I just read "The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences." (Quite a mouthful.) As the report says:
Science and engineering have made great strides in using information technology to understand and shape the world around us. This report is focused on how these same technologies could help advance the study and interpretation of the vastly more messy and idiosyncratic realm of human experience.
This is a fascinating and compelling ambition and vision. However, while I enjoyed reading the report, I thought it could have said much more about how to achieve that goal.
One new insight (probably obvious to most others) that I gained from the report was the extent to which, in contrast to at least most science and engineering (maybe species diversity is an exception, and astronomy due to the large amateur astronomy community), the humanities need cyberinfrastructure not simply to enable innovative research approaches, but also for purposes of preservation and access (in their case, of/to the human cultural record).
Much of the report is concerned with the latter topic. It makes a strong case for investment in the creation and maintenance of collections, and for openness in access and standards. It is hard to disagree with these conclusions. On the other hand, there is little consideration given to how to prioritize such work given scarce resources--a question that presumably should depend in part on what
are viewed as research priorities.
The Commision's charge included these questions:
What are the "grand challenge" problems for the humanities and social sciences in the coming decade? Are they tractable to computation?
The answers to these questions seem critical to the future of not only the humanities and social sciences but also (if we believe that the humanities and social sciences are relevant to society) to
humanity. Unfortunately, we do not find these answers in this report. Nor do we learn which aspects of cyberinfrastructure, and investigative approaches, are most likely to be useful.
The report does make some interesting remarks on the wide variety of methods that may be applicable:
The activity of discovering and interpreting patterns in large collections of digital information is often called data-mining (or sometimes, when it is confined to text, text-mining), but data-mining is only one investigative method, or class of methods, that will become more useful in the humanities and the social sciences as we bring greater computing power to bear on larger and larger collections, and more complex research questions, often with outcomes in areas other than that for which the data was originally collected. Beyond data mining, there are many other ways of animating and exploring the integrated cultural record. They include simulations that reverse-engineer historical events to understand what caused them and how things might have turned out differently; game-play that allows us to tinker with the creation and reception of works of art; role-playing in social situations with autonomous agents, or using virtual worlds to understand behavior in the real world.
A broad and exciting list. But in the absence of defined research priorities for the humanities and social sciences, and an understanding of where those prioritized research tasks can benefit from computation, we can't even start to discuss which of these techniques are most important to pursue.