Speculative Computing - La Poste

SpecLab: Speculative Computing at UVA

Our Mission

The Speculative Computing Laboratory (SpecLab) was organized to promote experimental and exploratory research in Digital Humanities. SpecLab projects build on work in applied digital humanities – at IATH, VCDH, E-Text and elsewhere – that has established the University of Virginia as a leader in humanities computing. By definition, SpecLab projects are interdisciplinary and innovative, often undertaken with uncertain outcomes for the sake of expanding the methods and assumptions of Digital Humanities.

Our Name

We use the technical term speculative computing metaphorically:
Speculative computing is a technique to improve the execution time of certain applications by starting some computations before it is known that the computations are required. A speculative computation will eventually become mandatory or irrelevant for suivi recommandé. In the absence of side effects irrelevant computations may be aborted. However, a computation which is irrelevant for the value it produces may still be relevant for the side effects it performs.
(from the proceedings of the 1992 Parallel Symbolic Computing Workshop at MIT)


Since 1993, the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities has developed and supported some of the most important work in the area of applied humanities computing anywhere. IATH has become internationally recognized for its development of new models for digital humanities scholarship. A special feature of this work has been the way it has consistently responded to theoretical questions with practical applications. IATH (and the other electronic and digital centers at UVA) have produced a new model of humanities scholar whose critical thinking is intimately involved with the making and building of things (archives, collections, tools, interfaces, and other materials) in collaborative environments. Soon, a master’s degree program in Digital Humanities will begin at UVA under the auspices of the new Media Studies Program. The Master’s Program will formalize the training and experience of a decade’s worth of scholarship at IATH and UVA into a curriculum designed to train humanists with technical and conceptual skills in digital humanities.


SpecLab was formed at a crucial moment, fueled by the intellectual excitement generated by a maturing field of Digital Humanities, the new MA program, and activities in Media Studies. Like all successful research, projects developed through IATH and the Media Studies program regularly spawn unexpected ideas for new and even more challenging opportunities. Some of these are open-ended and exploratory in ways that don’t fit the mission of IATH and other existing entities. SpecLab is an informally constituted group of scholars - graduate students, faculty, and staff - who organize workshops and discussion groups around specific projects and ideas. The SpecLab working groups serve to define and explore theoretical and technical problems of speculative computing projects and establish a focal point for their support.


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SpecLab Projects


This game is currently under development as Web-based software for use in research and pedagogy. Ivanhoe is suited to any discipline in the humanities concerned with textual and visual hermeneutics. The game promotes self-conscious awareness about interpretation and seeks to encourage collaborative learning. Ivanhoe facilitates the imaginative use of electronic archives and online resources in combination with traditional text-based and visual research materials. The game’s rules and conditions are adjustable to different player levels and interests, from secondary school classes to advanced projects undertaken by established scholars. Ivanhoe was first conceived by Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker in late spring 2000, and played in e-mail and paper-based formats. Since that time the project has been developed by a SpecLab research team and sponsored by a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences.

IVANHOE: a game of critical interpretation

This site contains documentation of important aspects and phases of the Ivanhoe Game’s evolution to date:

Ivanhoe was first conceived by Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker in late spring 2000, and played in e-mail and paper-based formats. Since that time the project has been developed by a research team consisting of: Andrea Laue, Bethany Nowviskie, Nathan Piazza, Stephen Ramsay, and Worthy Martin, with additional assistance from David Patch and Geoffrey Rockwell. A prototype should be ready for use in late Spring 2002.


The practical goal of this project is to create a visual scheme and interactive tool set for the representation of temporal relations in humanities-based or qualitative research, with particular emphasis on the subjective experience of temporality. Its rhetorical goal is to bring visualization and interface design into the early content modeling phase of humanities computing projects, with an eye toward both enriching the design aspects of established scholarly endeavors and making humanities computing attractive and comprehensible to students and faculty without specialized technical skills. This group, guided by Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, has been in existence since January 2001 and is funded by the Intel Corporation.


Biblioludica was conceived by Bethany Nowviskie as “a book history mystery,” a game for teaching textual materiality and bibliography, but it is applicable to any humanities field in which historical research, close examination of material artifacts, and production as a mode of enquiry are relevant activities for students and scholars. Play unfolds as a series of exploration and production projects through which a semi-fictional research mystery is revealed. Because the generalizable “Ludica” system addresses gameplay, critical thinking, physical analysis and production, and pedagogy rather than specified artifacts and discipline-specific methodologies, it is easy to adapt. Any field which studies the material productions of human beings through time is well suited to the Ludica game model. This project is sponsored in part by a grant from the Delmas Foundation.

