these Google search results and still wonders — just who exactly owns Plato?

Let them hack: Eben Moglen on "disintermediation"

If you have not yet heard Eben Moglen's talk from last week's "Freedom to Connect" conference, with the title "Innovation under Austerity," it's worth listening to every minute of this audio recording including the Q&A session.

I had it on my ipod as I travelled to a conference to show off work students at Holy Cross have done over the past year for the Homer Multitext project, and was struck by how much of Moglen's main thesis is applicable to digital scholarship. He almost implied that innovation naturally happens under conditions of austerity; he unambiguously argued that the best way to promote innovation is to let young people hack on real problems, and get out of the way.

 In the Homer Multitext project, we're learning how to let young people hack on real problems reading unpublished or incompletely published manuscripts. This is not an easy lesson to grasp if your traditional training, like mine, has conditioned you to believe that this kind of work was granted only to the most senior and experienced scholars who had earned the privilege of access to real problems.  "Disintermediation," to use the jargon-term quoted by Moglen, may not look appealing to those of us, like museum curators or professors, who have been doing the mediating between young people and real research problems in the humanities. But in the audio recording of Moglen's talk, I think I can hear a little of the excitement I feel every single day I work with and learn from my 18- to 21-year old colleagues on the Homer Multitext project.

pull; update

Les Arènes de Lutèce (the Roman arena of Paris) is not much of an archaeological site, but it's a lovely French park, surprisingly peaceful despite its location in the bustling 5e arrondissement.   A group of eight or ten men and women, mostly of a certain age, is silently practicing Tai Chi behind me;  opposite us, French school children are clambering over every visible surface and cheerfully pushing, shouting and generally attempting to terrorize each other.  This is not Worcester, Massachusetts.

When I last sat here to soak in the sun more than 20 years ago, the scene was visually and aurally identical, but today I have in my laptop a computer that weighs less than a kilo, connected to the internet because public parks in Paris give you two hours of free wifi.  The seven busy researchers in the St. Isidore research lab at Holy Cross all use mercurial for version control of their work, so I've run hg pull; hg update, and have seen every change they've committed in the day or so since I last had time to look.

Juxtaposing geographic distance with the immediacy of electronic contact may seem like a pretty tired cliché in 2012, but working step-by-step through the progress of a team thousands of kilometers away makes me realize how little we've thought about a fundamental question:  how do we make our research reproducible?   Version control systems like mercurial or git are one important part of the technological puzzle, but they don't by themselves tell us how to organize our material or working practice so that others can easily replicate our work as fully automatically as possible.

I'm introducing a new tag "RR" for the theme of "reproducible research" since I think that is arguably the biggest overarching challenge of architectural design in digital scholarship today.