25 September 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Digital Humanities @ KU: Report

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being invited to hold a workshop with Isabel Meirelles on complex network visualization and analysis at the Digital Humanities 2014 Forum, held at Kansas University, Lawrence. I figured that this is a good occasion to report on my experience, since it was very interesting and, being quite different from my usual venues, it adds a bit of diversity. The official page of the event is useful to get an overall picture of what was going on. It will be helpful also for everything I will not touch upon in this post.


I think that one of the main highlights of the event was the half of our workshop curated by Isabel, with the additional keynote that she gave. Isabel is extremely skilled both in the know-how and in the know-what about information visualization: she is not only able to create wonderful visualizations, but she also has a powerful critical sense of what works and what doesn’t. I think that the best piece of supporting evidence for this statement is her latest book, which you can find here. As for my part of the workshop, it was focused on a very basic introduction to the simplest metrics of network analysis. You can take a glance at the slides here, but if you are already somewhat proficient in network terminology do not expect your world to be shattered by it.

The other two keynotes were equally fascinating. The first one was from Steven Jones. His talk gravitated around the concept of the eversion of the virtual into reality. Many works of science fiction imagined human beings ending up in some more or less well defined “virtual reality”, where everything is possible as long as you can program it. See for example Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, or “The Matrix”, just to give a popular example that most people would know. But what is happening right now, observes Jones, is exactly the opposite. We see more and more examples of virtual reality elements being introduced, mostly playfully, into reality. Think about qonqr, where team of people have to physically “fight” to keep virtual control of an actual neighborhood. A clever artistic way to depict eversion is also:

The last keynote was from Scott Weingart. Scott is a smart guy and he is particularly interested in studying the history of science. In the (too few!) interactions we had during the forum we touched upon many topics also included in his talk: ethic responsibility of usage of data about people, the influence of the perspective you use to analyze human activities and, a must exchange between a historian of science and yours truly formed as scientist in Pisa, Galileo Galilei. I feel I cannot do justice to his very eloquent and thought-provoking keynote in this narrow space. So I redirect you to its transcript, hosted on Scott’s blog. It’s a good read.

Then, the contributed talks. Among all the papers you can explore from the official forum page, I’d like to focus particularly on two. The first is the Salons project, presented by Melanie Conroy. The idea is to map the cultural exchange happening in Europe during the Enlightenment years. A great role for this exchange was played by Salons, where wealthy people were happy to give intellectuals a place for gathering and discussing. You can find more information on the Salons project page. I liked it because it fits with the idea of knowledge creation and human advancement as a collective process, where an equal contribution is given by both intellect and communication. By basing itself on richly annotated data, projects like these can help us understanding where breakthroughs come from, or to understand that there is no such a thing as a breakthrough, only a progressive interconnection of ideas. Usually, we realize it only after the fact, and that’s why we think it happened all of a sudden.

Another talk I really enjoyed was from Hannah Jacobs. Her talk described a visualization tool to explore the evolution of the concept of “New Woman”, one of the first examples of feminism. I am currently unable to find an online link to the tool. What I liked about it was the seamless way in which different visualizations are used to tell the various points of view on the story. The whole point of information visualization is that when there is too much data to show at the same time, one has to select what to highlight and what to discard. But in this framework, with a wise choice of techniques, one can jump into different magnifying glasses and understand one part of the story of the term “New Woman” at a time.

Many other things were cool, from the usage of the Unity 3D engine to recreate historic view, to the charming visualizations of “Enchanters of Men”. But my time here is up, and I’m left with the hope of being invited also to the 2015 edition of the forum.

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12 December 2013 ~ 0 Comments

The Social Network of Dante’s Inferno

Today I am going to commit one of the most hideous crimes in the research community. Today I am going to use my knowledge and expertise in my area to tell people in other areas what is a cool thing to do in their job. And I don’t even have the excuse of my age. Though you may say I was already crazy to begin with. My post is about putting some networky juice in literature studies and humanities. I am not the only one doing that – or to say that the complete segregation between humanities and science should not be there.

