Stanford University’s Republic of Letters Mapping Project, featured in this AHR Forum, offers historians an insight into a Twenty-first Century cultural transition, commonly identified as The Computational Turn.[1]   The Computational Turn has been identified as the point, some around the turn of the century, which witnessed the broad acceptance of digital devices, such as cell phones, and methods, such as computer modeling of weather, the economy and nature.

This project tends to put to rest any remaining vision of  the kind of a cultural supremacy claimed by the Moderns over Ancients in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.   Although, computational supremacy isn’t likely, the use of computational tools is a game changer.

Computational tools got their start when Apollo era computing power was put to work creating models of the interlacing webs that drive everything from the weather to stock prices.  The Santa Fe Institute was the hub created in 1986 as a digital Manhattan Project designed to explore military applications of what were termed complex systems, a space age way of saying groups.

As complexity methods make a home in the broader world, specialized systems language is giving way to the use of vernacular.  Cloth making and web terms seem to be favored by many, leaving systems to those in in love with the magic of tech.

A thumbnail history of the Computational Turn was covered in earlier comments: “The Wilson Center Challenge” and “Wild History.”

What’s New. What’s new in this AHR series is the appearance of Stanford as a digital history hub, with its Mapping the Republic of Letters project. As discussed in “Wild History,” earlier hubs have been identified.   The Austrian Academy of Sciences researchers have used Mediterranean data sets to produce a steady stream of easy to digest studies of social and economic networks.  Maseryk University’s Generative History Project is similarly impressive.  Swansea University has sponsored several conferences in the digital humanities.

The contrast between the Computational Turn and the Seventeenth Century Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns is bound to come up.  The Moderns aimed to supplant the Ancients.   Not so the computational toolkit.   It adds information, not a new worldview.

Meet the Stanford Group.  It’s worth taking a few minutes to visit the Stanford group’s website in order to get a feel the fundamentally conservative nature of computational tools.[2]  Visualizing data sets allows the historian use an expert’s eye to look for patterns..  The Stanford group summed it up:

This is not to embrace a positivist, cliometric vision of computational supremacy; such a vision is ill suited for historical archives that are so shot through with uncertainty and gaps. But where possible, basic calculations are still useful and can provide correctives to sheer speculation. They also force us to look closely at the information we have, resulting in numerous silent corrections to minor errors, assumptions that have solidified into facts, and other problems that arise when we take information for granted. [3]

As with other uses of computational tools, verifying hunches, confirming received wisdom and avoiding dumb mistakes seem to be among the chief benefits.

The MIT View. In contrast, the June 2016 MIT Technology Review, featuring Johannes Preiser-Kapeller of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, maintained that computational tools were yielding the “laws of history”, akin to the laws of physics[4]  The more tempered Stanford view better reflects the irregular reality of history and current trends in the field. Isaac Asimov to the contrary, the path of history is unscientifically irregular. Looking ahead, the MIT article noted:

While the complexity that arises from network theory in many areas of science has been studied for decades, there has been almost no such research in the field of history. That suggests there is low-hanging fruit to be had by the first generation of computational historians, like Preiser-Kapeller. Expect to hear more about it the near future.[5]

The MIT article, if nothing else, helps frame issues faced when trying to assess the computational toolkit.

Can “complexity theory” help explain historical events?  Yes, it can, and in ways that will continue to emerge.

 

[1] See Hui, Yuk, “The computational turn, or, a new Weltbild”  Junctures:  The Journal of Thematic Dialogue, Dec. 1, 2010; Berry, D.M., The Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities, Culture Machine, 2011, https://culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/download/440/470

[2] http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/

[3] Edelstein, Dan, Prof., et al, Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping the Republic of Letters,” AHR, April 2017, at page 408.

[4] —, How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past, Applying network theory to medieval records suggests that historical events are governed by “laws of history,” just as nature is bound by the laws of physics,” MIT Technology Review, Cambridge, Mass., June 23, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601763/how-the-new-science-of-computational-history-is-changing-the-study-of-the-past/#comments

[5] Ibid.

One thought on “Computational Supremacy Not Likely”

  1. Thanks for another fascinating post! Watching how this new method of studying history unfold will be so interesting. Imagine how our understanding of the past will become so much more three-dimensional using compilations of data!

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