Tuesday, April 08, 2014

DH without the DH

Today I did not tag any content with metadata.  Today I did not write any code. Today I did not work on my Scalar project. Today the plugins for Neatline did not get installed.

Today was the Day of DH, except it seems that I didn't do anything recognizably associated with digital humanities work, even though the entire day -- like almost every day -- was devoted to the digital humanities.

Which is to say that a lot of DH isn't coding or hacking or tagging or building.  A lot of DH is just about regular typing.  A lot of DH is writing e-mail, instructions, reports, and even text messages. It's about filling out Doodle polls, filling in spreadsheets, and filling in names in Google hangouts.

Some of the day was defined by the Academic Scholarly Print Industrial Complex (otherwise known as ASPIC).  I am working on finishing an article for an open-access online journal, which I promised to the wonderful Annette Vee, but the whole process of working with a stack of library books is basically the same as the one I follow for a print publication.

Of course, a lot of the day was doing digital humanities work that one can't write about on a blog.  It's about serving on committees that handle the business of people getting hired or people getting reviewed.  It's about the strange set of knowledge domains that prove to be useful to the institution that are gained from being part of the DH community for over a decade: digital archives, open access publishing, information literacy, multimodal scholarship, rich media production, and hands-on experiential learning.  It's about the need for campuses to have people to assess if they have the right people and enough people too.  It's about the Weberian bureaucracy of files, files, and more files, which are conveniently accessible online but differ little from their paper counterparts.

Yet, like most days at UC San Diego's Sixth College, it was an interesting day.  As soon as I came into the office, I sat down to do a Skype interview with Pia Mancini of the Net Party in Argentina for DML Central.  Purists would say that her work with Democracy OS isn't really a DH project.  After all the NEH Office of Digital Humanities prohibits work with a political agenda.  But I tend to argue that the continuum between politics and culture includes blended areas, and hacktivism and the humanities are not so separate.

Then there was the teaching I did today.  In an upcoming volume edited by David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson, I argue that teaching is often a marginalized activity in the digital humanities.  Right now I am teaching an exciting FemTechNet course with the amazing Lisa Cartwright, in collaboration with many people who have built scholarly databases and digital collections.  It was true that much of the day's communication with students entailed educating them about their Blogger IDs and Twitter hashtags for the course.  But the bulk of our dedicated face-to-face class time involved chalkboards, raised hands, and a presentation by a performance artist.

Future projects mostly require coordinating with other people.  It turns out that the most important tool for executing our Innovative Learning Technology Initiative Grant will probably be the humble calendar.

Jacque Wernimont and I are also planning to teach a Digital Humanities Summer Institute course together, but we weren't debugging code in Processing or tinkering with our Arduinos, which are the activities slated for June.  Today we were handling more mundane tasks, such as slimming down the size of our course-pack PDF.

As usual, not every effort to coordinate was successful.  Today Jessica Pressman and I had to cancel a planning meeting.  We have an upcoming DHSoCal event slated for April 18th to prepare for, but she had an ASPIC obligation too.

On Twitter, Ian Bogost quipped that "Digital Humanities is the process of creating infrastructure in which to discuss the concept of 'digital humanities."'  Given the nature of DH work, that might be a fair assessment.  If only there were time for conceptual speculation and discussion in my typical day.  If we do it, we have to spend twice as much time scheduling it first.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

The MLA and Continuing and Distance Education

This year I was honored to be nominated as a special-interest delegate for the MLA in "continuing and distance education." Now I am officially on the 2013 Modern Language Association Ballot that goes out to thousands of instructors in literature and language departments across the country to support the governance of the major scholarly association for the discipline in which I was trained.  The MLA handles influential publications, conferences, job resources, and policy statements and advocates for the role of the humanities in public life.

Adeline Koh has also been nominated, and knowing her work I have to say that she is a great candidate too.

No matter which nominee you choose this year, I would urge MLA members to do some research about the issues involved.  Too often the discussion about distance education has been dominated by snippets from op-ed columns or sound bites, but the issues are actually very complex, and technologies of remote instruction inevitably impact faculty at all types of institutions because the informal learning practices of students are very difficult to control.

The growth of university-sponsored MOOCs has spurred a national conversation about institutional practices in higher education. Yet even as the “massiveness” and “online-ness” of MOOCs seems novel, this kind of “course” does little to promote innovation in teaching or learning. Unfortunately many distance learning efforts often replicate modes of scientific management from the industrial age that are poorly adapted to collaboration based on social and ubiquitous computing.  Others remain willfully blind to the problems of plagiarism, cheating, harassment, and invasion of privacy that may characterize online learning environments.  Yet we can't divorce ourselves from huge archives of knowledge or ignore the desires and voices of our students without regrettable consequences, so we need to figure out sensible and respectful strategies to adapt.

