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Shakespeare and computers? They go way back.

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 24, 2013 10:40 AM

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Technology changes so fast that it’s easy to become nearsighted about how technological people were, even in the very recent past. Part of us thinks, “If they didn’t have an iPhone5, they must have been making phone calls with tin cans on string.”

Given that, it’s a pleasant, vertiginous surprise to be reminded just how long people have been doing sophisticated things with computers. An article by journalist Meredith Hindley in the current issue of Humanities, the official magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, details the remarkably long history of what’s known as the “digital humanities,” or, the sometimes controversial application of computing power to scholarly questions in fields like literature and history.

The "digital humanities" calls to mind slick hypertext versions of Hamlet and Google Scholar, but the article explains that the pursuit actually originated in 1949. Then, Father Robert Busa, a Jesuit priest, approached Thomas J. Watson Sr., the CEO and founder of IBM, for help creating a concordance for the works of Thomas Aquinas (basically an index of all the places where key terms like, “God,” appear Aquinas’s writing). Using punch cards and IBM’s accounting machines, Busa demonstrated that it was possible to use new technology to perform tasks that had previously required decades of toil to complete—if anyone had dared to undertake them at all.

Over the next two decades, researchers started using computers to identify patterns in texts that would have been nearly impossible to identify otherwise. In 1964, researchers used computers to compare syntactic patterns in the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Milton, to show that Milton had had a greater influence on Shelley than previously thought. That same decade two mathematicians, Frederick Mosteller at Harvard, and David L. Wallace of the University of Chicago, used computers to determine authorship of 12 Federalist papers that had been published anonymously. They used an IBM 7090 computer to compare those essays with known writings of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and concluded that it was very likely that Madison had written the anonymous papers. “The key to solving the mystery was the use of filler words—also, of, by, on, this—along with ‘markers,’” the article explains. “Hamilton favored the word ‘upon,’ using it three times in every thousand words, while Madison used it only once every six thousand words.”

Today, humanities scholars still fret about whether computers can teach us anything about “Moby-Dick.” They worry that the allure of digital knowledge warps research, distracting professors towards the kinds of narrow questions that can be answered with computers. In that light, the article in Humanities should be reassuring: The humanities have had a digital bent for more than sixty years, and they haven’t collapsed yet.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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