Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities

By Eric T. Meyer and Ralph Schroeder. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 282 pp.  $42.00 (hardback).  ISBN 978-0-262-02874-5.

Knowledge Machines describes how use of the internet has changed research practices in both the hard sciences and in the humanities.  It argues that a great deal of research is now done relying on digital tools, files, collaboration, and distributed work.  Offering evidence of use and case studies, the authors argue that more scholarly research will be done relying on the internet.  Rather than use the word “information,” the authors chose to rely on the word “knowledge.”  When this book was published in 2015, it had already become obvious that researchers increasingly were using the internet, but now more than two years on, the authors’ prediction that researchers would expand their reliance on digital tools has come true.  Their assessment of how this technology should be used is more relevant than ever. 

Meyer and Schroder work at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.  The authors focus their attention largely on how researchers create knowledge using the Internet.  They explore how the Internet serves as a technological infrastructure for scholars, as in expanding collaborative research initiatives, placing emphasis on what changes in a networked research environment, which they call “e-research.”  This short ten-chapter book is broad in scope.  Chapter two, Conceptualizing e-Research, for example, reviews existing approaches for understanding computational approaches in research, largely observing the mathematization of analysis and uses of large data sets.  Chapter three, The Rise of Digital Research, is historical, documenting the evolution of the use of the Internet, largely by scientists, and how funders and data providers shaped its use.  The next several chapters explore how aggregating people and machines are unfolding as a major feature of e-research: collaboration by multiple researchers and organizations and the rise of distributed data and how it is used.  The book is filled with short case studies drawn from hard sciences, social science, and the humanities to illustrate patterns of use.

Much of the behavior evident in e-research will be familiar to readers of I&C, but the book is a reminder that this use of the Internet has been around a long time as an early major application of the technology.  But they begin the process of helping future researchers by explaining that there are emerging styles of e-research, such as the mathematization of many research projects, analyzing large data sets to extract insights from one discipline to another, and variations in how, say, humanists approach online research compared to that of a chemist.  Of humanists, such as historians, the authors raise the question, “whether increased scientization” would “influence a shift toward cumulative knowledge production that more closely resembles that of the sciences.” (204)  It is a question many historians and scholars in the humanities have pondered for some time.

This book is about scholarly communication in a research environment in which the amount of digital data has been increasing exponentially.  Where, for example, an English literature professor can scan thousands of pages of digitized text to find patterns of word usage, or where historians can integrate large bodies of statistical data with paper-based archival material to offer new insights to an old story, Meyer and Schroeder pay less attention to the nature of information itself, other than to acknowledge its growing numerical features.  The book is a witness to the early days of a transformation in research which in retrospect will feel as profound as the scientific methods introduced in the 1600’s or, for historians, the nineteenth century introduction of modern archival research and use of footnotes.  Knowledge Machines is well informed, and engages rigorously with other researchers bent on understanding the relationship between the Internet and scholarly research.  The authors’ basic thesis—that the Internet had fundamentally reshaped research practices—holds up well and as an example of the growing literature on the sociology of science, technology, and social informatics is a welcome addition.  Do not be fooled by the shortness of the book, as it is packed with much information, citations, and case studies.

James W. Cortada, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota