Reverse engineering is the process of taking things apart and putting them back together to gain an understanding of the process, form, and function of something. For example, in our reading for this week, Steven Jones (2018), and others, are attempting to recreate and understand the inner workings of a historic center in Italy (to put it simplistically), called the Centro per L’Automazione dell’Analisi Letteraria — the Center for the Automation of Literary Analysis, by reverse engineering. The center was the brain child of Roberto Busa, a Jesuit scholar thought to be the father of humanities computing. The center was operational in the 1960s and is now nonexistent; the center used punched-card machines created by IBM to process data.
The process of reverse engineering this center mainly involves the analysis of photographs obtained from Busa’s archive and historical documents. This project is not just about elucidating how the punch-card machines worked or what the inside of this center looked it. In my mind, it is also about gaining an understanding of the political and social climate of the times, the social interactions of workers in close quarters, the technological availability to humans, and the collaborative nature of industries with “regular humans”.
The use of reverse engineering to recreate a period in time which is now lost is highly applicable to understanding and remembering the past. This is made possible with the advent of new 3D technologies. Jones is collaborating with other individuals to produce a virtual lab of the center which will allow others to experience a piece of history that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Jones, “Reverse Engineering the First Humanities Computing Center,” DHQ 12.2 (2018): http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/12/2/000380/000380.html