From body to society, a new Enlightenment

June 30, 2000

With this week's genome fest centre stage, the week-long meeting of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative at the British Library (THES, June 23) has passed virtually unnoticed.

Unsurprising. The initiative is at an early stage. The work is patchy and/or highly technical. But ECAI too seeks to harness new technologies to the service of fact-based research - in this case in the messy area of social sciences and humanities. The aim is to establish technical standards that allow the huge databases now being created - censuses, maps and so on - to be used together to illuminate old problems of history and society.

Here too there is conflict between open development and for-profit models. It is also hard to get scholars unaccustomed to large-scale collaboration to accept common standards with their lowest common denominator characteristics. But in the long term, the flood of new understanding of our society could be comparable to the new understanding of our bodies made possible by the genome.

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