Interface 2009 – symposium in Southampton

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These last two days I have been at the first InterFace 2009 symposium. I produced a poster for the first time ever and I believe it went down quite well.

Prof. Willard McCarty
The first key-note speaker Professor Willard McCarty did a very interesting and provoking speech about there being “no end to our wanderings in computer world” simply because computers feed a hunger for the new, under the heading “cutting-edginess”. He was interested in the act of creation among academics rather than what they are creating and he is writing “A History of Literary Computing” focusing the motivation behind the researchers who worked in this field.
McCarty also discussed the nature of collaborations between humanities and technology and between junior and senior researchers. He talked about humanities having a “penis-envy” of the sciences and whether this would stand in the way of collaboration between the two fields. He also questioned whether lack of social and professional equality between senior and junior researchers is standing in the way of true collaboration within research teams.

Prof. Dame Wendy Hall
I found the second key-note speaker Professor Dame Wendy Hall very inspirational. She has just been elected fellow of the Royal Society and was rushing of after her speech to be signed in.
Hall talked about her early motivations (Sebastian Rahtz, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart) for taking an interest in computing in the humanities, after which she showed a clip from the 1987 film “Hyperland” by Douglas Adams.
Hall has a variety of really interesting stories about Tim Berners-Lee and the invention of the World-Wide-Web and about how search engines (i.e. Google) and the web are interlinked. The WWW was first intended to work as a series of interlinked hyper-documents. However, search engines give us much more freedom and independence from links. If Google stopped working, Hall said, the Web would probably collapse. This is an interesting point in light of the slowing of the Web and Google failing when the news of Micheal Jackson’s death came out, not that I noticed this at the time.
A very interesting point which I had never thought about was that nobody owns the WWW. It could just disappear tomorrow. The WWW has become such a big part of our lives in the last 5-10 years and now it is always my first port of call for anything. But we don’t truely understand it. For this people like Hall and Berners-Lee are setting up the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) to “understand what the Web is”, “engineer it’s future” and “ensure it’s social benefit”.

Innovative Symposium
The InterFace symposium itself was really interesting. About a third of the people there I already knew or had met before. This was the people who’s work generally borderlines humanities and technology. But there was another two thirds of pure humanities and pure technology people who I would never have met it was not for this symposium. A great feature was the “speed-dating” session. Though tiring, I did get a quick view of what different people’s where working on and it brought about some interesting discussions later.
The lightning talks (3 min pitch about your research) was a great idea, but should have been done at the beginning of the symposium, not at the end.

TEI workshop
On Thursday afternoon I went to a workshop about TEI with Dr. Arianna Ciula and Sebastian Rahtz. My only experience of TEI so far has been through EpiDoc but this workshop gave a good understanding of it. However, I will agree with Ciula’s own comment that it would have been nice to be able to do something practical during the workshop.

All in all an interesting and inspirational couple of days and I will definitely be finding my way to next years InterFace2010 if that is what it will be called.