Rockwell & Bradley, "Eye-ConTact"

1. Limitations of TACT

What are the problems with traditional tools like TACT?

TACT [1] is a second generation tool. First generation tools were batch-oriented and designed originally for mainframes. They were not interactive; the user had to run a job and then examine the results. This meant that exploring a text was a long iterative process, but the batch files did offer a record of what was done to get a particular result. TACT, on the other hand is one of the best second generation tools. It was designed from the beginning for interactive use on a microcomputer. It even employs primitive windows in which the user can view different data displays. Being interactive, the process of trying queries, checking the results, and refining your queries is much faster. One of the things that was lost, however, was a way to track the project so that you could reconstruct how you arrived at a result after the interaction.

While there are many problems specific to TACT, we are going to focus here on those problems which TACT shares with similar interactive tools. We take TACT as an example of a text-analysis tool, not because we wish to criticise TACT, but because we have used it many years and have an intimate knowledge of its design -- one of us was involved in its creation and development. The major limitations we encountered when we used TACT to study Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were:

1.1 It cannot be extended.

1.2 It is difficult to record one's work.

1.3 It is difficult to share one's research results.

1.1 Extension

One of the first problems we encountered with TACT was that it is a closed program; it cannot be modified or extended except by those who own the code. Not only is the program closed to extension, but the output it generates cannot be passed to other programs dynamically. The result files created by TACT must be manually exported and then opened in another program for further processing.

One solution that occurred to us was to repackage TACT so that it could be accessed by other programs. TACTweb [2], from one perspective, is such a repackaging for a WWW server to access. In our experience, however, the extension problem is not simply a matter of providing hooks so that a program can be called or call others. In original research one moves quickly beyond what has been done before in ways not foreseen. The unforeseeable nature of original research means that a research tool cannot be extended in a predictable way to meet the demands of research. What is needed are research tools whose every aspect can being modified and extended through easily added modules. In other words, to be truly extensible, a tool should be capable of having any component replaced. Eye-ConTact is one model for how such extensibility can be achieved based on similar tools in the sciences. [3]

1.2 Record of the Experiment

According to one model of what happens in a computer-assisted research project, the researcher comes to a text with questions formulated in terms of queries the computer can answer. If the answers are interesting, the researcher records the answers and how they were derived and then publishes a description of the methods used and the results. For the results to be convincing, others have to be able to repeat the research and arrive at similar results by following the described methods. As readers of such publications we expect the research to be described in sufficient detail to allow us to test the results ourselves. Programs like TACT are unfortunately missing mechanisms to record or log one's work in order to accurately describe the methods used for oneself and others. (How often have you saved results and found that a few months later you cannot remember how they were arrived at!) We need tools that ensure that our computing work is clearly and completely logged while it is developing, so that it can be accurately described and later recreated by others. Specifically, we need tools that: This leads to the next problem.

1.3 Sharing Results

Existing text-analysis tools have a fundamental problem: they do not assist the researcher to share his or her research in a fashion that makes the text analysis accessible. TACT is a private tool; you study a text and then you publish your results as a separate act, preferably hiding the fact that a mere computer assisted you in any way. TACT does not help you keep track of how you reached your conclusions, nor does it help you show others how you arrived at those conclusions. It fosters private exploration, not open reproducible interactive research.

Research is by nature something others can recover (or re-search) if they are sceptical. To be convincing, research results have to be open to examination, so that others can traverse the logic of the research themselves. Current text-analysis tools do not allow one to share results in an interactive form for verification; they force us to either give colleagues the complete environment or nothing at all. Many papers based on text analysis simply tell us that the computer assisted a given insight, without showing us how the insight was arrived at. The methods used are described all too often in a truncated fashion, because there is really no graceful way to share them.

In short, we need tools that make the research accessible, not the technology. Such tools should show how the results were arrived at and what decisions were made along the way, instead of showing the toys used. Paradoxically, what we need are research tools aimed, not at the researcher for his or her private exploration, but at the researcher's audience who wants to test the insight. We need a tool that allows people to package easily their research for distribution in an interactive form and which highlights the research, not the technology.

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[1] TACT was developed originally by John Bradley and Lidio Presutti at the University of Toronto starting in 1984. For more information, or to download TACT, click here. In 1995 TACT was adapted so that it could be a CGI (Common Gateway Interface) program. The result was TACTweb, which can be tried or downloaded through the World Wide Web. The manual for TACT, a CD-ROM with TACT, and an extensive collection of texts is now published by the MLA under the title Using TACT with Electronic Texts (Lancashire et al. 1996).

In this paper we will use TACT as an example of a traditional text analysis tool, partly because one of us was involved in its design and development, and partly because it is still one of the best tools of its kind.

[2] TACTweb connects TACT to the World Wide Web -- making a TACT TDB database accessible to the entire WWW community. By using WWW forms, users have access to some of the interactive services that TACT provides them, but without requiring them to use TACT itself, or have a copy of the TACT database on their own machine. TACTweb can also be thought of as a text engine module called by other programs like a WWW server or another text-analysis program. In fact Eye-ConTact uses TACTweb in just this fashion: as a module that is called when needed.

For more information about TACTweb click here.

[3] One might ask if such extensibility is a reasonable goal? Perhaps we should not set our sights so high given the modest programming resources in the humanities. We believe such extensibility is not only feasible, it is the best way to ensure the long term survival of research tools. Like Jason's boat, Eye-ConTact is designed to be a collection of tools which can be slowly replaced, component by component, over time, as research in humanities computing evolves. Any research tool project that is closed may not survive the natural curiosity of researchers.