I already wrote a post about a network approach to the organization of classical archaeology literature. But maybe because of my computing humanities background, maybe because I always loved studying literature, I want to go deeper. So I reasoned about this a bit with my usual friends back in Italy and what came out is just a crazy thought. What if we try to create the idea for a network-based history of literature? That is to say: can we find in the network structure of pieces of literature art some traces of their meaning, of the relationships between them and their times, of the philosophy that moves them?


The first product coming out from this crazy idea was “The Social Network of Dante’s Inferno“, presented in the 2010 edition of the “Arts, Humanities and Complex Networks” symposium of NetSci and then published in a 2011 special issue of the Leonardo journal. In this work we were moved by the question: is a network of characters following some particular predictive patterns? If so: which ones?

So we took a digital copy of Dante’s Inferno, where all interactions and characters were annotated with extra information (who the character was, if she was a historic or mythological figure, when she lived, …). We then considered each character as a node of the network. We created an edge between two characters if they had at least a direct exchange of words. Normal people would call this “a dialogue”. The result was pretty to see (click for a larger version):


The double-focus point of the Commedia emerges quite naturally, as Dante and Virgilio are the so-called “hubs” of the system. It is a nice textbook example of the rich-get-richer effect, a classic network result. But contrary to what the title of the paper says, we went beyond that. There are not only “social” relationships. Each character is also connected to all the information we have about her. There is another layer, a semantic one, where we have nodes such as “Guelph” or “Middle Ages”. These nodes enable us to browse the Commedia as a network of concepts that Dante wanted to connect in one way or another. One can ask some questions like “are Ghibelline characters preferably connected to historic or mythological characters?” or “what’s the centrality of political characters in the Inferno as opposed to the Purgatorio?” and create one’s own interpretation of the Commedia.

As fun as it was, we wanted to push this idea a bit beyond the simple “put a network there and see what happens”. That’s when Emmanuele Chersoni knocked on my door. He had manually annotated the Orlando Furioso (“The Frenzy of Orlando”) and the Gerusalemme Liberata (“Jerusalem Delivered”), two of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian epic poetry. This time it was the perfect occasion for a legendary artistic stand off.


To drive the theory a bit further, we asked ourselves: can we find in the network structure of a poem the principles of the poetics of the time and other factors influencing the authors? We knew that, in the century between the two poems, there was a transformation of the genre and significant historical and sociopolitical changes: a canonization of the genre took place, with more rigorous narrative structures and with the avoidance of the proliferation of plotlines. We wanted to see if these changes in the “rules of the game” could be rediscovered in the final product.

To test the hypothesis, we again created a character-character interaction network. We then grouped together characters with a community discovery algorithm (what else? 🙂 ). If the network is telling us something about the effects of this transformation of the genre, then the Gerusalemme Liberata should grow more organically, without many fluctuating sub-plots and a general collapse in the main plot at the end. And, surprise surprise, that’s exactly what we see. In the visualization below, we have a steamgraph where each color represents a community, its size proportional to the number of characters in it. And to me, the squiggly Orlando Furioso, with the central plot that becomes a giant at the end, seems not regular at all (click to enjoy the full resolution):


To conclude, let’s go back to the initial question. Why are we doing this? Because I feel that there is a fundamental flaw in the history of literature as it was taught to me. Rather than exclusively studying a handful of “significant works” per century, I’d want to also get a more wide knowledge about what were the fundamental characteristics of the art of the period. Network analysis can prove itself useful in this task. It “just” takes the effort of annotating many of these works, and then it can carry on the analysis in an almost automatic way. The result? To know what were the topical structures, theme connections, genre relations (yes, I go much further beyond what I showed, but I’m a dreamer). And how they gradually evolved over time. And who were the real authors who firstly used some topical structures. To me, it’s a lot, a goldmine, a kid-in-a-candy-store avalanche effect.

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