Alexandria Online


Monday, December 27, 2010

"Quants" for the Humanities

I read in the news that robots are reading the news. They comb through billions of words to detect trends and moods in markets and then trigger automatic trades on Wall Street. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/23/business/23trading.html?_r=1. )

When I was in junior high in the earlier 1970's, my private school decided that we were all going to spend a few weeks learning to "speed read." Speed reading went out of style long ago and any benefits that I received have faded away, although I and many others find the technique of "skimming" text quite useful. The new technologies that traders are using to skim the news takes that concept to the google power.

Wall Street technologies are doing very much the same thing that scholars are doing in the digital humanities. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/books/04victorian.html?scp=1&sq=digital%20humanities&st=cse) Counting words has been an important part of scholarship. Millman Parry revolutionized classical scholarship in the early 20th Century by meticulously counting patterns and variations of words and syllables in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. (See The Making of Homeric Verse.) Now we can skim millions of books and analyze patterns of usage over time in an entire culture.

A colleague and I are now thinking about how this might be applied to architectural elements of culture. Many digital imaging applications, e.g. Google's Picasa, have built-in face recognition. In Picasa, if you mouse over the image of someone's face, a frame appears around the face asking whether you would like to "tag" this person. The same software might be redesigned to recognize columns, freezes, gargoyles, etc.

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