Sustainability, History and Math

(Originally posted a few years back, thought I would share it again)


 For the past few weeks, I have been working on a project in Ontario, Canada that is looking into the future sustainability of digital projects in Canada as a part of the federal governments policy on Canadas Digital Advantage.

Because the project is based in Canada and addressing specifically Canadian concerns, we are coming to conclusions regarding sustainability that are radically different than, say, our American or British colleagues might.  For example, one of the holes in our knowledge on the digital academys influence economy comes from the sheer lack of quantitative studies regarding the cross pollination between what are (or start as) academic projects and the broader economy.  That is, no one has done any studies on the Canadian milieu, looking at specifically Canadian projects and how much those digital projects have contributed to the Canadian economy.

 The present project, which is funded by SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), is working on an incredibly, almost laughably, short time frame.  Though we expect to have a white paper ready for December 1, 2010, we are only really scratching the surface of what is out there in terms of scholarship on sustainability and are more often than not discovering that what is not out there is just as interesting as what is.

But that isnt exactly what I want to talk about

Neurotic Imaginings

All while doing this project on sustainability, I have had a recurrent image in my head.

 See, in my other life I am an early modernist.  Actually, I think of myself primarily as an early modernist who has only a tangential interest in DH and the possibilities that it offers.

 Im not so hip as to be a DH evangelical, but I do realize that the future of our discipline will involve closer integration with the digital world, to the point that those who do not stay at least partially abreast will be as antiquated in the future as bibliographic index card catalogue users are today.

 Thus, sustainability is a problem not because things will be lost it is inevitable that things will be lost but because we have the opportunity to intervene in the process of forgetting, hopefully for the better.

The image that keeps coming into my mind in this project is here.

Rithmomachia BoardThis is a game from the medieval period called Rithmomachia.  For those of you with small Latin and less Greek, , means number and the suffix derived from , meaning battle.

 The game itself is devilishly complex to a modern mind if only because it relies on knowledge of the relationships between whole numbers.  Gameplay involved moving pieces that designated whole number across a board that was twice as long but just as wide as a chess board.  One player could take the pieces of the other player by arranging the pieces/numbers in an arithmetic, geometrical or musical harmony (or any combination of them).

It was called the Philosophers Game partially because it was only played by the erudite and partially because Rithmomachia was supposedly created by Pythagoras, though that genealogy is highly doubtful.

Throughout the early modern period, the game was associated with hermetic magic and was played by some of the more well known figures of the European renaissance.

Of course, we dont know about it anymore.  It has been totally forgotten by the culture in general and by all but those few interested scholars.  Why?

Well, you see, there was another game that was introduced to Europe at about the same time as we start seeing descriptions of Rithmomachia and that game was Chess.

Both games are roughly as old as each other and both games were equally popular in the later middle ages, but only one of them has continued in cultural memory.  You can argue that the reason for that is that Rithmomachia is just inherently more difficult as a game describing musical harmonies of numbers is not as easy as, say, your pawn can open with a two space move or a one space move.

I am not convinced by that, however.

I think that the real reason for Chess living in our cultural memory and Rithmomachia as being forgotten comes down to the fact that the first universities took on Rithmomachia as a strategy by which to teach basic numeracy skills.

Its a strategy we are seeing today in the move to bring games (video games and otherwise) into the library system and into the classroom, and it is perfectly sound insofar as it does work.

If you engage students, through games, through active learning principles, then students are more likely to retain the information or skills that you are trying to teach.  So I cannot fault the medieval scholastics who decided that they would put Rithmomachia into the curriculum.  They were only doing what modern scholars are trying to do by using Mass Effect as a way to explicate narrative non-linearity.  The theory, such as it was (and is), is sound.

The thing is, as the years turned into decades and the decades turned into centuries, the university ossified, and with it, so did the game.


Universities are inherently conservative institutions as bureaucracies, they are specifically designed to make it difficult to change things.

When you have an institution such as a university taking on a new technology, like a game or a communications system, not only will it be difficult to integrate into the prevailing administrative structure, but there is always the threat that once it has become integrated into that administrative system, it will ossify.

The administration of knowledge will weave its way in and around the new technology of knowing to the point that it becomes either culturally irrelevant and forgotten (Rithmomachia) or culturally irrelevant and clung to out of a mere sense of tradition (Im looking at you, robe and mortarboard).

The point is that the cultural amnesia regarding Rithmomachia brings up some of the most fundamental aspects of sustainability insofar as we have to ask, how much can we trust universities (these incredibly conservative institutions) to sustain digital projects that are by definition ongoing sources of knowledge?

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the longest running continuously developing projects in the academy, but it is predicated on a very conservative model of knowing that there are words out there as objects of definition and that they will be described.

No one would possibly suggest that the OED is not invested in what Bakhtin called the centripetal force, that works to bring language and meaning together under an objective umbrella.  Despite its yearly updates and continual re-editing, the OED is presenting an ossified image of the English Language and that is partly to do with the fact that it is housed under the auspices of a university.


So if we are looking to investigate long term sustainability, we have to ask the question of what are we willing to trade off?

If we want sustainability within the present institutional settings, then we have to accept the possibility that eventually, our beloved digital tool or project (be that project as genuinely useful as the Walt Whitman Archive or EEBO), will ossify and be forgotten.

If we dont change the university culture a culture that has existed for a thousand years then we are likely to simply end up with projects that are snapshots of what was rather than producers of the new knew.

If we do change the university culture, then that is a project that extends well beyond the individual institution or individual nation and demands a rethink of what it is we do in the academy, from the ground up.

Of course, in the writing of a small white paper, due in such a short time, I doubt that we will come up with anything that will possibly answer how the university as an institution can be rebuilt.

So which is it?  Or perhaps I am being reductive?

[Cross Posted on HASTAC and Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture]


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