We Have Never Been Digital

September 29th, 2014

Historian of technology Thomas Haigh has written a nice reflection on the intersection of computing and the humanities, We Have Never Been Digital (PDF) (Communications of the ACM, 57:9, Sept 2014, 24-28). He gives a nice tour of the history of the idea that computers are revolutionary starting with Berkeley’s 1949 Giant Brains: Or Machines That Think. He talks about the shift to the “digital” locating it in the launch of Wired, Stewart Brand and Negroponte’s Being Digital. He rightly points out that the digital is not evenly distributed and that it has a material and analogue basis. Just as Latour argued that we have never been (entirely) modern, Haigh points out that we have never been and never will be entirely digital.

This leads to a critique of the “dated neologism” digital humanities. In a cute move he questions what makes humanists digital? Is it using email or building a web page? He rightly points out that the definition has been changing as the technology does, though I’m not sure that is a problem. The digital humanities should change – that is what makes disciplines vital. He also feels we get the mix of computing and the humanities wrong; that we should be using humanities methods to understand technology not the other way around.

There is a sense in which historians of information technology work at the intersection of computing and the humanities. Certainly we have attempted, with rather less success, to interest humanists in computing as an area of study. Yet our aim is, in a sense, the opposite of the digital humanists: we seek to apply the tools and methods of the humanities to the subject of computing…

On this I think he is right – that we should be doing both the study of computing through the lens of the humanities and experimenting with the uses of computing in the humanities. I would go further and suggest that one way to understand computing is to try it on that which you know and that is the distinctive contribution of the digital humanities. We don’t just “yack” about it, we try to “hack” it. We think-through technology in a way that should complement the philosophy and history of technology. Haigh should welcome the digital humanities or imagine what we could be rather than dismiss the field because we haven’t committed to only humanistic methods, however limited.

Haigh concludes with a “suspicion” I have been hearing since the 1990s – that the digital humanities will disappear (like all trends) leaving only real historians and other humanists using the tools appropriate to the original fields. He may be right, but as a historian he should ask why certain disciplines thrive and other don’t. I suspect that science and technology studies could suffer the same fate – the historians, sociologists, and philosophers could back to their homes and stop identifying with the interdisciplinary field. For that matter, what essential claim does any discipline have? Could history fade away because all of us do it, or statistics disappear because statistical techniques are used in other disciplines? Who needs math when everyone does it?

The use of computing in the other humanities is exactly why the digital humanities is thriving – we provide a trading zone for new methods and a place where they can be worked out across the concerns of other disciplines. Does each discipline have to work out how texts should be encoded for interchange and analysis or do we share enough to do it together under a rubric like computing in the humanities? As for changing methods – the methods definitive of the digital humanities that are discussed and traded will change as they get absorbed into other disciplines so … no, there isn’t a particular technology that is definitive of DH and that’s what other disciplines want – a collegial discipline from which to draw experimental methods. Why is it that the digital humanities are expected to be coherent, stable and definable in a way no other humanities discipline is?

Here I have to say that Matt Kirschenbaum has done us an unintentional disfavor by discussing the tactical use of “digital humanities” in English departments. He has led others to believe that there is something essentially mercenary or instrumental to the field that dirties it compared to the pure and uneconomical pursuit of truth to be found in science and technology studies, for example. The truth is that no discipline has ever been pure or entirely corrupt. STS has itself been the site of positioning at every university I’ve been at. It sounds from Haigh that STS has suffered the same trials of not being taken seriously by the big departments that humanities computing worried about for decades.  Perhaps STS could partner with DH to develop a richer trading zone for ideas and techniques.

I should add that many of us are in DH not for tactical reasons, but because it is a better home to the thinking-through we believe is important than the disciplines we came from. I was visiting the University of Virginia in 2001-2 and participated in the NEH funded meetings to develop the MA in Digital Humanities. My memory is that when we discussed names for the programme it was to make the field accessible. We were choosing among imperfect names, none of which could ever communicate the possibilities we hoped for. At the end it was a choice as to what would best communicate to potential students what they could study.

bookworm

September 25th, 2014

chart (1)The folks behind the Google Ngram Viewer have developed a new tools called bookworm. It has a number of corpora (the example above is from bills from beta.congress.gov.) It lets you describe more complex queries and you can upload your own data.

Bookworm is hosted by the Cultural Observatory at Harvard directed by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel who were behind the NGgam Viewer. They have recently published a book Uncharted where they talk about different cultural trends they studied using the NGram Viewer. The book is accessible though a bit light.

The Material in Digital Books

September 19th, 2014

Elika Ortega in a talk at Experimental Interfaces for Reading 2.0 mentioned two web sites that gather interesting material traces in digital books. One is The Art of Google Books that gathers interesting scans in Google Books (like the image above).

The other is the site Book Traces where people upload interesting examples of marginal marks. Here is their call for examples:

Readers wrote in their books, and left notes, pictures, letters, flowers, locks of hair, and other things between their pages. We need your help identifying them because many are in danger of being discarded as libraries go digital. Books printed between 1820 and 1923 are at particular risk.  Help us prove the value of maintaining rich print collections in our libraries.

Book Traces also has a Tumblr blog.

Why are these traces important? One reason is that they help us understand what readers were doing and think while reading.

The DH Experience

September 11th, 2014

John has posted a web page about game we have been developing in the INKE group at U of Alberta, The DH Experience. You can now download the board, tokens/cards, and rules so you can play the game.

The DH Experience game is a collaborative board game that lets players complete DH projects. Try it!

Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?

