Dr. Ségolène Tarte, Senior Researcher, talks about exploring what it means to be human, visual perception and "black boxes"
When did you start at the Centre and what was your first role here?
The e-Research Centre was the place where I took my second post-doctoral position. At the time I was formally appointed as a Classics post-doc, working at the intersection between Classics and Engineering. The e-Research Centre was the linking point, a perfect place to establish this collaboration, which sought to develop image processing techniques to support Classicists working with ancient documents such as the Vindolanda tablet (Roman wooden writing tablets).
What is your background?
My master's degree was in Applied Mathematics with a focus on image processing as well as geometric handling and modelling of curves and surfaces (Grenoble, France). With this specialisation, I then went on to complete a PhD thesis in Biomedical Engineering, more specifically designing and programming software tools for computer-assisted surgery, in particular surgical reconstruction of fractured pelvises and hip joints, in Bern, Switzerland. My first post-doc thereafter was at UCL in London, using stereoscopic video imaging during radiotherapy treatment to minimise radiation to healthy tissue. Although seemingly remote from applications in Classics, the image capture and processing techniques have strong similarities, and understanding them well is a first step before being able to adapt them to a chosen domain of application
Summarise the research you are doing / your research interests in a few sentences.
The research subjects I am currently pursuing are multiple, but can all be associated with the field of Digital Humanities:
- I am currently involved in the SOCIAM project – the theory and practice of social machines. In this project, where most partners are computer scientists (with the exception of one philosopher and one psychologist), I have taken the role of a social scientist, exploring the social dimension of social machines. Social machines are web-enabled entities combining social dynamics and computational power, such as citizen-science projects like those of the Zooniverse suite. My main research questions in this context are: what are the dynamics that power social machines? How do human dynamics combine successfully with computational infrastructures and algorithms?
- My other main project is a collaboration between Neuroscientists and Egyptologists (Cognitive Underpinnings of Reading Handwritten Scripts: Investigating Variations for Applications in Digital Palaeography - CURHSIVA-DP). We are attempting to combine two very different methodological approaches: ethnography, that collects real-life data through mostly qualitative observation and experimental set-ups, that design specific tasks and collect predominantly quantitative measurements. Our focus of study is the variability of handwriting, a study relevant to both neuroscientists and scholars working on ancient scripts, such as Classicists and Egyptologists.
Why is this important (to the scientific community / the world at large)?
The Digital Humanities are at the crossroads of a plethora of research cultures, ranging from the qualitative to the quantitative, from the reductionist to the holistic, and from the theoretical to the practical; it is therefore in a prime position to facilitate dialogue between subject matters that are traditionally separate, to enrich each of them through cross-pollination between different ways of creating knowledge, and to engage with a wide range of people with their own specific interests.
The Digital Humanities are also the perfect medium to introduce members of the wider public to techniques and domains they wouldn't necessarily otherwise encounter: a science museum audience might not naturally seek to learn about archaeological artefacts, but presenting archaeological artefacts to which scientific techniques have been applied in a Science museum offers an opening onto past cultures and practices through the sciences; and the reverse is also true: exhibitions in archaeological museums that show the use of scientific tools offer some exposure to scientific and technological advances through Archaeology.
Underpinning all research, whether in the Sciences, in the Arts, or in the Humanities, the constant effort is one that seeks to answer the question: "What does it mean to be human?" It would be overly ambitious and vain to claim that I hope to answer that question – but in a sense, I hope that my trajectory through the varied research landscapes can contribute to finding ways of how to explore that question, and maybe find elements of answers.
What would you like to do next, funding permitting?
One of the main recurring themes in my research is visual perception and how much it is intertwined and shaped by the type of expertise of those taking advantage of the visual. Subjects that interest me all relate in some way to how we make sense of what we see – in the medical domain, in Classics, but also in the Arts. One of the projects I hope to take forward in the near future aims to develop "critical visualisation".
