HumsMatter: building a humanities graphic culture store


from “The Humanities Matter!” infographic by 4Hum / UCLDH, 2013

The 4Humanities collective (4Hum) recently released an infographic called “The Humanities Matter“. (PDF), created by a team led by Melissa Terras and the Digital Humanities group at University College London. It’s part of a wider Humanities Infographics initiative, for which additional statistics and funding are sought. The items in the infographic were taken from a crowdsourced list.

I have a few creative/critical responses:

1) how might we create a related “HumsMatter” graphic series, an open exploration of different viewpoints and rhetorical/graphical approaches?

2) how might we think about “business models”/self-sustainability for this or other humanities projects?

3) Appendix:  response to specific statements on infographic – how persuasive?

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Open is multiple


Jaron Lanier, “Who Owns the Future?” 2013.

[forthcoming at London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences].

In “Open is a state of mind,” Cameron Neylon on LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog explains what ‘Open‘ means, drawing on “all the core definitions of ‘open’ such as Open Access declarations and the “Open Definition“. But, he says, we have to get beyond “rules-focussed…religious wars,” and realize the core truth:

“Being about embracing a particular form of humility…It is about embracing the idea that…you cannot predict [the use of your work]…and insights could come from unknown sources.”

Fair enough, this sounds admirable, and who would really disagree? Neylon’s concept of ‘Open’ is plausible, even inspiring; I see where he’s coming from, I see how it supports the policy objectives advocated by him and his employer Public Library of Science, for example CC-BY licensing; and so on.

Well, for fun, let’s say I do disagree. Let’s say I propose some other point of view of what ‘open’ is, such as, say, a human development notion:

“Open” is those practices which facilitate the most people having the most freedom and agency to live according to their values.

or even, not people, just scholars.

In this case I might focus on economic structures to allow scholars to have sufficient and stable income and services to do their work; to have mobility, perhaps even the agency to work within an institution or not. So perhaps I propose a model of universal frictionless microcompensation and Scholar Income (like Basic Income, or Citzen Income), and I call the whole model “Fair Access.”

Different ideas, afar from the usual discussions of say “Open Access,” but nonetheless say I have them. Perhaps they even make more sense to a lot of people globally, who may be living, not a stable and advanced country like the UK with well-functioning social institutions, but in a precarious, informal economy and underclass, a struggling knowledge worker in some barbaric environment of violent class warfare and no safety net like, say, Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, this view might rather conflict with Neylon’s idea of scholarly openness. While he says he’s rising above definitions to describe a state of mind, that state clearly implies support for the universal-reuse definition of open access associated with the BOAI declaration and CC-BY licensing, which Neylon and associated organizations strongly advocate. Now what?

As the Apollo 13 crew-member said: Houston, we have a problem.

I would suggest, doesn’t the spirit of humility Neylon speaks of, the receptivity to others’ ideas and contributions, apply to one’s thinking about ‘open’ or ‘open access’ as well?  In other words, if you have an open state of mind, you have not “a particular type of humility” (Neylon) but in fact broad humility. To accept, for example, that other may develop concepts of ‘open’ or ‘Open Access’ that may, for example, reject the “reuse” priority and favor other values such as universal participation, scholars’ ability to receive adequate funding to work, etc.

‘Open’ is what can’t be fully defined; it’s the capacity to resist single or final definition, and accept all understanding as provisional and evolving. I believe it’s an extremely difficult “state of mind” to even approach, because we are continually beset and enclosed by cognitive biases, habits, routines, engagements and institutions which precisely oppose the state of real openness that holds every definition as provisional, every configuration as potentially fluid.

A famous version of this idea was expressed by the English Romantic poet John Keats, in this passage from an 1817 letter:

it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement… I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Wikipedia summarizes the idea as “the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts.” It’s a type of radical openness, defined with a paradoxical term.

But we could take that further and question our own ability or tendency to define any social phenomena or human quality. As Nietzsche observes in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), any existing concept such as ‘good’ or ‘punishment’ (or I’d suggest, ‘open’) is a linguistic and historical accretion, of many practices and articulations, which we can’t ever fully grasp or define:

All concepts in which an entire process is contained escape definition. Only that which has no history is definable. [*]

So perhaps ‘open’ or ‘open access’ are terms one can’t and shouldn’t attempt to finally define, at least not any longer, now that they are part of human history. To be truly open, one must say, ‘open’ means this to me, but I accept that my understanding is provisional, that it may not be everybody’s.

