The (Uncommon) Challenge of the Cultural Commonwealth

by Gary Wells, Ithaca College

A Review of Our Cultural Commonwealth: ACLS Report on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences

Our Cultural Commonwealth, the 2006 report of the American Council of Learned SocietiesCommission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences, makes a rational and forceful case for coordinated action and clear policy on technology in the humanities and social sciences.

Emphasizing the importance and potential of technology for the study and dissemination of cultural knowledge through the development of an appropriate digital infrastructure, the report provides an important basis for forward-looking discussion and planning, not only about technology, but also about the nature of cultural scholarship in a digital environment.
The commission, chaired by John Unsworth, set out to make the case for building, implementing, supporting and integrating a technological foundation for the humanities and the “non-normative” social sciences. These disciplines have traditionally been slow, even reluctant, to embrace information technology (a reluctance compounded by the lack of a sense of urgency in this regard by college administrators). Our Cultural Commonwealth should be read by academic, governmental and cultural leaders, as well as scholars and academics, who have a vested interest in securing the future vitality of the humanities and social sciences.

The report is divided into three parts, corresponding to the commission’s charge: an analysis and overview of the history and current state of humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure; an analysis of the needs and potentials of such an infrastructure; and an action plan for the future, including a set of eight recommendations in support of the framework established by the report. It complements, to a certain extent, the National Science Foundation‘s 2003 report, Revolutionizing Science and Engineering through Cyberinfrastructure.

The charge to the ACLS commission points to the convergence of humanists and scientists within this technology infrastructure, and to the need to give the humanities and social sciences a voice in shaping and directing that infrastructure. The report defines “cyberinfrastructure” as the technology components “shared broadly across communities of inquiry but developed for specific scholarly purposes” (authors’ emphasis, page 1). Infrastructure is the least sexy, most expensive and most essential component of the information technology landscape. As the authors acknowledge, cyberinfrastructure is more than the hardware that stores and transmits information; it also includes the software tools, practices, standards and data sets that are essential to meaningful interaction between scholars and their subject of inquiry.

Technology already exerts a powerful influence on the study and dissemination of cultural knowledge. The Internet has become a significant source of information for the specialist and layman alike. Cultural institutions like museums have embraced the web as a parallel site for their collections; academic institutions exploit internal and external digital databases of text and images to supplement traditional media; libraries are reinventing themselves as digital media centers. The practice of scholarship has been altered dramatically by such technologies as email, ubiquitous networking and digital presentation formats.

If technology has already exerted such a profound influence over cultural studies, why is a humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure an issue? The answer is that if the humanities and social sciences are to benefit fully from information technology, this cyberinfrastructure must address the specific needs and practices of those disciplines. One size does not fit all, and the humanities and social sciences have largely had to make do with inadequate tools, incompatible standards, tiny budgets and uninterested leaders. The “chalk and talk” reputation of the humanities and social sciences has resulted in a profound gap between the potential for technology to enrich these disciplines, and the reality of what tools, data and support are actually available.

The commission’s recommendations first define the characteristics that a humanities/social science cyberinfrastructure must have, including accessibility, sustainability and interoperability. In addition, the report suggests that facilitating collaboration and support for experimentation are key characteristics, the implications of which I will return to shortly.

The eight recommendations themselves call for, among other things, elevating the strategic importance of such an infrastructure within institutional planning, developing policies to foster openness and collaboration, and seeking coordination between public and private sectors. Other recommendations include support for digital scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, the creation of national centers for digital scholarship, support for standards and appropriate tools to carry out this scholarship and developing digital collections of data for scholars and the public.

The report’s recommendations are broadly inclusive, in keeping with the commission’s charge. The audience for the ACLS report is itself diverse: administrators, scholars, faculty, legislators, librarians, indeed anyone who has a stake in the humanities and social sciences or in the technology planning and development process. With this breadth of reach, the report must necessarily skim lightly over some of the issues that, for one constituent or another, might appear to be crucial. For example, the commission’s recommendation that any cyberinfrastructure must leverage the interaction between public and private sectors raises the question of conflict between the business interests of private sector stakeholders and the need for reaching a wide audience at the lowest cost. The thorny problem of intellectual property rights and the “fair use” limitations of those rights must necessarily color any discussion of accessibility and interoperability. The economic benefits of the humanities, the “value-added” proposition that intellectual capital translates into material and cultural gain, is discussed as a way of justifying investment in a humanities cyberinfrastructure, although the fuller argument is beyond the scope of this report. This is not a weakness of the report, but it does indicate that the issues with which the commission grappled are complex and difficult.

The investment in time and money necessary to implement the goals outlined in the report must be seen against the larger picture of information technology in contemporary education and cultural practice. As any technology officer at a university, college, museum or library already knows all too well, the great cost of building, supporting and maintaining even the general technology infrastructure of an institution (including networking, file storage, email, security, and hardware) often prohibits or severely curtails the opportunity to develop specialized capabilities. While the authors of the report believe that investment in humanities cyberinfrastructure should be a matter of strategic priority, and indeed they make this their first recommendation, the argument for this priority rests upon (understandably) general notions of public good and future intellectual discovery. This is a recurring theme in the report–the public good brought by the humanities and social sciences justifies the effort to establish and support a unique technological ecosystem accessible to scholars and public alike. But the competition for resources within academic and cultural institutions is fierce, and the public good is often juxtaposed against the demands of marketing and institutional survival.

There are other, more specific challenges contained within the recommendations of the ACLS commission. At first glance, the recommendation that leadership for technology must be cultivated from within the humanities and social sciences makes a great deal of sense–who else understands the nature of the task more than those who practice the discipline? But how is this accomplished? How does the system breed technologically-savvy scholars willing to step up to a leadership role without sacrificing their academic interests?

Another challenge is the recommendation for “open standards and robust tools” with which data may be manipulated, examined, shared and presented. Who creates these tools? What mechanism will support a dedicated cadre of software specialists who work closely with the social scientists and humanists in creating such tools? How do these cadres share information about such work to avoid an endless reinvention of the same wheel? Does the specialist lose out because no one is available to help design a necessary but highly-specific application? These challenges are not insurmountable, but they are formidable, especially within an environment of constrained resources and limited vision, which, unfortunately, includes a vast majority of academic and cultural institutions.

The most daunting challenge alluded to in the report is the impact that technology has on the very culture of humanities and social science practice and scholarship. The report notes that established practice and a long tradition have made the humanistic disciplines conservative and risk-averse. The culture of the solitary scholar is so much a part of the fabric of academia that the notion of scholarly collaboration and collective discovery may seem alien and even threatening. Certainly collective effort is required to assemble the data that is essential to scholarly practice, and the existing scholarly and academic infrastructure that supports the humanities and social sciences is built upon the efforts of many individuals pooling their knowledge and providing access through journals, books, and collections. But the products of research, the fruits of scholarly labor, are more likely acts of individual insight, driven by established disciplinary expectations and practice, and turning inward to an audience of other experts.

When the authors of the ACLS report cite “collaboration” and “experimentation” as an expected and desired outcome to a robust humanities/social science cyberinfrastructure, we see that technology has already significantly altered the culture of scholarly practice. In an era where the voice of the expert is increasingly drowned by the collective voices of the masses, when social networking lends power to the many at the risk of ignoring the individual, the notion that a humanities and social sciences cyberinfrastructure can foster both the deep reflection of the single scholar and yet appeal to the needs and interests of the informed public may seem contradictory. The challenge of a collaborative and experimental methodology in the humanities especially, enabled by a deep and effective technology foundation, contains both the allure and anxiety of radical and disruptive change.