BIBLIOLUDICA: a book history mystery

Biblioludica is a bibliographical research game currently in development by Bethany Nowviskie of the Speculative Computing Lab. It was conceived as a way of teaching textual materiality and book history at the University of Virginia, but its principles and methods are broadly applicable to humanities fields in which historical research, close examination of material artifacts, and production as a mode of enquiry are relevant activities for students and scholars.

The game consists of a series of research and production projects through which a semi-fictional bibliographical mystery is revealed. University faculty take on roles in the game, serving as facilitators or generating obstacles which require players to design new strategies. Local resources (such as rare book libraries, laboratories, academic departments, and printing presses) make up the game’s contemporary setting, while a rich historical backdrop ensures that the mystery has enough depth to encourage innovative and idiosyncratic research. Students gain experience in bibliographical methods and book history as the game progresses, and their actions and interests serve to advance and alter the plot. They are ultimately asked to exhibit their mastery of course material by intervening in the production history of a problematic artifact (a book or manuscript) to produce a credible forgery. In its first semester (MDST 352: Textual Materiality and the History of the Book), Biblioludica is designed for open-ended play in the manner of improvisational role-playing games, but subsequent versions may incorporate a system of scoring, required roles or player-motivations, and defined end-game strategies.

Unlike its sister-project, the Ivanhoe Game, the initial instance of Biblioludica comes “ready-loaded” with content appropriate to a college or graduate-level course in book history. However, like Ivanhoe, Biblioludica is not limited in its scope to a particular subject or discipline. At its core is a generalizable system – a game model – for shaping player experience. Because the Ludica model itself addresses gameplay, critical thinking, physical analysis and production, and pedagogy rather than specified texts and discipline-specific methodologies, instructors may adjust the elements of Biblioludica’s plot to suit their own coursework. Bibliography, Historiography, Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology, Art History and other fields which study the material productions of human beings through time are well suited to the Biblioludica game model.

The first-semester iteration of Biblioludica is funded by a grant from the Delmas Foundation.

Biblioludica is currently being played at the University of Virginia.

Bethany Nowviskie will speak on the Ludica concept at SHARP 2002 in London.


This project explores textual deformance protocols as a means of exposing the hidden structures of non-digital information structures. Stephen Ramsay is currently undertaking several different approaches – for example, using graphical design software (like GraphViz) to study structures latent in large and complex databases like The Rossetti Archive (a project originally sponsored and developed through IATH.)

“Unnatural Language” seeks to create a space for the use of computers in literary criticism. First, by questioning the assumption that literary criticism operates at an extreme remove from the computational; and second, by insisting that the chief virtue of computational methods lies not within the rubric of objectivity and empiricism, but in the use of computers as cybernetic extensions of our deformational skills as critical readers.

This site contains the complete text of a work (in progress) devoted to the “deformance” of literary texts. It also presents the online and standalone versions of the DMachine–a piece of software designed to assist scholars interested in the algorithmical analysis of textuality.

Many other web sites and software tools intentionally or unintentionally participate in this type of interpretive endeavor. This site attempts to catalog and document these efforts as well.


This project proposes to develop tools for critical reading. Exploring the intersection of structuralist theory, cognitive psychology and markup technologies, the tools will ask human readers to make explicit the structuring process implicit in any reading. But this project will succeed to the extent that it fails: the goal, in large part, is to investigate the locations of overflow. Where are formal systems inadequate; where do informal systems prevail? Computers, which require and enforce rigorously formal systems, allow the application, processing, and comparison of these structured narratives. Andrea Laue’s project speculates that computers will expose new (formal and informal) aspects of narrative.


A forthcoming SpecLab production, the 'Patacritical Demon is an interactive tool for nonhierarchical text markup in a visual and temporally-sensitive environment. The Demon is designed to expose the multiple “dementians” along which we interpret texts and documents.


Some SpecLab members and projects are involved in an effort to redesign the interface to the Rossetti Archive. The watchwords of this project are familiar to SpecLab: interpretation, visualization, subjectivity. Temporal Modelling tools and techniques will play a role in a new interface designed to foster interactive and interpretive scholarship in a digital environment.