Preface: Knowledge and Information
Shall I compare thee, human, to a machine? Thou art more critical and more intemperate (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).
But seriously: how do human readers compare to machines? I ask because I want to define how literary critics can use machines to augment and extend our readings. Figuring that out depends on an understanding of how our readings compare to the machine’s abilities. Sure, they’re faster: but faster at what, exactly?
I write, with my keyboard, all day. Every day. E-mails, lecture notes, grant applications, status updates, first drafts, second drafts, slideshow bullets, blog posts. To paraphrase the great Johnny Cash, I type everywhere, man.
And along the way, I find I quite often need to write the same words and numbers. I close every e-mail the same jaunty way (“yours, Michael”); I give students the same directions to my office; I repeat the same writing advice in my grading; my phone number hasn’t changed in a decade.
This week I’m away to the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference to deliver a paper on rhetorical figures in early modern drama. (Wait! Don’t stop reading, it gets better.) I feel like a legit digital humanist for the first time in my life, because I’ve written my own computer program to analyze texts – a bash script in Unix that you can try for yourself on Github.
“Ask not what your country can do for you.” Instead, ask what the next line is from President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. Most will remember the second part of that familiar sentence: “but what you can do for your country.” It’s memorable because it repeats three words and phrases from the first half, just in inverse order: “you,” “can do,” and “your country.”
The term for this kind of linguistic structure is a rhetorical figure, and the term for this kind of rhetorical figure is antimetabole: a symmetrical (ABC|CBA) arrangement of words and phrases.
Can you trust machines to make decisions on your behalf? You’re doing it already, when you trust the results of a search engine or follow directions on your phone or read news on social media that confirms your worldview. It’s so natural that you forget it’s artificial; someone programmed a machine to make it happen. If Arthur C. Clarke is right (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), we’re living in the age of magical thinking.
I’m giving a talk on the University of Calgary campus (in SS 1015) on Friday December 2, 2016 at 3:15pm.
Unnatural Language and Natural Thinking: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries
Critics of computational text-analysis tend to perceive its focus on language patterns as a flattening of qualitative texts into quantifiable patterns. They’re right. But a text’s linguistic operating-system deserves close scrutiny when it reveals features of the text that a human reader can’t perceive, or when it flags evidence beyond our capacity to gather. The Augmented Criticism Lab has developed algorithms to detect features of repetition and variation in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (starting with drama, namely the Folger’s Digital Anthology). We’ve begun with features like rhetorical figures that repeat lemmas (heed, heedful, heeding) or morphemes (heeding, wringing, vexing). We use natural-language processing to gather evidence of these unnatural formulations, to ask whether they signal natural habits of thought. The interpretive payoff is our ability to make more definitive arguments not just about these figures, but also about underlying cognitive habits.
This paper describes our process and our corpus, and presents a range of our results with this initial corpus before we expand to the billion words in the EEBO-TCP corpus (1473-1700).
For more information about the Augmented Criticism Lab, visit < acriticismlab.org >.
Are you interested in doing graduate work in the digital humanities at the University of Calgary? Or just want to learn more about what we’re doing in this field?
Drop me a line. I’m accepting graduate students (MA and PhD) for Fall 2017.
Faculty here at the University of Calgary are topic-modelling sci-fi archives and using computers to analyze Shakespeare’s language patterns. In the Department of English we digitize, deform, and interpret texts, to develop new methods of digital philology; and we work with computer scientists to quantify, process, and visualize texts to uncover social, cultural, political, and historical trends.
If shaping the future of the humanities appeals to you, consider applying to the Department of English to do your graduate work in this field. The application deadline is December 10, 2016 for admission in Fall 2016.
- Here’s some info about who I am, and the kind of research I do — including the Augmented Criticism Lab.
- Here’s a recent talk I gave on the state of Digital Humanities at the University of Calgary, featuring the research and teaching of many colleagues in the Faculty of Arts (scroll to the 4th slide), and our collaborations with the library and the Department of Computer Science.
- See here for detailed information about the Department of English graduate program.
Contact me for details, or to ask questions: