speculative computing & the centers to come

[This is a short talk I prepared for a panel discussion today with Brett Bobley, Ed Ayers, and Stephen Robertson, on the future of DH centers. The lovely occasion is the 20th anniversary celebration of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Happy birthday, CHNM! Next year, I’ll buy you a drink.]

When I was a graduate student in my mid-20s, around (gasp!) the turn of the century, I helped to found an intentionally short-lived but very interesting and effective humanities computing think tank. It was sort of an unauthorized, prototyping or tool-building offshoot of the center where I worked, UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. This is before the Scholars’ Lab existed. Only CHNM and (relative to today’s wild blossoming) a startlingly few other such digital humanities and digital history centers were in operation. This is, in fact, before “DH” existed, as a term of art.

One of the many fun things for me, about establishing this think tank—alongside folks like Jerome McGann, Steve Ramsay, Johanna Drucker, Geoffrey Rockwell, Andrea Laue, Worthy Martin, and a few others—was that I got to name it! Sometimes you do, if you’re the one building the website. (Or at least, you used to.) The name I suggested was the Speculative Computing Lab—SpecLab, for short. I was so enamored with the idea—the metaphor, really, of speculative computing—that it also became the title of my dissertation. Let me tell you why, and explain why I tell this story on a panel about the future of DH centers.

Speculative computing is a computer science and software engineering practice that deliberately embraces inefficiency in order to foster what we might think of as a novel sort of intellectual responsiveness. It involves spinning up lots of processes, licensing the machine to perform lots of calculations, pretty much “on spec”—calculations that, importantly, have neither been specifically requested by the user nor directly implied as a need by the conditions of the system she’s operating. The idea is not to optimize and reduce the number of processes you’re running—not to increase your system’s hard-nosed productivity. These calculations may never be called for and used in a practical way. But if they’re needed, if odd questions are asked and unanticipated results are sought—if you decide to go in an unexpected direction, or to play out several conjectures at once—boy, are they ready. So, speculative computing is predictive, but only in the loosest sense.

It’s as if you’ve designed your systems—and here of course I’m branching out into social and intellectual systems as well—in ways that foster a mad-Hamlet level of churn, of diversity of thought, of conceptual experimentation, of introspective rumination, because you, as the system’s designer, have already had an Act 5-level realization: that [to quote] “the readiness is all.” (Sorry; if you invite a Lit scholar to your History shindig, this is what you’re going to get.) My point is that speculative computing, if taken as a basic spirit or an ethos and a kind of practice, sets up the conditions for actionable creativity, and for responsive engagement with multiple possible futures.

I’ve felt a distinct shift in the future-orientation of DH as a community of practice, over the course of the past couple of years. Historians, literary scholars, archaeologists and classicists, paleographers and archivists, scholars of the material traces of human culture, all—we have not been generally recognized for our forward orientation toward future unknowns, so much as for looking back, toward our partially-knowable, shared, and vanishing past. But the founding and sustaining and continual renewal of a DH center is itself an active form of hope for the future.

And some of this future-orientation is not, itself, new. It stems from a long interest in History and other disciplines in counter-factualism, alternate imaginings, in retro-futurism, and even in the kind of creative teaching through fictions and hoaxes that, oh, I don’t know, might get your whole university banned from Wikipedia. But there’s new energy driving us, too, to take the long view: toward (as Latour suggests) “loving our monsters,” or nurturing and not—in Frankensteinian mode—abandoning our technological creations. It’s an energy that drives us to perform what Kari Kraus calls conjectural criticism, and (along similar lines) to fashion “hopeful monsters.” Now is in fact the moment, Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue, for historians and digital scholars to assert influence over future by helping us to appreciate and build upon the increasingly data-minable depths of our past. The assistive analytical technology is here, our digitized archives and born-digital corpora have reached critical mass, and most importantly, the complexity of our social and economic and environmental problems—the problems of the Anthropocene (as I discussed at length in a melancholy way at the DH conference this summer)—present digital historians with nothing less than a moral imperative to look forward as much as back.

Maybe this will prompt us to enter a new era of speculative computing in our DH centers. I hope in our discussion today, that we can pay attention to the specific conditions that might best foster a future orientation. How can our centers become more progressive in a big-data world, while still helping us to conserve our small points of data, our close-read little stories, and the quirky intellectual and institutional structures that are most important to us? How can digital history centers, particularly, foster the most respect for past context and promote historical understanding, while having a care for the futures (the multiple, possible, speculative futures) of the people involved in them, the people who labor in centers like these?

I bring up labor issues because speculative computing, as a concept, is not only future-oriented. It is important and fair to acknowledge that speculative computing has an uneasy orientation toward abundance over parsimony. (Think of all those wasted, speculative processes and calculations that will be thrown away.) We in the digital humanities have an increasingly complex relationship with that particular tropic lean, the lean toward abundance, which bears some consideration. A “spec-lab” of any sort requires resources far greater than those that will lead to immediate or metrics-driven payoff. This is the speculative condition, maybe, of pure research and why we prize it so highly in higher ed. It’s one core value of the humanities that makes us not so different from scientific fields. And it’s why I established the center I now direct, the Scholars’ Lab, with a baseline understanding that all staff, regardless of duties or formal credentials or rank, would have the ability to command 20% of their own time—roughly a day a week—time which can be protected from the ins-and-outs of our regular service work, for independent and curiosity-driven R&D.

But it’s crucial that we address the downsides of a culture of abundance: the dangers and distastefulness of conspicuous consumption; the conceptual and real carbon footprint of DH; the increasing adjunctification and contingency not only of our teaching faculty but of knowledge workers of all stripes, including software developers and librarians; and the sense of disparity that grows—right along with a growing interest in digital methods—between the resources available to a first-world research-oriented university’s humanities faculty, and those available to people working in smaller colleges and cultural heritage institutions, or to our colleagues in the global South. How will we balance speculation and experimentation and creativity in our use of technology with a growing realization that we must also consider the strictures of “minimal computing,” the knowledge that, for many parts of the world, the only sustainable and even functional DH project is one that doesn’t eat too much of your data plan and renders well on a mobile phone, or that is functional in a stand-alone way on a thumb drive?

Here, I think in many ways you’re way ahead of the game. I’m inspired by CHNM’s longstanding commitment to enabling and democratizing infrastructure, in digital projects like Omeka and PressForward. Many of the scholarly projects built on your platforms address these issues in important ways. And I’m inspired by the way you fostered and sustained the grassroots, on-the-cheap THATCamp movement. We’ve benefited from and contributed to those efforts at the Scholars’ Lab. But like good friends, when it comes to discussions of staffing and strategies and funding models for DH centers, we’ve also gently pushed back, offering ourselves up as a counter-example to centers that may seek to emulate your model—a counter-example while I’m in charge, anyway—of a sister-center that chooses not to fund staff salaries through soft money, that embeds itself in an interdisciplinary research library rather than in an academic department, and that has deliberately limited its own growth. We do that to see if we might become meaningful in the DH world, make important intellectual and technological contributions, be people-oriented and future-oriented in our programs, and yet stay “too small to fail.” You are entering your twenties in a time of transition, in many ways, for CHNM, for George Mason, for the academy on the whole. This is another sort of thing we might want to discuss in the Q&A.

But I want to wrap up by offering one of the many reasons we—your friends at the SLab, your fellows in the profession of the humanities, and your broad and diverse publics—need you here sustaining Roy’s vision into the future. At present, too many signals—amplified by our disappointing higher ed press and the hostile, unkind social media scene in which we find ourselves embroiled—are poised to make students and junior colleagues, struggling as they are through a miserable economy and difficult shifts in the nature of academic labor, lose their optimism for digital humanities and digital history—in fact, I fear, for the roiling enterprise of cultural heritage and humanities interpretation on the whole. The clash of bitter darksiders with untethered enthusiasts in our ongoing eternal September might even make us stalwart mid-career folks, on a bad day, think there’s no future in it. And that’s precisely why we need places like CHNM, both speculative and rooted in the past—to remain action-oriented, communal, hopeful, and vocal. You are these things down to your core. That’s why I appreciate you all so very much, have valued your work and friendship, and am so eager to see what you do with your next twenty years.