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Digital humanities provides insight into Voltaire and his social networks

August 31, 2015
Pui Shiau

Facebook and LinkedIn are just a few of the social networking platforms that are popular today. With a simple click, you can “friend” or “connect” with just about anybody in the world, but there was a time not too long ago when this wasn’t the case. In contrast, putting pen to paper and writing letters has been a way to communicate with others for hundreds of years. However, technology has added a new element to how humanities scholars study letters and texts. The Office of International Affairs met with Dan Edelstein, Professor of French and, by courtesy, History, and with Nicole Coleman, Academic Technology Specialist, Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis and the Stanford University Libraries, to discuss how they use data visualization technology to study Voltaire, the French writer, historian, and philosopher, and his network of peers during the Enlightenment period.

Q. How did the idea of Mapping the Republic of Letters come about?

DE & NC: Our project is somewhat unusual among digital humanities projects in that we did not start out thinking that we would rely so heavily on visualization. At first, my colleagues and I simply sought to explore some of the nagging questions surrounding the "Republic of Letters,” the name given to the network of authors, scholars, patrons, and philosophers who communicated, largely by correspondence, between c. 1500-1800. How do these networks operate? Are they parts of the whole, are they overlapping or are they independent of each other? Are they cosmopolitan or nationalistic in nature and what is their global reach, if any?

We had the good fortune of striking up a collaboration with the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University, and through the generosity of its director, Robert McNamee, we came into possession of around 50k rows of metadata for the correspondence of major Enlightenment figures (including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume). With funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), we began exploring ways to visualize the data with the goal of trying to make sense of the vast amount of data that we possessed.  

This effort led to the release of our first visualization prototype. Since then, we’ve been growing our store of metadata and continuing to refine our visualization techniques. Our latest effort, once again funded by the NEH, is called Palladio.

Q. What is different about Palladio?

DE & NC: Palladio was conceived partly because using available geographic information system (GIS) software had its own set of limitations and partly because we wanted to create a tool that would be unique to each user. All humanists have their own questions that they want answered and depending on the questions you ask, the answers will be different. Scholars from around the world have accessed the tool for their own research. The Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State uses Palladio in a number of ways, including using it as a public display of their Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) papers.

Palladio is unique in that it is an open design platform that has been available to the public since inception. Open design means that users can email us if they have suggestions for improvements. We take a look at all the suggestions and some of them are definitely worth incorporating so Palladio is always evolving.

Q. What is the relationship with your collaborator(s) and what do they bring to the table that enriches your research?

DE & NC: This project started off as an international collaboration with the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University; they provided the data, and we brought the visualization expertise. We have since developed two other key international partnerships. The first is with DensityDesign, a design research lab at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy; developers from this lab, Giorgio Caviglia in particular, have since worked intimately with us to design our visualizations. Our second major collaboration is with the Cultures of Knowledge project, also at Oxford University. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they have developed a magnificent repository of nearly one hundred thousand 16th, 17th and 18th century letters called Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO); we are currently working with them to implement Palladio within their system.

Q. How has technology changed the nature of humanities research? 

DE & NC: While nothing in the foreseeable future can replace reading as tool for information gathering and analysis, technology is nonetheless transforming the ways that all humanists work. The mass digitization of books has made it possible to discover needles of language in haystacks of texts. It has also made it possible to study trends in language, as can be seen with the Google N-gram Viewer (a Google app that allows you to search phrases and how often they appear in a body of work); but we’re really just scraping the surface of what visualization has to offer the humanities. I imagine that in 10 years (maybe less?) it will be standard in library catalogues, for instance, to present results according to timelines, maps, and networks, instead of just listing them.

At the same time, I don’t think that these technologies are going to fundamentally alter the humanities. As Einstein reputedly said, not everything that can be counted matters, and not everything that matters can be counted. The way I see it, digital tools are great at revealing large patterns or retrieving specific texts. But then you still have to make sense of what you’ve found, to interpret the data, and that’s not a skill that computers can easily replicate.

Q What have you discovered about Voltaire from this process?

DE: Much of what I found, when mapping Voltaire’s correspondence, confirmed what scholars have long known — namely, that Paris was the center of his world, with important hubs in Prussia and Geneva; that his network was limited to Europe (with next to no contact with the Americas or Asia); and that he had little communication with scholars in Spain or Eastern Europe. What was surprising, however, was how little he communicated with English correspondents. This was unusual, given the large role that scholars have traditionally attributed to Voltaire’s extended stay in England in the 1720’s.

Q. Do you see evidence of Voltaire’s influence on those within his network?

DE: Voltaire’s network does show him to be an essential, perhaps the central node in the network of the European Enlightenment. His correspondence is filled with letters from aspiring writers and philosophers; a favorable reception could greatly advance one’s career. Authors would include letters from Voltaire in their own publications (usually without permission); but Voltaire could also use his own network of powerful friends to catapult young authors into successful careers.

Q. As you study Voltaire and his social network, what is different with how we connect with people today?

DE: While social network platforms certainly make it easier to connect with others, and faster to communicate with them, it’s not clear that the actual networks we form differ fundamentally from those that people would have created two hundred years ago. To be sure, the rise in literacy rates, the speed and efficiency of travel, and the broader dissemination of news mean that far more people today can connect with others who are not physically proximate to them. Social media offer us many more opportunities to connect, and our networks (both online and offline) are accordingly larger. It’s not clear that we have really moved beyond Dunbar’s number of social connections but technology offers a visualization of Voltaire’s network that adds a new dimension to how we conduct humanities research.

To learn more about Mapping the Republic Letters project, visit their website. If you'd like to see data visualization in action, visit the Palladio website.