Published in the Spring 1997 edition of Colonnade, vol. XIII, no. 1.

Information Technology and the Pompeii Forum Project

Kirk Martini

For those who work a lot with computers, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the computer is only a tool, rather than an end in itself. Pioneering computer scientist E. W. Dijkstra put it best:

Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
Despite the attention we pay to our telescopes, we are ultimately interested in the stars

Despite the attention we pay to our telescopes, we are ultimately interested in the stars. As scholars, those stars are new insights that help complete or reconfigure constellations of knowledge. For the Pompeii Forum Project (PFP), that knowledge concerns the growth and development of an ancient Roman city in the wake of a major natural disaster: an earthquake seventeen years preceding the famous volcanic eruption. Bringing the nature of that development and recovery into sharper focus gives a deeper understanding of western civilization.

For the Pompeii Forum Project, the computer is a powerful tool in this peering inquiry, particularly in physical simulation, such as 3D visualization and structural analysis. In these roles, the computer is highly discipline specific: a complex and specialized telescope with lots of knobs and dials that can be manipulated only by an expert in the field. Computers were invented to do this kind of calculation-intensive numeric simulation.

Now, the computer is not only a simulator, it is also a communicator, an information appliance that nearly anyone can use

But the rise of the Internet and the Web has given the computer a fundamentally new role that is equally useful in scholarship. Now, the computer is not only a simulator, it is also a communicator, an information appliance that nearly anyone can use. In this role, the computer is also an essential part of the PFP. We have a wealth of documentation available on the Web which is viewed by hundreds of new readers each month. The breadth of the audience reflects the growing breadth of the web, and has included readers from around the world, producers of the NOVA public television program, and junior high school students from across the country, working on class projects.

The computer has become not only a technical telescope to seek new knowledge, but also a beacon to transmit that knowledge to a diverse and growing audience who would have no access otherwise. Watching the way junior high school students use the Web makes clear what we can soon expect as they graduate high school and apply to college. This generation will expect that information about nearly anything will be available all the time, and they will be accustomed to getting information directly from the source rather than from pre-digested texts. Instead of checking the junior-high library down the hall, many students now use the Internet to seek out world experts. Rather than looking up "Pompeii" in the encyclopedia, these students read John Dobbins' writings on the web, and send him questions by e-mail.

We'll soon see a generation of information consumers with an unprecedented level of access and sophistication

When these students choose a college, they'll consider not only whether it's far from home or close to the beach, they'll also look closely at the faculty who teach what they're interested in. These students will know the course descriptions and assignments, the papers faculty have published, the conferences they've gone to, and the contrasting views of other experts in the field. And they'll know all that before they graduate high school. They'll be less interested in high-gloss web design, and much more interested in the deep content of research and teaching. We'll soon see a generation of information consumers with an unprecedented level of access and sophistication. Some are here already, and each year will bring more.

The communication role of the computer also fosters the interdisciplinary aspects of the project. The simple sharing of text and graphics with timely updates helps each of us to understand what the others are doing. It's not a particularly sophisticated use of the web, but it's extremely effective, and was not possible a few years ago. In addition, the University's interdisciplinary fellowship programs, such as the Teaching and Technology Initiative (TTI), the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), and the Lilly Fellowship program (now the University Teaching Fellows program) have strongly influenced the interdisciplinary growth of the project. John Dobbins and I are fortunate to have participated in all three of these programs, and my participation in the PFP is due in part to conversations we had in 1994 and 95 when he was a Lilly mentor and I was a fellow.

more important than the knowledge and experience with information technology ... is the close interaction with people in other disciplines

Probably more important than the knowledge and experience with information technology that TTI and IATH fellowships bring, is the close interaction with people in other disciplines, which is one of the key aspects of the Lilly program. The experience fosters attitudes of careful listening, explaining, and a realization that the problems of others are not so different from your own. Those attitudes help us to focus our computer telescopes toward the common cause of understanding ancient Roman society, and to build our beacons of information on the Internet for a vast and growing audience of scholars, schoolchildren, and future university students.