As a candidate I combine the perspectives of theory and practice developed over a decade as a scholar of the digital humanities and new media theory.  I have published peer-reviewed criticism about digital pedagogy for over twelve years, and the rhetoric of distance learning is one of my major research areas. My forthcoming book from MIT Press, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, explores the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between “us” and “them” has turned into an open battle between “our” technologies and “their” technologies.  It covers current trends that range from gamification to iPad distributions with a critical eye, and the work is grounded in substantive theories about new media, procedural rhetoric, embodied interactions with technology, and co-presence.

I also direct a writing-intensive interdisciplinary "core" program that satisfies the university's composition requirement devoted to the study of Culture, Art, and Technology.  Having come from a Humanities Core program in my previous position, I am sensitive to how the mission of a traditional English department may be under pressure to change radically in response to technology, globalization, and deskilling with little infrastructural support or long-term vision for preserving the values of an institutional culture.

I am an organizing member of two national efforts to support progressive experiments with networked learning: Reclaim Open Learning and Dialogues on Feminism and Technology. With my colleagues, I believe that it is important -- in a time of pressure for rapid adoption of new instructional technologies -- to consider the theoretical frameworks, historical legacies, pedagogical philosophies, and objects of study that have shaped our profession, even as higher education continues to be transformed by social interactions shaped by computational media and distributed networks.

As a longtime digital humanities practitioner who has engaged in many debates, I have had to negotiate conflicts created by new forms of digital labor and intellectual property with attention to complexity.  I am committed to representing the concerns of many different types of stakeholders and will continue to emphasize the mature scholarship and multi-campus collaboration that has characterized my career.  Feel free to e-mail with questions about my candidacy.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminist IT: Legacies (Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg)

The Feminist IT conference devoted time to celebrating the legacies of three feminist scholars who represented the group's commitment to doing interdisciplinary work and the interpersonal networking that supports such field building.  Since members of this assembly do research that crosscuts "STS (science and technology studies), film and media studies, sci-art, digital humanities, informatics, and critical media practice" it was also important to emphasize exemplary thinkers who worked in the different traditions of ethnography, media arts practice, and archival criticism represented at the conference.  (In my opening I noted that it was an assembly both in the sense of representing multiple delegations and in the sense of the term "some assembly required.")

Leigh Star was remembered by Adele Clarke and Martha Lampland.  Clarke noted how Star was a polymath who worked on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and ecologies of knowledge, but she also humanized her by describing her personal struggles and by showing her at leisure in photos interacting with different types of environments, including a palm tree oasis. Ever the responsible pedagogue Clarke provided a handout and began by providing context for Star's work in Ecologies of Knowledge. She argued that Star rewrote the narratives of scientific discovering by presenting scientists as "citizens neither villains nor heroes" and asked fundamental questions like "Who is doing the dishes?" or "Where is the garbage going?" or "Who owns the means of knowledge production?" This focus on everyday practices, organized what Clarke called her "work commitment."  She also spent some time trying to demystify the "boundary object concept" that was a critical part of Star's intellectual legacy.  She showed its roots in pragmatist philosophy, in the Chicago School, in And in Anselm Strauss's theories about social worlds and arenas, and in the Everett Hughes classic, The Sociological Eye.  Star's conception of workplace as a site of "cooperation without consensus" continues to be extremely influential, and -- as Les Gasser notes -- two thirds of the citations of Star's work actually come from computer science.   Clarke also cautioned that Star's seminal work on "Institutional Ecology," which looks at negotiations among professional and amateur communities working with taxidermy specimens in museums, appears in science studies readers in abridged form.  Often overlooked was the fact that boundary objects are "loosely structured in common practice" and "a sort of arrangement that allows different groups to work together."  She also pointed out that her work on "boundary infrastructures" in Sorting Things Out (co-authored with partner Geof Bowker) was important to consider.  Clark said that "interpretive flexibility" tends to get more attention than structuring and processual dynamics.  She also remarked on the role that "lack of fit" played in creating new boundary objects.  She then focused on the importance of the concept of "torque" in Star's work as a "twisting of time lines."  Clarke closed by returning to the diversity of experiences that Star's life represented, which included "the importance of  writing poetry and fiction" as well as the fact of "being allergic to onions" in a life of "drinking and dancing" as well as "mentoring and loving." In the slide above we see Clarke citing Star on how "forming a scientific self entails a peculiar kind of pain and of joy that remains almost unspeakable" (Star 2007: 76).