Taking another perspective entirely, I’d note that in locating and presenting the Nietzsche quote above, and showing it in the context of the original text, I used Google Book Search, as I do many times every day. Google Book Search, however, fails just about every notion of “open” that Neylon puts forward, as it is definitely not given for unrestricted use, and is done by a public for-profit corporation with clear self-interested and profit motives for the work. But nonetheless, this non-open economic structure is delivering this hugely valuable, open economic good, which does exactly what I want done, for free, and offers the same to any Web user on the planet.

Is Google ‘open’, do the leaders of the company and this product have an “open state of mind”? It’s clearly a complex question, and you can in your nearest bookstore pick up current best-sellers with completely different opinions on that, e.g. The New Digital Age from Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, versus Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier.

Should we accept a specific definition of “open” that would exclude Google Book Search, or for example any other type of mixed/versioned, self-sustaining economic model like OECD‘s publishing program or or OpenEdition or DeepDyve?

No, that would probably be narrow and short-sighted; it would deprecate and misunderstand and exclude innovators in related fields. Open is a state of mind that resists or holds provisional all final or single definitions, because our understanding is always changing and evolving. This is being open to others, to our evolving selves and circumstances, to other views, and to the future, in the difficult, radical, and necessary way that we must.


Let me know what you think, or follow me, via comments box below, at Twitter @tmccormick, or by email to tmccormick at gmail, or by RSS or anonymous form on my Contact page. 

Are you reviewing the work, or your friends?


Networked (MIT Press, 2012) by Wellman & Rainie. [w/image of a tree structure, opposite of peer network]

I had an interesting, if heated exchange today with Barry Wellman, Professor of Sociology and director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, and co-author of Networked: The New Social Operating System (with Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project), MIT Press, 2012.

I’ve had many exchanges with Wellman on Twitter over the last two years, discussing various points about social media, and I’ve regularly posted links to his papers and book. You can see that history here:

The current, apparently fatal and final exchange, today, began with this question posed by Emily Pohl-Weary, Toronto author, editor, and arts educator:

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On Mismeasuring the Humanities, or not measuring at all

The_Mismeasure_of_Mana response to “Mismeasuring the Humanities” by David Laurence on the Modern Language Association, Office of Research’s new blog “The Trend”:

I’m puzzled why US enrollment numbers, however interpreted, would be considered an adequate index of the state of the “humanities.” This seems to me a case of the “streetlight effect”, orienting inquiry around what happens to be easily observable; and the type of narrow, quantifying approach I’d hope humanists would try to put in a broader and deeper context. I might also ask why we’d equate “the humanities” with US humanities academia, which is only a portion, probably diminishing in share, of the whole picture.

Taking a historical view, Geoffrey Galt Harpham observes in The Humanities and the Dream of America (2011) that the institution of “humanities” so named is primarily a post-WWII US construction, and has been almost *constituted* by a perennial question of definition, of role, and a “crisis of rationale,” as Louis Menand called it. Michael Bérubé and other have similarly observed the apparent evergreen nature of the humanities’ withering; as the title of a documentary about US political consultants in Latin America put it, “Our Brand Is Crisis.

That said, there are real reasons to ask if the “humanities,” as some complex of values and practices we may wish to sustain, is in real threat or decline today. But it’s a much more complex question than one of enrollment. I think we’d want to consider, for example, funding patterns: in 1979, federal science grants were 5 times those for humanities; by 2011, 200 times as great (cf.; or that the White House announces policies for all public research through the office and terms of Science and Technology. Or what I think is a quite remarkable development, that the US is about to change immigration policy specifically to grant STEM (Scientific, Technical, Engineering, Medical) graduates greater access to US residency and citizenship.

We might look at the makeup of popular reading, even using mass corpus analysis like Google Ngram Viewer to compare across centuries; or we could analyze the content of presidential speeches, the Congressional record, or the last few decades of popular media as recorded in archives like Internet Archive. We might also wonder, as does the NY Times article quoting Russell Berman, what will be the effect of world economic/cultural/scholarly influence shifting to East Asia: which has its own and emerging “humanities” traditions, possibly even ascending in importance.

In short, a good response to this latest questioning of the humanities, in my opinion, is not to reflexively state that they’ve valuable, or look only at the readily quantified, or look under the streetlights because it’s where we usually/easily see. It would be to demonstrate the ability to inquire far-sightedly into and integrate a wide set of perspectives and indicators, and not just circle wagons. Rather than accepting dominant frames, such as skills development or enrollment figures or graduate earnings — show how to tack against prevailing winds. In a world obsessed with capability and measurability, there’s all the more need for Keats‘ ‘negative capability’ of unbounded spirit/thought — which finds wider frames, and is ultimately the greatest human value.

Tim McCormick
@tmccormick Palo Alto, CA