◎ JADH2016

Sep 12-14, 2016 The University of Tokyo

go rich :: go minimal
Federico Caria (Cologne University)

This text is inspired by the DHSI workshop on Minimal Computing run by Alex Gil from the GO : DH group, at Columbia University. Minimal Computing can be defined as an approach to computing done under a set of hardware and software constraints, which present more than one analogy with my work in the context of DiXiT. Here I try to develop a sense of what Minimal Computing has to offer to better conceptualize the results of our evaluation. We are conducting focus groups in the context DiXiT, an EU project funded under Marie Curie Action Program, that offer a coordinated training in the multi-disciplinary skills, technologies, theories, and methods of digital scholarly editing. After introducing what Minimal Computing is, I want to draw on how Minimal Computing understands ‘usefulness’, to discuss the preliminary results of our focus groups.

In illustrating what Minimal Computing is about, Gil (2015) focuses on necessity.

“we prefer to (not) define minimal computing around the question “What do we need?” If we do so, our orientations vis-a-vis ease of use, ease of creation, increased access and reductions in computing—and by extension, electricity— become clearer” (Gil 2015).

Like Minimal Computing, HCI principles and practices are about setting the right constraints. Usefulness is one of these. In particular, understanding and implementing constraints basing on what is useful will potentially aid in usability and help users engage your design with minimal frustration, that is a desired outcome of our testing digital editions.

Digital editions are young media and studying users is often overlooked in the field of scholarly publishing, where editors often design for themselves. On the contrary, we believe that a very good way to reconstruct the relationship between scholars and the socio-technical mechanisms of production and dissemination in the digital realm is studying interaction between users and digital representations moving from observable data. Just like Minimal Computing, studying usefulness is important to resist “the culture of user-friendliness” (Gil ibid.), putting on the foreground the “quality of use” instead of easiness, cause we know that scholars will stick to the laptop to learn the code if they find it useful!

In essence, although our questions arise from a typical design context aimed at correcting skeumorphism, we are also asking “scholars around the world— librarians, professors, students, cultural workers, independent” (Gil ibid.) about their needs and wants. In particular, like Minimal Computing, we gather these data to understand “what is enough” or “what is the finished stairway” (Gil ibid.) of different target users. Our preliminary findings suggest hat humanities scholars, practitioners and students not involved in the digital humanities generally find digital resources extremely useful; in most cases, they just do not know about their existence. According to our interviews, we are pushed to assume that most intended users would warmly welcome the possibility to rely on a digital resource or thematic collection related to their topic. But our data also suggests that there is a threshold under which technology is not perceived as useful anymore by humanities scholars and students, who still largely work with print resources.

Again, usability is about setting thresholds and limits, and usefulness is crucial to adoption and use, which in the networked environment improves the chance of preservation. Sustainability is a concern for us as it is for Minimal Computing. The real crisis of the “crisis of the humanities” is that it’s not a crisis but a chronic condition! (Risam 2015). Soon “the natural inclination” of electronic information “to change, to grow, and to finally disappear” will cease to function as an aesthetic conceit and become instead a full-blown cultural crisis (Kirschenbaum 2001). That our scholarly publishing is an unsustainable business seems undeniable: it costs big money to produce an edition, and there is no way to know whether a big and expensive initiative will fall out of use or become unaccessible in a few years’ time.

Although the principles of Minimal Computing were turned into a “modelo digital” (see Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text, Tennen and Wythoff, 2014) to answer publishing needs that are typical of Southern media ecologies, I think there is quite a room for a potential application to rich ones. Minimal Computing provides an interesting interpretative framework to understand usefulness as an ethical choice. In the end, if we see, Oroza definition of “arquitectura de la necesidad”:

“una arquitectura de la urgencia y la precariedad. Su segunda y más importante función es metafórica: enuncia una arquitectura que es su propio diagrama. La casa deviene una estructura que relaciona, un modelo físico que asocia al individuo necesidades materiales, tecnologías, los límites y posibilidades legales y económicas” (Oroza 1997).

does not fit less those who are about to face precariousness and urgency, let’s say, in the medium term.

I wonder if minimalism is something that editors producing in the context of maximalist media ecologies would consider. The question is how to be essential and effective at the same time, in the context of digital scholarly editions out of the postcolonial world? Would a static website ever meet the standards of the many ‘monumental’ digital editions that can be found in the catalogues? and how can usability help enhancing essentiality and effectiveness? My presentation touches on issues of access, funding, language, standards, and case studies in the attempt to explore the challenges and opportunities in the application of minimalist principles to design for sustainable editions.


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[13] Risam, R. (2015) Across Two (Imperial Cultures). Video of the talk is available here (see ~5:10:00): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeH2QOUf4Qo.

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[20] Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2001) Materiality and Matter and Stuff: What Electronic Texts Are Made Of, in Electronic Book Review, accessed at http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/sited