Lampland began her remembrance by emphasizing how Star engaged with "fighting for social justice" in ways that recognized the complexity of causes and consequences.  For example, the SAT could be both the test that allowed Star to attend Harvard University without class connections and a potentially discriminatory gatekeeping examination.   Lampland, who co-edited Standards and their Stories with Star, admitted to occasional disagreements and also asserted that Star's method of quickly being able to identify commonalities did not necessarily contradict an engagement with sustained empirical research.  She also emphasized the "mistake of championing transparency" that "could hide what doesn’t fit."

Antoinette LaFarge, who described herself as fortunate to benefit from colleagues in the UC Irvine "brain trust" who have been part of FemTechNet, then remembered critical sci-artist Beatriz da Costa in a talk called "Less Dismal Science" that made a number of implicit connections to the previous discussion of Star's work by noting the role of "standards," "tools," and situations" in her art.  Beatriz da Costa co-edited Tactical Biopolitics with Kavita Philip, one of the PIs for UCFemTechNet, and she was part of conference planning until her untimely death from cancer.

In unpacking the art practice of "Shani" (the name she preferred to Beatriz), LaFarge described how da Costa's projects were often designed around hands-on workshops and situated in a participatory ethos from her beginnings in Critical Art Ensemble.  LaFarge chose to analyze da Costa's work in relationship to Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Carlyle's The Dismal Science to consider science as an end not a means and critique science's "offer for radical truth," which Avital Ronell also challenged in The Test Drive in questioning the ostensibly sovereign presence of truth in science, politics, and religion and the compulsion to dis-identify and deny attachment.  LaFarge also argued against scholars "strip mining Nietzsche" without attention to his chauvinistic remarks about how women are weak, conniving, and characterized by disgusting natural functions and his ideas about the present moment as a time of virility.

In an oeuvre that included microbes, biodiversity, air pollution, RFID tracking, and genetically modified food, da Costa engaged in a series of public actions oriented around expanding the notion of citizen science in ways that were mutually positive for creators and participants.  For example, LaFarge pointed to her work in Invisible Earthlings with CO2-sensing yeast colonies and in Pigeonblog undertaking a "collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative."  Like other speakers, LaFarge acknowledged the presence of disagreement among feminists, and the fact that her friend and colleague thought that LaFarge's interest in "computer games was a complete waste of time."   The difficulty that Beatriz da Costa addressed was described by LaFarge as "how much has to be left out in order to make an argument" and "how test results are used to conceal a lie."  Visitors to the conference were encouraged to visit an installation of da Costa's Dying for the Other in the Consume show at the Calit2 Gallery, which interrogates the relationship of the dying artist to the mortality of laboratory animals. 

The final tribute was devoted to Anne Friedberg.  Co-organizer Lisa Cartwright actually had Friedberg as a teaching assistant and recollected being given names like Irigaray, Cixous, Althusser, and Mulvey by this early mentor.  Heidi Rae Cooley gave a tearful and moving remembrance of Friedberg that drew upon the memories of Sheila Murphy as well.  She emphasized the radical rewriting of four centuries of the history of perspective that Friedberg undertook that went far beyond how the work of film historians was traditionally constituted.  (See her digital companion for The Virtual Window for an interactive version of her argument.)

Friedberg founded both the UC Irvine Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies and the IMAP program at USC and launched the careers of many interdisciplinary students.  Cooley pointed to Mark Sample's essay "When Service Becomes Scholarship" to explain the depth of Friedberg's contributions and how she made public and circulated the work of others, even "taking in freeway fliers" who were normally outcasts at the university or sitting on information technology committees.  She also discovered talents by recommending people for one-year contracts that later developed into long term institutional presences, as she did for Daniel Herbert who chronicled the rise and fall of the video store.

A particularly beautiful and lyrical moment in Cooley's talk came when she described how Friedberg made homemade temporary tattoos with "SCMS" for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies when the "media" part was still new.  Friedberg also took on DIY with gusto by making her own pamphlets for an improvised MIT Press booth, since she was not one to hold herself above others, according to Cooley.   As in the case of the other founding mothers remembered, we learned much about the details of Friedberg's passions worthy of remembering: Gil Sans as Friedberg's font of choice, Conan Doyle on camera, stuffed Furbees speaking Furbish, writing about the Aibo robot dog, and Vaucanson's infamous duck.   Although Friedberg changed theories of "windowed visuality" and the mobile virtual gaze, she also recognized the temporality of the apparatus and the impermanence of institutions.

Note that attendee Wikipedia maven Adrianne Wadewitz periodically reminded conference participants that they could improve these three women's entries on Wikipedia.

