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Computer simulation as a new knowledge source

07 October 2015
Text by Neeltje Miedema, Research & Valorisation

Talking to Jan-Willem Romeijn is like putting the clock forward in your head. A half-hour interview quickly turns into an hour or more. The theme: the rise of computer modelling in the humanities, and in particular the role of the philosopher of science in that phenomenon. Romeijn: ‘What is new is the abundance of new digital technologies that have become available and enable new and different research, both fundamental and applied.’

Prof. Jan-Willem Romeijn
Prof. Jan-Willem Romeijn

For a philosopher of science these digital developments raise interesting new research questions: what are the benefits and disadvantages of digital humanities, and how can you combine the new digital technologies with traditional empirical research methods.

Disadvantages? Jan-Willem explains: ‘ Focusing on big data could lead to a certain degree of uniformity in research approach and conceptualization. Science flourishes, especially within the humanities, by a diverse approach. In the philosophy of science, these advantages and disadvantages of research uniformity are being examined - funny to realize perhaps -   with computational means. You can simulate how a research community functions and what impact diversity and uniformity have on it.’

New research based on simulation, agent-based models, has been on the increase in the humanities at large in recent years. And successfully so, as Jan-Willem Romeijn knows from his own experience. Together with Hans Peeters, an archaeology researcher at the University of Groningen specializing in hunter-gatherers, they recently analysed a simulation study that was intended to reveal the behaviour of groups of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. In real terms?

‘My colleague Hans Peeters simulated a landscape on the computer which matched as closely as possible what we know about what the landscape might have looked like at that time. You can then place hunters and gatherers in the virtual landscape who move over the landscape on foot or in small boats. From an archaeological viewpoint it is interesting for Hans to use a computer simulation to investigate what routes the gatherers would have taken, what parts of the landscape they could or could not reach, where they could or would have wanted to set up a camp,’ explains Jan-Willem Romeijn.

It was a project which presented its own challenges for Romeijn too. ‘F or me it's an interesting research project because questions about the reliability of these simulations lead us to fundamental questions about the relationship between models and reality.’

Museum knowledge dissemination

As well as fundamental research, the collaboration between computer sciences and the digital humanities provides new opportunities to forge ties between academia and the public. It connects knowledge to society in a different way. For example, the University of Groningen together with the Drents Museum in Assen, is participating in a foundation that aims to design the "intelligent museum". The aim is to use digital tools, including sensor technology, to provide each individual museum visitor with specific information as he or she explores an exhibition. Working title: Open Source Stichting Trovato, a joint venture between the University of Groningen and the Drents Museum.

How does it work? As they arrive visitors are given an entrance ticket with a disposable chip. The chip enables the visitors’ movements to be tracked with sensors strategically placed in the ceiling of the museum. These visitors’ movements are stored in a database. Based on this data the information presented on the screens by the objects may be adapted to match the assumed interests of an individual visitor on the tour. The idea is to offer an information network about the objects to visitors and enable the visitor to create his or her own narrative in real-time. In addition, the route travelled by the visitor provides valuable information for the museum curator. Where do visitors stop on their route? What selection do visitors make from the collection? The physical museum starts acting as an interface in this way.

‘You can make heritage and culture more interesting by enabling people to interact with the collection,’ says Romeijn. ‘And for me as a philosopher it is interesting to see how this data can be purposefully connected with the knowledge and expertise that the museum already has. To discover how theoretical discussions on cultural heritage can be informed by an understanding of visitors and their interests.’

At the moment funding is being sought to be able to roll out the Trovato project even further. Romeijn: ‘But things are looking up. Museums the world over have shown interest in the digital concept.’

The next future

‘I don’t think that in 20 years’ time all humanities researchers will be mostly data scientists,’ says Romeijn. ‘But cooperation between humanities researchers, computing sciences and statistics will lead to new research and new research questions. I am very curious how that will reshape the identity of the humanities.
Last modified:15 September 2017 3.19 p.m.

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