Lab Work for Humanists

November/December 2000

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Henry Lowood years ago played board strategy games--Tactics, Diplomacy and Gettysburg. Those led him to computer games and video simulations.

Now Lowood, who is curator for Germanic collections and for the history of science and technology collections at Green Libraries, has a new game plan. He and history professor Tim Lenoir have gotten the green light to pursue their computer-graphic fantasies by launching one of five pilot projects for the Stanford Humanities Laboratory. The playful title of their academic collaboration: "How They Got Game: The History and Culture of Interactive Simulations and Video Games."

The humanities lab, which opened this fall, grew out of Gerhard Casper's Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities. The goal is to create something, well, different--a performance, exhibition, website, course or book aimed at a general audience. For example, lab director Jeffrey Schnapp, PhD '84, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, and art historian Leah Dickerman, an expert on Soviet photography of the 1920s, will produce a film and website about crowds. In their research, they are examining mass cultural forms, including a 1934 open-air Fascist spectacle that involved 3,000 actors, hundreds of trucks, an airplane squadron and military searchlights on the banks of the Arno River in Florence, Italy.

Instead of producing traditional, single-author books or articles, the five research teams funded by the lab will use technology to study topics in the humanities from collaborative angles. One group will produce a HyperText book on CD-ROM about "Medieval Spains," and another will write and perform a new composition titled "The Music and Science of Sonorification."

"It's still just a gleam in our eyes," Lowood says about the web-based documentary he and Lenoir plan to produce over the next few years. "We'll be using lots of video and looking for a new model for how to tell a story."

Schnapp sent a call for proposals last spring to more than 300 faculty in the humanities and to curators at the Stanford Libraries and Cantor Arts Center, asking prospective research teams to think in terms of what he calls "big humanities."

"In the sciences, everybody's used to the idea that you're the first author and I'm the third; but in the humanities, the tradition is single-author," Schnapp says. "So these are all exploratory projects that will be changing, to a degree, the ways people think about authorship and intellectual property in the humanities."

Although the lab will be decked out with a speedster G4 computer and a souped-up video-editing system, Schnapp says the lab is not about pushing technology. "The technology has to flow out of the nature of the research," he adds. "It can't be, as people like to say in the technology world, demo-driven. It's not about toys."

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