(Photos from Lisa Parks)

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Feminist IT: Infrastructures

The Feminist IT conference devoted to "Feminist Infrastructures & Technocultures" featured a number of prominent feminist scholars of technology in the morning sessions, which were devoted to questions about infrastructures and legacies.  With over three decades of scholarship to draw upon and a strong concentration of work done in the University of California, this conference tried to facilitate more conversation between people doing interdisciplinary work, specifically those who might be positioned in either the Society for the Social Studies of Science or the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

In my opening welcome I pointed to the work of fellow organizers and panel moderators who approach questions about mediation from the perspective of material culture, the study of the apparatus and embodiment, and engagement with particular communities of practice, such as Lisa Cartwright on 3D printers that can produce guns, Lisa Parks on drone vision, and Kelly Gates on the truth claims of facial recognition technologies and surveillance footage, which have been much in the news this week in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.  I also noted that the particular context of public institutions devoted to big science provides affordances as well as constraints for this work on "making science, designing culture, shaping the technological imagination, sorting things out, and determining 'the right tools for the job.'"

The UC FemTechNet group is a regional research offshoot of the larger and more distributed FemTechNet initiative currently archived at the FemBot Collective and slated to move to new space at a FemTechNet site at The New School.  Many of its members use the UCFemTechNet Facebook page as a site for cross-campus coordination and introductions, although there is also a mailing list for announcements.

The opening panel featured a dialogue between Anne Balsamo and Chandra Mukerji about infrastructure that focused on their shared scholarly interest in uncovering women's roles in the labor force of expert knowledge workers who played a key role in shaping the technocultures of the modern administrative state.  Balsamo famously wrote about how her mother was a "computer" or person who performed mathematical communications, a topic that I also wrote about in the last chapter of the Virtualpolitik book and that was memorialized in N. Katherine Hayles' classic text My Mother Was a Computer.  To commemorate the occasion, we included a non-human participant on the panel, "Nancy," the actual type of comptometer that Balsamo describes.  (The machine is literally labeled "Nancy," presumably with the name of its former operator.)

The first question posed by disability activist Louise Hickman asked "How can we slow down time to shape participation in discussions?"  Mukerji, who does research on how female engineers played a vital role in hydrology projects in Bourbon France, laughed about the fact that mostly she lived in the 17th century and was well aware of how time functioned as a technology as well, particularly when the cyclical time of women's labor differs so radically from linear time.  Balsamo talked about how members of the FemTechNet initiative struggled to coordinate with each other and talked about how to align schedules at professional scholarly conferences in order to gain critical mass.  Balsamo also recast Marx with feminist temporality, by pointing out that women make the present and the future, but not under conditions of their own making.  Temporality has also been a concern for the panel's third moderator, Lilly Irani, whose recent work on hackathons looks at the bias toward action in the compressed time of such events.

In addressing the main topic of infrastructure, which Mukerji defined as the "structure of impersonal rule," panelists discussed how even social infrastructures, such as laws and regulations, had connections to material culture, in that they were written down.  Balsamo acknowledged the work of Leigh Star and many other feminist scholars who published important work on infrastructure, as as way to think about the challenges and opportunities of feminist networking.  As Mukerji pointed out, the actions of largely female staff members in human resources charged with the Weberian task of the maintenance of files, played a more important role in implementing affirmative action than any piece of legislation or judicial decision.  Codes of politeness that allow flexibility in infrastructure that make continual function possible are also infrastructural, as I noted, where women's labor also mattered.  Such codes are also important to FemTechNet, as are the peer promotion practices of those who might be maintaining tenure and promotion files, but the object-oriented character of the panel was also emphasized with Mukerji's object, which was also passed around, a rock and leaf to demonstrate the laundry techniques that she argued were important for understanding the cultural innovations associated with daily life.  (She is famed for arguing that the Canal du Midi is much more than the sole achievement of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a tax farmer and entrepreneur, because it was also the product of collective intelligence, depending on peasant women and artisans--unrecognized heirs to Roman traditions of engineering--who came to labor on the waterway in collaboration with military and academic supervisors.)

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Day of DH

Today for Day of DH I thought it worthwhile to write an actual blog post for the first time in many months.  Like others who have switched over to short format postings on platforms such as Twitter, most of my blogging activities have been suspended in recent years, although I still write for DML Central and a few other places.  Since becoming Director of the Culture, Art, and Technology program at UC San Diego during a time of devoting myself largely to conventional print publications, it has been difficult to find time for even one posting despite having written over a thousand such entries in previous years.