With the advent of what has been termed the "data deluge" and "big data", visualisations have taken an increasing role in data analysis as well as presentation; a very wide range of disciplines make use of visualization as a technique for exploration and/or dissemination, often relying on the premise that visualization is intuitive. But is it really? Shouldn't we educate ourselves to think critically about the visual in a similar way as we do with the textual? "Critical visualization" aims to draw on the know-how of as many of the discipline-specific approaches to visualization as possible (Computer Sciences, Visual and Cultural Studies, Neurosciences, History of Art, Digital Humanities, etc.), fostering knowledge exchange and cross-pollination to develop explicit interdisciplinary ways of encouraging ways of thinking critically about the visual.
Are you involved in any wider collaborations? Why are these important?
I am part of a number of interdisciplinary networks (some of which I am a co-convenor of), where dialogue, sharing, and debates aim to foster the enrichment of knowledge:
- on Computation and Palaeography; where the computer sciences seek to develop techniques in support of palaeography (the study of the shapes of writing that help us trace and understand the circulation of knowledge and cultures).
- on Embodiment and Materiality; seeking to understand how our bodies and relation to the material world shape our knowledge creation techniques.
- on Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers; seeking to gain a body-based knowledge of movement and storytelling in Ancient Rome from a dancer's perspective, based on ancient textual evidence.
- On Manuscripts and Text culture; where the core of the exchanges aim to share methodologies across different disciplines.
What publication /paper are you most proud of and why?
Two papers come to mind. The first one is entitled "Interpreting Textual Artefacts: Cognitive Insights into Expert Practices". It is the paper that relates my initial explorations of cognition in the context of the interpretation of ancient documents, identifying strategies of interpretation through ethnographic observations and connecting them to phenomena analysed in the cognitive sciences. This work is the starting point of an epistemological investigation undertaken in order to anchor the development of digital tools and methods into a wider methodological understanding of current practices.
The second paper is entitled "Working out the plot: the role of stories in Social Machines" and establishes a knowledge transfer in the direction opposite to that habitually observed in the Digital Humanities. It promotes the use of a literary and historical methodological approach in the study of what computer scientists build for people.
Have you received any awards or fellowships?
My work on image processing and ancient documents was short-listed for the 1st Fortier Prize at the Digital Humanities conference in 2010 (paper subsequently published as "Digitizing the Act of Papyrological Interpretation: Negotiating Spurious Exactitude and Genuine Uncertainty"); and the AHRC awarded me a 1-year early-career fellowship in 2012 – the outcomes of which are presented in the "Interpreting Textual Artefacts: Cognitive Insights into Expert Practices" paper.
What do you think the most important issues/challenges in your field will be in the next decade and how is the Centre placed to address them?
The Digital Humanities is an emerging field (and has been for now at least two decades), that isn't really a field in the same sense as History, Classics, the Arts, or Literature. Its preponderant characteristic is the devising and development of digital/computational tools to support research in the humanities in general, but the focus seems currently more on the methods than on the methodologies (theoretical frameworks).
The main challenge is to actually embed these tools in the routine practices of scholars. To that effect, engaging in methodological development of tools is crucial – ultimately, the Digital Humanities deal with at least twice as many 'black-boxes' (complex systems or devices with hidden inner workings) as other disciplines: on the one hand computational tools; and on the other hand, the cognitive powers of humans. It is through the investigation of the epistemological foundations of all the black boxes involved that optimal collaborations can develop.
The Centre is extremely well positioned to help support that effort, as it has specialised in bridging between very many disciplines, encouraging knowledge exchanges, and facilitating it through the intrinsic disciplinary diversity of the backgrounds of those working here.
What do you think the Centre does best?
By its very nature, the Centre gathers people with very different sets of expertise, and, the coexistence of this multiplicity of skills means that we all naturally have the opportunity to keep up-to-date with the advances in other fields than our own. The Centre is the optimal place to reach out to more traditional disciplines and set up collaborations to develop new ways of creating knowledge.