Remix at the Medieval Academy of America

On March 1, 2016 by Michelle Warren

Source code, MAA 2016

While we weren’t looking, someone checked out the source code for the website.

Laura and I recently had the chance to introduce Remix at the Medieval Academy of America conference. The format was an innovation for the MAA—three minute introduction followed by free-range interactive conversations with the presenters stationed around the room. True to our thesis, the format distilled new thinking on what we’re doing with Remix and why it matters.

Remix is not a project about a particular historical question, but about the tools we have for asking historical questions in a digital environment. What do born-digital forms show and what do they hide—and how do we know the difference? How do we know what we’re seeing when we’re looking at a digital representation? Through comparative analysis of both data and tools, we can pinpoint more precisely the differences between a description and a hypothesis.

The ease with which data models reify into factual representations was vibrantly clear in the presentation by Sheila Bonde, Clark Maines, and Alexis Coir, “Construction-Deconstruction-Reconstruction: The Digital Representation of Process.” Having created a realistic digital reconstruction of the architectural transformation of Notre-Dame d’Ourscamp, they deconstructed their own work with a version colored-coded by their level of certainty about the data underlying the reconstructed forms. Alexis commented: “software may fill in gaps that have nothing to do with reality of masonry.”

The brightly colored slabs of the “deconstructed reconstruction” made we wonder how color might be used to visualize underlying thought processes in other contexts—transcriptions, manuscript provenance, scribal identity, geographic location, etc. How can we use digital media to communicate uncertainty and ambiguity—even as the media themselves are structured to disambiguate at every turn? Underneath it all, lies a basic choice between 1 and 0, on or off.

Meanwhile, here is our current summary of Remix’s contribution to medieval studies and digital humanities:

  • Corpus Study. While we have embraced the conceit that Remix could be about any manuscript, we do hope to contribute meaningful research on the Brut chronicle tradition. We don’t wish to either overestimate or underestimate the potential value to other scholars of new insights related to historiography, scribal transmission, manuscript production, geographic distribution, cataloging, or digital archiving.
  • Tools Analysis. By using a sampling methodology, we can do many things to one small data set. If our comparisons are meaningful, we’ll be able to analyze the relative effects of tools on the production and representation of the data. These analyses might become useful resources for other projects that need to choose a tool to pursue their particular historical question: we can have a broader collective understanding of how that choice shapes the outcome, how some tools may be better suited for certain kinds of questions, etc. It’s too early to know if will reach this kind of impact, but this is our ambition.
  • Low budget / no budget. Using whatever resources are at hand to pursue an interesting idea—and scaling the idea to the resources at hand. The project is structured to move forward whether we have major grants or not. Of course, if we manage to land some serious funding, we will happily scale up our activities!
  • Learning Lab. Remix is driven by curiosity and people’s willingness to learn through trial and error. We set project priorities according to the skills and interests of the team members. We derive momentum from team turn-over. We design research in a modular format that gives every team member a tangible scholarly outcome, demonstrating the feasibility of a collaborative ethics that promotes everyone’s professional growth. By conducting digital research as a form of digital pedagogy, the project provides and receives services in a cyclical knowledge economy. We hope to contribute to critical analysis of collaboration.

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