Of course, blogging has been important for expressing solidarity with a distinctive kind of digital politics, even if -- as Geert Lovink points out -- so often that politics only merits a "zero comments" response.  On Wednesday, Lovink presented a talk about "Wikileaks beyond Julian Assange" at UC Irvine, which raised a number of interesting questions about how anonymity and celebrity function as part of particular algorithmic rhetorics.  The talk also reminded me why I continue to argue for more "hacktivism" in the digital humanities, as I do so here in the Debates in the Digital Humanities collection.

Lovink noted that Wikileaks was made possible by the confluence of the decreasing costs of maintaining a megabyte of data and the increasing strength of technologies for anonymous encryption, such as those documented by Andy Greenberg in This Machine Kills Secrets.  However, Lovink argued that Assange had fallen prey to the "hacker as hero as trap," and that photo ops with Lady Gaga Issue detracted from online advocacy desperately needed for the pending court case against famed Wikileaks informant Bradley Manning.   Although Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler may make the argument for leniency publicly in "The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case," what Lovink calls the "global fallout" of this particularly Wikileaks case, primarily involving the release of diplomatic cables, has been featured in news coverage in India, Zimbabwe, and many other countries.  (To understand the narrative of stakeholders, Lovink recommended Wikileaks: The Secret Life of a Superpower from the BBC.)

Like any Internet meme Wikileaks has spawned many imitators.  As Lovink observed, websites with leaked documents now range from the Al Jazeera-sponsored The Palestine Papers to Porn Wikleaks, which is devoted to providing the real names of actors in adult films located from an HIV/AIDS testing database, to the GuttenPlag Wiki that locates plagiarized passages in the dissertations of German political leaders.   Some links are now defunct among Lovink's list of copycats, such as the now defunct Murdoch Leaks website.  Yet, as Lovink also pointed out, the work of Wikleaks continues with The Syria Files, even after the defection of Daniel Domscheit-Berg.  Wikileaks also clearly inspired The Afghanistan Papers, Balkan Leaks, and Global Leaks.

Although Lovink appreciated the aesthetic gesture of works like "Delivery for Mr. Assange," he was concerned that the narrative of the cyber-outlaw obfuscated the work of coalition building and the importance of how Wikileaks once functioned in a larger ecology of free software and online activism.  For example the temporary allegiance between Wikileaks and Anonymous,  Lovink argued, indicated that tensions between journalism (the supposed mission of Wikileaks) and activism (the supposed mission of Anonymous) and that leaking information and mining information to leak could involve two very different kinds of user practices.

Having taught a course on Digital Journalism, I know that major news stories often depend on affiliations with media organizations that are well-financed enough to fund lawsuits that force information to be released.  With media conglomeration and free culture norms weakening newspapers and broadcast news, investigative journalism is rapidly becoming defunded, so anonymous submission of leaked material becomes the only way to break big stories.

What does this have to do with the digital humanities?  Large corpora of documents that are not carefully curated -- such as those on leak sites -- invite intrepid digital humanists to do creative data mining, and

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Program or Be Programmed: Computers and Writing 2012 Town Hall 2

The central concept of this panel “Program or Be Programmed” might immediately bring up performance anxiety issues for many people in this audience. As Stephen Ramsay put it recently, the very notion of the tech-savvy digital humanities as the newest “hot thing” tends to bring up “terrible, soul-crushing anxiety about peoples’ place in the world.” For those in composition, the anxiety might be even more acutely soul-crushing in light of existing labor politics. Every time the subject of learning code comes up, one can almost see the thought balloons appearing: “How can I learn Python in my spare time when I can’t even see over the top of the stack of first-year papers that I have to grade?” And for those who care about inclusion, what does it mean to choose the paradigm of computer programming culture, where women and people of color so frequently feel marginalized? Furthermore, if all these powerful feelings are being stirred up, what questions should we be asking about ideology as an object of study. For example, Wendy Chun has argued that a desire for mastery over blackboxed systems or access to originary source code shows how a particular dialectic of freedom and control makes it difficult for us to have meaningful discussions about technology and to acknowledge our own limited access to totalizing understanding, even if you are a software engineer.

Fortunately, after hearing these talks, people in the audience should feel a little less anxious. They should know that doing-it-yourself means doing-it-with-others, whether it is imagining Picasso and Braque building a flying machine, as David Rieder suggests, or installing Ubuntu with the help of a neighbor, as Alexandria Lockett describes. The message to instructors in this panel is comforting: relax, be confident in your own abilities to learn new things, ask questions, facilitate the questions of others, and network in ways that help you make new friends.

However, if you are an administrator as well as an instructor, don’t get too relaxed just yet. These talks also bring up some very thorny questions about disciplinary turf. After all, who defines how digital literacy should be taught and who will teach it? Computer scientists? Media artists? Librarians? Us?

