Sep. 25, 2006

At the Algorithm Crossroads

This week I made an effort to dive into the mysterious world of computer science and programming by doing an online tutorial on algorithms and some reading on artificial intelligence. It was a disaster.

That’s an over-statement. Algorithms turned out to be a lot less complicated than I presumed. Any set of explicit instructions is considered an algorithm, and it is useful to have computers carry out algorithms because of the high processing power that computers possess. Algorithms would clearly be useful in sorting out and ranking quantitative information for a historian to analyze. Complicated algorithms could likely be developed to analyze text or images to find pertinent information for a historian. Algorithms are at the center of the Google search engine. The ability to manipulate algorithms will likely be of great value to historians as more and more historical data and scholarship becomes available on the Internet.

The “disaster” of this learning experience was how incredibly uninteresting I found the entire lesson. In a program where everything I have read has been compelling and new, these exercises were decidedly dull. This surprised me because I thought that the Digital History class would be a good opportunity to learn a little more about the nuts and bolts of computers than your average historian. When I realized how quickly I was glazing over as I read about the basics of artificial intelligence, I was a little disappointed in myself.

I find myself re-assessing my goals at this point; I am no longer sure that I can go through with learning all of the ins-and-outs of computer programming, but I am not willing to give up completely. As a public historian-in-training, it seems important that I be able to take advantage of different types of media in order to reach people in a number of different ways. On the other hand, as somebody who hopes to be an educator, it seems important that I have a good grounding in the resources and tools that are available through digital technology. Furthermore, I do not think that it is my instructor’s intention that I choose exercises that will bore me to tears.

This then is my compromise: I am going to leave artificial intelligence alone but continue on with the online computer science tutorials. I believe that, as a public historian and an individual with a liberal arts education, I should “be at the table” during discussions regarding the digitization of the historical record. If I cannot be on the same page as computer scientists when they are talking about the challenges of programming a new database, at the very least I can appreciate where they are coming from and empathize with the specialized work that they get to do. And who knows… maybe by the end of the semester I will be able to mash a little bit of code together.

Humble historians of the world unite!