Negotiating Modularity

Posted by on Nov 14, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Colin Bowers]

New Knowledge environments, such as New Radial, are better models of how research in the humanities and social sciences actually happens; it is process-based and not (only) results-driven.  In some ways, I believe that our research has been that way for a very long time and that what NKE’s offer us is a better representation of what we’re actually doing, whereas earlier barometers and measuring tools of the process of research itself, in its happening, did not do such a good job.  Indeed, I’d argue that the older methods did a much better job of hiding or distorting the real processes of research activity to the researchers involved, in ways much like the real generation of surplus value is unseen by workers in the process of capitalist production.  The fetish of the ‘final product’ or a ‘beginning, middle and end’ to the research story likely began with good intentions, as tools or templates used to facilitate the process of inquiry, and without which a project or essay could likely not even get off the ground.

But, these quickly became reified categories that channelled and directed researchers’ attention to the ‘results’ of a study, the ‘new findings or insights’ generated in an original theoretical essay, and these results generally only found legitimation when presented at conferences, published in a journal or a printed book– often after such a long period of time has passed, that the author has to add footnotes to explain that certain events that have since transpired have dated, or even rendered irrelevant, some of the key discoveries.  We’ve likely all seen a conference speaker at the end of a conference presentation pick up the sheets from which they’ve been reading, shuffle them, tap them into order, lay them back down on the lectern, and say something like “that’s all, thank you very much”– most of us have probably been that person before.  But of course, that’s never ‘it’ and projects never really end (more on this below).  Earlier drafts of essays and projects are usually retained on a flash drive or CPU somewhere, but they rarely see the light of day– certainly not the public light of day.

In New Radial for instance, researchers can return to their collections (and those of others) and find a visual map of their progress, reminding them of avenues they might momentarily have forgotten to follow; the track of breadcrumbs is right there in front of them to re-trace, and the ‘discoveries’ already discovered are subject (perhaps) to amelioration or revision in view of the alternative path or forgotten connection that’s once more come to our attention as a result of the new environment we’re using and its decided benefits.  We also likely can all remember that middle-school or high-school mathematics teacher who admonished us to “Show our work!” and may have tempted us by giving us partial points on a test, even when we’ve not gotten the correct answer, but demonstrated in detail how we made it to the wrong one.  Part of the inhibition, I’m sure, is psychological: the process of getting to the ‘end’ is messy, frustrating, chaotic and disorderly, and people are reluctant to ‘show’ this aspect of their work to others, particularly if they’re being judged by it.  As Susan Brown (et al.) reminds us, “[r]esearch domain, project conceptualization, and publication options are all crucial determinants of how “done” will be defined for a particular project. Project members need to arrive at a shared understanding of what constitutes an acceptable degree of intellectual maturity, critical mass of content, and technological finish at initial publication” (4).  Funding agencies aren’t likely to be thrilled by a lot of talk about where a project is at some point in the middle, even when we’re not yet at the beginning; they want us to describe what we expect will be the ‘end results’.

There is also the case for rigour and quality, as Jon Saklofske points out in a forthcoming paper:

To function as a modular piece that gains the potential to be reused,
reconfigured and recontextualized, something needs to be instantiated
and published as a version or “set.”  This modular node, this “something”
could be a quotation from a previously published book or article, an
object from a digital archive—but it needs to originate in a project that has
reached a versioned milestone of  public release.  Perhaps this is the key to
successfully preserving and extending modularity from print cultural practice
to digital environments: maintain the idea of versions or witnesses, but also
realize that such versions are always reconfigurable and interoperable, but not
necessarily progressive or corrective.

Modularity is more inspired by Heraclitus than Parmenides, yet I think we do need to find islands of rest in the slipstream of research; something that can be ‘instantiated’ or a ‘versioned milestone’, to borrow Saklofske’s wonderful term.   Just as there is a danger of making the slice or the cut too soon and arresting the process too prematurely, there is also a danger of letting projects spiral outward indefinitely (as they will do if we don’t locate those nodes of temporary ‘finishedness’).  The question for me then becomes: where do we make that slice?  How arbitrary or necessary can, or must it, be?

Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy, Stan Ruecker, Jeffery Antoniuk, Sharon Balazs.  “Published Yet Never Done: The Tension Between Projection and Completion in Digital Humanities Research”  DHQ. 3.2 2009. Web.
Saklofske, Jon.  “Connecting the Dots: Promoting the Integration of Modularity and Narrativity in Digital Scholarship.”  Unpublished Manuscript.

Leave a Reply