Although he uses the word “craft,” Karl Stolley asserts that “source literacy” doesn’t require an elaborate apprenticeship. All it takes is moving toward a set of everyday common-sense practices involving command lines and file structures. Mark Sample suggests the term “code competency” as an alternative to “code literacy,” because of all the cultural baggage associated with the word “literacy” itself. Trebor Scholz has suggested “fluency” as a better characterization of what we are trying to teach, but Sample notes the limitations of that term.

 In a 2010 essay called “Whose Literacy Is It Anyway?” Jonathan Alexander and I pointed to Michael Mateas’s work on “procedural literacy” as a way for compositionists to begin to engage with these issues. Mateas worries that universities are often too eager to adopt the training regimes of computer science departments, which is great for graduating computer science majors but not so great for teaching students in other majors or with other passions to use code. So what should be the relationship between writing studies and computer science in the academy?

People at this conference are probably more likely to be able to say that line about “some-of-my-best-friends-are-computer-scientists” than those at the MLA. (I personally carpooled with computer science faculty for ten years when I worked at UC Irvine and learned something about discrete math and number theory in the process.) But what does that collegiality get us? Both Sample and Vee mention Edsger Dijkstra, who was also the author of “On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science,” a decidedly anti-humanistic diatribe on the superiority of formal logic and mathematics as the keys to supposedly real knowledge.

 Given the fact that badly written code can overdose patients with radiation or knock out someone’s retirement savings, I’m not sure that I always agree with Vee that clean, legible, rationalized code is not worth teaching to everyone, but I’ll put in my own GOTO command for writing studies to keep this spaghetti-like discussion going with our colleagues elsewhere long after this panel concludes.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

MLA 2012: Debates in the Digital Humanities

Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University
Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego

In June 2009, Cathy Davidson wrote a blog entry for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) soliciting applications for a Program Coordinator. In her recruitment, she described HASTAC as a “voluntary network” of scholars who reach beyond academia to expand what the digital humanities could and should be. In doing so, Davidson defined its sphere of influence in broad moral and political terms that included “the role of science and technology and the state of our planet” and “issues of equity and ethics.” However, she concluded her post with a different kind of call to action from her initial “help wanted” message, one that spoke directly to hackers wanting to topple the Iranian regime that had just crushed pro-democracy protests and had shut down the microblogging and text messaging services.

Davidson alerted her audience that Western digital rights advocates had “received an SOS from pro-democracy activists in Tehran asking us all to use basic hacking tools to flood the propaganda sites of the ruling regime with junk traffic in order to bring them down and thereby open Twitter channels again.” Accordingly she reposted the following orders for electronic civil disobedience:

NOTE to HACKERS - attack www.farhang.gov.ir - pls try to hack all iran gov wesites [sic]. very difficult for us,? Tweets one activist. The impact of these distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks isn?t clear. But official online outlets like leader.ir, ahmadinejad.ir, and iribnews.ir are currently inaccessible. (Jardin)

What is the connection between Davidson’s eloquent defense of a broader notion of the digital humanities and her reposting of a rushed message that is peppered with misspellings, abbreviations, and infelicities of style? In both cases DH functions as a site of political activism, recognizable as being in the tradition of campus protests about civil rights or anti-militarism that defined how political commitment and dissent were staged in the built environment of the university in the past while also being part of a new vanguard of networked cultures in which protests in temporary autonomous zones could be rhizomatic, sporadic, and even ironic in their rhetorics.

By urging readers to launch distributed denial of service attacks aimed at the Iranian state, Davidson links HASTAC with another frame of cultural reference, that of “hacktivism” or the writing of code to promote or subvert particular political ideologies. In addition to protesting human rights violations, hacktivists have used their programming skills as a form of civil disobedience to promote free and open software, privacy, free speech, freedom of movement, governmental transparency, information ethics, political self-determination, environmental protection, and a range of other online and offline causes. However, because hacking tends to be a virtuoso performance by seasoned programmers, the ability to wield tools that expose vulnerabilities in security, privacy, or accurate data representation is often seen as the sole purview of an elite group of highly computer-literate cognoscenti very different from the print-cultured readers of her blog.

In thinking about the relationship between “hacktivism” and the humanities, it is worth noting that some academics are already risking tenure and even arrest because of their acts of electronic civil disobedience. To understand these phenomena that test academic freedom either to bring politics into academia or academia into politics, I argue it is helpful to examine theories of “hacktivism” or the nonviolent use of digital tools in pursuit of political ends. In the context of the digital humanities, I argue that hacktivism theory can broaden and deepen our understanding of the use of digital tools and of the politics of that tool use and to question the uncritical instrumentalism of so many DH projects.

