Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We Suck at Trending

Today Patrik Svensson, the director of HUMlab at the University of Umeå, presented at UCHRI. He had been asked to provide some "provocations" to stimulate a lively lunch discussion about directions for the digital humanities, although participant Tom Boellstorff pointed out that in the academy "we suck at trending."

Svensson started by noting the radical dissimilarity of the most frequently used words by Digital Humanities, which is described as "the annual joint meeting of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and the Society for Digital Humanities / Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs," and the Association of Internet Researchers. Although both groups have been around for over a decade, their vocabularies seem to show little common ground. The DH crowd, which comes out of humanities computing initiatives focused on text-encoding and digital archives, lists "text," "electronic," "humanities," "digital," "analysis," "language," "markup," "encoding," "data," "TEI," "corpus," and "linguistic" as its top words, while AoIR emphasizes social computing and human-computer interaction with "Internet," "online," "social," "web," "digital," "community," "virtual," "research," "media," and "communities" in its top ten terms. Words like "scholarly" matter more to DH; words like "play" matter more to AoIR. Apparently "politics" and "gender" matter more to AoIR, while DH looks to talk about "attribution" and "authorship."

In other words, to use the definition of "information literacy" developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries, DH is about evaluating the scope and credibility of information as discrete sets of self-contained data and seeing how this data can be mashed up in new ways, and AoIR is about "the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information." This may explain why "Critical Information Studies" manifesto-writer Siva Vaidhyanathan was a keynote speaker at AoIR, but was probably only mentioned once in passing at DH in my paper on hacktivism and the humanities. As someone who has attended both conferences more than once, I would tend to agree with the accuracy of Svensson's snapshot of terms in characterizing the differences, although there are certainly crossover people like Matthew Kirschenbaum and Kathleen Fitzpatrick who try to straddle both worlds.

Several of Svensson's articles were used as reference points during the discussion, including "Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities," "The landscape of digital humanities," "From optical fiber to conceptual cyber infrastructure," and "Envisioning the digital humanities." Although Svensson was trained in linguistics and was once a member of a more conventional English department, he has become interested in "seeing spaces" and "meeting people" as well and embracing the fieldwork so central to the STS movement in academia and the combination of "doing and reflecting" involved in building labs and integrating database computing into lived environments.

He also showed a number of position statements that advocated for, despaired about, and defined the digital humanities. These included Brett Bobley's HASTAC Q&A that described the digital humanities as a "game changer" that has to engage with how "technology has radically changed the way we read, the way we write, and the way we learn." I was pleased to see both Christine Borgman and Ian Bogost mentioned prominently in Svensson's digital humanities overview, since both will be attending the Richard Rorty Digital Archive event at UC Irvine. Borgman argues in "A Call to Action in the Digital Humanities" that it a "pivotal moment" in which the DH community is likely to "fall behind," if they don't embrace new modes of knowledge-making being tried outside of the humanities. At the other end of the spectrum of cynicism Svensson presents, Bogost agrees that the problem has to do with the humanities itself, specifically "its members" who pursue what he calls "The Turtlenecked Hairshirt":

It's not "the digital" that marks the future of the humanities, it's what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas. A world of the commonplace. A world that prepares jello salads. A world that litigates, that chews gum, that mixes cement. A world that rusts, that photosynthesizes, that ebbs. The philosophy of tomorrow should not be digital democracy but a democracy of objects.

If we want the humanities to become central, it is not the humanities that must change, but its members. We must want to be of the world, rather hidden from it. We must be brutal. We must invoke wrath instead of liberation. We must cull. We must burn away the dead wood to let new growth flourish. If we don't, we will suffocate under the noxious rot of our own decay.

Svensson also cited a range of other sources from an official ACLS Report on Cyberinfrastructure arguing for the importance of access to "the world's cultural heritage" to the wonderfully snarky blog post of Virtualpolitik pal Dave Parry who points out the "non-rise of the digital humanities" that I also saw in action at the MLA and the problem of fixating on "text visualizations or neat programs." (The comments to Parry's blogpost are interesting to mine, since they include a 1997 MLA paper from Kirschenbaum and jokes about CB radios from MLA VP Michael Bérubé.) In this conversation he also observed that Lisa Nakamura had also been an important critical voice in ridiculing the latent cyberutopianism of the digital humanities.

Svensson argued that it was critical to acknowledge "the importance of physical space" and practices of mutual respect. To this Boellstorff observed that there were certain constraints on interdisciplinarity that could be also understood as "accountability for knowledge practices" and -- although he granted UCHRI director David Theo Goldberg's correction that there were "e-social science" initiatives in Europe -- he argued that a "digital social science" was rarely part of the conversation in the U.S. Boellstorff explained that lately he had been thinking about indexical relationships and Peircean semiotics and how the "digital" might literally be seen to "point." He described how this came from his own research on "virtual embodiment" and how it might relate to the Heideggerian notion of "being in the world." Boellstorff also reminded participants that digital humanities discourses also tend to be marked by language about temporality, particularly expressions of the "proximate future" described by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell.

Kavita Philip wanted it acknowledged that much of the attention to the digital humanities was being driven by funding and the "capital does things" but should not be treated as a "transcendental signifier." She also insisted that Bogost had not responded to feminist critiques from Marisa Cohn and Anne Balsamo when he was at UCI in 2007. Although this actually doesn't quite match my recollection as moderator of the event, I would agree with Philip that certain forms of reactive cultural politics sometimes do return with the digital humanities like a kind of return of the repressed, as the moment when a recent THATCAMP became completely gender-segregated at a certain point in the day may have made manifest. In connection with this discussion, Boellstorff also described the irony of how heavily skewed female certain areas of scholarship in digital ethnography had become.

The discussion closed with more examination of the enviable physical spaces of HUMlab and how they might encourage practices associated with the "notion of trading zones." As to whether the humanities at UCI would choose to build this kind of built environment, given architectures of control that generally prohibit play and interdisciplinary experimentation in publicly funded research universities, only the proximate future can say.



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