Of course, some might argue that Davidson’s appeal for hackers to bring down Iranian government sites shows a naïve understanding of how human rights discourses function in the era of the Internet. In practical terms, denial of service attacks on state-run online media may only intensify suspicions that outside agitators are interfering with the internal politics of a country with a long history of unwelcome intervention. Furthermore, such attacks on the state’s propaganda infrastructure do little to promote the work of activists who bear witness through channels independent of the authoritarian state or provide evidence with persuasive power rather than just disruption of user experience.

In response to the Iranian situation, some digital humanities projects took a fundamentally different approach from the cyber-attacks promoted by Davidson. HyperCities, an initiative that describes itself as “a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces,” supported the efforts of UCLA Iranian-American graduate student Xarene Eskandar to create a collection of geotagged social media artifacts that documented Iranian election protests with markers on electronic maps, online videos, links to microblog postings, and explanations of the significance of a range of other digital ephemera from Tehran. More recently, the group created Hypercities Egypt, which included a Google map of Cairo that pinpointed a new anti-government tweet every four seconds. HyperCities director Todd Presner maintained that this retasking of a mapping tool designed to teach about urban history in ancient Rome or Weimar Berlin was completely consistent with the project’s mission, because “HyperCities Egypt gives users a sense of living — and reliving — history.”

Such software also shares information about rapidly unfolding events organized by smart mobs in the present with future participants. Although the HyperCities team sees disseminating real-time data as continuing the scholarly work of building digital archives, such tools may also become of interest to those outside academia who hope that visualized trends could also be deployed to try to predict the future. This is precisely the situation that Laila Shereen Sakr, a.k.a. VJ Um Amel, a USC graduate student has found herself in once the State Department took interest in her project, R-Shief, a suite of tools designed to visualize the shifting real-time patterns of popular opinion in the Middle East to provide “real-time analysis of opinion about late-breaking issues in the Arab world.” By using aggregate data from Twitter and the Web, R-Shief attempts to dissect phenomena such as how people in Egypt are reacting to the latest changes to the constitutional process, how Libyans perceive the presence of NATO forces, what Bahrainis think about the presence of Saudi military, and how pro-regime supporters in Syria are using social media. Being able, literally, to picture such complex social and political interactions could encourage more meaningful dialogue about democracy and civil society both in and about Arabic-speaking countries Shereen Sakr argues. She also embraces open-ended methods of inquiry that recognize contemporary means of communication as “technically mediated, messy, real-time, and fast” and notes that it is already challenging to write a “history of the present,” because “distance is critical to be critical.” Yet through tech@state now she has also been asked to engage in futurecasting so that public diplomacy efforts could maximize rhetorical impact and minimize security risk. Shereen Sakr might seem to be an unlikely ally to the nation-state, given her interest in hacking and hacktivism as part of the USC Critical Code Studies group and her public promotion of the Occupy Data movement, but with a paucity of regional experts and trained analysts of social media, her digital humanities projects have become of great interest to government agencies far beyond the N.E.H.

New uses for digital testimony and evidence even puts the digital humanities in dialogue with movements for decriminalization and political abolitionism. For example, Sharon Daniel’s “Public Secrets” and “Blood Sugar” websites about imprisonment and addiction were created with programming resources from the online journal Vectors and thus partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yet many NEH competitions specifically forbid endorsing any particular political point of view and would seem to promote a form of technocratic neutrality antithetical to the ethos that I am describing here.

At its most extreme, outright electronic civil disobedience could be described as the most militant form of political resistance in DH . Many scholars date theories of electronic civil disobedience in the academy to the early work of Critical Art Ensemble as an artist-activist collective. Electronic Disturbance Theater put many earlier principles of the CAE into digital practice with a series of “virtual sit-ins.” For example, EDT organized digital protests on the virtual real estate of official websites in Mexico, the U.S., and the European Union. No actual damage was done to the infrastructure of the sites or to their security mechanisms; the intent was merely “to disrupt access to the targeted website by flooding the host server with requests.”
Nonetheless, after EDT member Professor Richardo Dominguez held a well-publicized virtual sit-in on March 4, 2010 to protest tuition hikes that used computer servers owned by his employer, University of California, and targeted websites of the UC Office of the President, he found himself under investigation and at risk of losing his recently earned tenure. While faculty and students marched on the state Capitol building, Dominguez had instructed some four hundred EDT supporters to help occupy the ucop.edu domain. Because of the timeline of accusations, some claim that it was actually the development of the controversial “Transborder Immigrant Tool” or TBT that caused Dominguez to face possible disciplinary consequences for expropriating public resources and criminal prosecution for violating existing computer law. After all, Fox News was running stories explaining “hacktivism” to their viewership soon after reporting that Dominguez’s group was helping illegal immigrants by recycling cheap mobile phones and equipping them with new software to guide them in making the risky trip across the border to water caches left by humanitarian groups.

The use of computing resources in more conventional digital humanities projects may seem less obviously open to debate, but Dominguez’s case should function as both a cautionary tale and as an aspirational story to those operating in the mainstream of this emerging area. In other words, projects involving text encoding, archiving, or G.I.S. generally use university computer resources as well, and controversies about ownership, access, and control may have consequences for DH projects also. Although the battles over who uses a given server and under what circumstances may seem less contested for a database of Jane Austen novels than a database of covert water caches in the desert, academics involved in all kinds of projects must grapple with the politics of combative IT funding situations.

According to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new cohort of “digitally incorrect” professors determined to flout convention in defense of hacktivist principles, such misunderstandings may occur more often now that the university must assimilate “the first generation of new-media artists who migrated to academe.” These faculty dissenters use tools of tactical media as imagined most broadly by theorists like Geert Lovink to include not only software, but also other kinds of small-scale media appropriation, such as “pirated radio waves, video art, animations, hoaxes, wi-fi networks, musical jam sessions, Xerox cultures, performances, grassroots robotics, cinema screenings, street graffiti” (Lovink 189).

At the 2011 annual convention of the MLA, noted humanities scholar Alan Liu made a plea for more political engagement within the digital humanities and specifically for taking hacktivism and tactical media activism more seriously: “In the digital humanities, cultural criticism–in both its interpretive and advocacy modes–has been noticeably absent by comparison with the mainstream humanities or, even more strikingly, with “new media studies” (populated as the latter is by net critics, tactical media critics, hacktivists, and so on).” Liu argues that these predictable catalogues of digital humanities products (“tools,” “data,” “metadata,” and “archives”), modes of institutional membership (“associations,” “conferences,” “journals,” and “projects”), and stock issues (“the digital divide,” “privacy,” and “copyright”) add up to little critical thinking about neoliberalism at best and collaboration with for-profit educational outsourcing at worst.

Davidson and Liu are certainly closer to the center of the digital humanities as it is currently defined, and Shereen Sakr and Dominguez are probably located farther away on its peripheries, but they all argue for the formation of new modes of institutional critique, particularly – in Liu’s case – as impersonal and dehumanized distance learning threatens to transform public education for the worse. Yet the history of the digital humanities told by Tara McPherson describes founding fathers who turned to humanities computing not because they were in love with the aquarianism of Ted Nelson, but because were in full retreat from race, gender, and class in the post-free-speech academy. Nonetheless, the history of new media more generally is now filled with stories of gender and race, since even supposedly neutral algorithms and computer chips were shaped by material culture and the labor practices of female programmers and Native American workers, as N. Katherine Hayles and Lisa Nakamura have explained.
In addition to opening up blackboxed systems of nation and sexuality, many hacktivists also tinker with the materiality of technology and the contingent character of current consumer comforts. For example, CAE and EDT hacktivists have created projects on genetically modified food and nanotechnology in cosmetics. Digital humanists may be similarly incorporating criticism from studies of material culture, social practice, or media archeology, but I would argue that hacktivism pushes this consciousness raising further.

Perhaps it is not heretical to say that the digital humanities is more about bit rot and obsolete file formats than it is about “clean” data and perfect visualizations. As Matthew Kirschenbaum has observed in a recent NEH White Paper, DH maintenance and preservation practices are “localized and idiosyncratic,” much – as I would argue – hacker practice is. Furthermore, because digital humanities projects force scholars to care about mundane matters like maintaining servers and replacing routers, this peculiar breed of academic must also come to understand the instability and materiality of the archive not its permanence and abstraction. Even digital files in the “cloud” exist somewhere in time and space, and high-tech satellites or data barges are built and decay in systems of property and territory. As more digital humanities projects, such as the recent Digging into Data challenge, require international collaboration, the geopolitical, legal, logistical, and material risks are even greater.

In the end, both the hacktivist and the more mainstream digital humanist must be sensitive to the vulnerability and imperfection of digital knowledge systems to pursue their avocations on a day-to-day basis. As Galloway and Thacker argue “the exploit” lets us understand procedures and protocols. In considering the need for supporting a truly hacktivist digital humanities, perhaps we can imagine both new forms of activism and new publics for DH, and in thinking about the relationship between forms of symbolic representation that humanists care about and forms of political representation that activists care about, perhaps we all need to break some systems to understand how they should be built.

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