September 10th, 2014

Evgeny Morozov has a nice essay in Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition, August 2014) on Whilst you whistle in the shower: How much for your data? (article on LMD here). He raises questions about the monetization of all of our data and how we are willing to give up more and more data. He describes the limited options being debated on the issue of data and privacy,

the future offered to us by Lanier and Pentland fits into the German “ordoliberal” tradition, which sees the preservation of
market competition as a moral project, and treats all monopolies as dangerous. The Google approach fits better with the American school of neoliberalism that developed at the University of Chicago. Its adherents are mostly focused on efficiency and consumer welfare, not morality; and monopolies are never assumed to be evil just because they are monopolies, some might be socially beneficial.

The essay covers some of the same ground that Mike Bulajewski covered in The Cult of Sharing about how the gift economy rhetoric is being hijacked by monetization interests.

Since established taxi and hotel industries are detested, the public
debate has been framed as a brave innovator taking on sluggish,
monopolistic incumbents. Such skewed presentation, while not inaccurate
in all cases, glosses over the fact that the start-ups of the “sharing
economy” operate on the pre-welfare model: social protections for
workers are minimal, they have to take on risks previously assumed by
their employers, and there are almost no possibilities for collective
bargaining.

Gamergate: the community is eating itself but there should be room for all

September 5th, 2014

The Guardian has a good story summarizing the Gamergate controversy. This follows an essay about How to attack a woman who works in video gaming that outlined the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency and Zoe Quinn. A hard-core of gamers seem concerned that game journalists are falling for political correctness and that so they are abusing and threatening women designers and critics.

The abuse mirrors the violence against women that Sarkeesian points out in the video essay above. Abuse of women is used as background plot decoration. The abuse provides a “quick emotional punch to the player” making it quickly clear who are the bad guys players can kill so they can save the women (or watch them be abused first). Now that the abuse is happening for real in the gaming community we should ask if some trolls have started to behave in imitation of game worlds they take as normative. Life imitates arts when we take an art too seriously. It is time to study the homosocial environments that have evolved around gaming and in gaming to understand the ideas of masculinity that have become currency.

And the abuse should stop.

Nintendo still unable to solve smartphone puzzle

September 4th, 2014

The Nikkei Asian Review has a good article on how Nintendo still unable to solve smartphone puzzle. At the recent Replaying Japan 2014 conference I had a talk with some of the folks at Ritsumeikan who have insight into Nintendo. We talked about how Pokemon is controlled by Nintendo so the announcement of a Pokemon Trading Card Game for iOS is significant. It shows Nintendo is experimenting with tablets in a way that still protects the heartland (consoles and core franchises.) If the experiment works they might try some of the other franchises. If it doesn’t they can pretend Nintendo never bowed to app pressure.

The clock is ticking for an aging Asia

September 4th, 2014

George Magnus has written two insightful articles in the Nikkei Asian Review on the impact of an aging population on Asian countries. The first, The clock is ticking for an aging Asia goes beyond the usual stories on Japan to look at other countries including India. The second, Strategies for winning the demographic battle looks at what is being done and what could be done.

What does this mean for the games industry in Japan and, more generally Asia? First of all, we need to remember that the Asian games industry is growing dramatically as the large countries like India and China get wired and videogame-capable systems (smartphones and tablets) become accessible. It will be interesting to see what happens as this audience ages. Second, we in the West are not necessarily the obvious export audience for Japanese games – Japanese companies may turn to focus more on South Korea and China than North America and Europe. There are cultural continuities that make certain types of Japanese games more likely to appeal in Asia than in the west. For example, warring state games – ie. games that have as a background the shared mythology of medieval warring states (whether the period of civil war in Japan or that of China.) Third, we could see Japanese companies developing games for the west in the Philippines as they move development offshore the way they have moved ship building.

To be honest, I am just guessing. I feel we need to understand the Asian game market to understand Japan (rather than thinking of Japan as our other), but I’m not sure where things are going. Magnus’ articles are the best news I’ve read on the issue of aging populations for some time.

The Cult of Sharing

September 3rd, 2014

Mike Bulajewski has written an excellent critique of the The Cult of Sharing. He describes the way ideas of community and sharing are being exploited by a new type of cult-like company like Airbnb and Uber. Under the guise of sharing and building community these companies are bypassing employment and labor legislation. What’s worse is that they are painting basic labor rights as the outdated way of doing things.

That’s because they’ve adopted a kind of cultural critique of capitalism. For them, the problem with capitalism is not the system itself, but rather depraved contemporary Western culture, which is greedy, individualistic, selfish and acquisitive, and rewards greedy, corrupt, ill-intentioned individuals. The opponents of the so-called culture of greed see the behavior of Black Friday shoppers and Wall Street bankers as equal manifestations of the same general phenomenon, and perhaps believing that we get the leaders we deserve, conclude that the public’s moral flaws makes them in some way responsible for the greed of Wall Street.

The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least. Progressive advocates are well aware of this, but they also see an upside: these startups teach their workers moral lessons about sharing, community, giving and service with a smile.

I’m not sure this is going to be the problem Bulajewski thinks it will be, but he has me worried. I hope that that shine of sharing will wear off and consumers/sharers will begin to treat this as any other industry. I also think the media will soon start reporting the downside of staying on someone’s couch or getting a ride with someone who isn’t licensed. It’s like the internet, which we all thought was a nice sharing community, until it wasn’t.

Kim Kardashian Hollywood App

August 30th, 2014

Someone mentioned the Kim Kardashian Hollywood app and how successful it was so I thought I should try it. The app is free and as addictive as this article documents, Oh God, I Spent $494.04 Playing the Kim Kardashian Hollywood App. You probably think you are above all the Kardashian stuff, but you aren’t!

Neither talent nor intelligence are needed to succeed in Kim’s app universe. There are no puzzles or hidden object searches or anything like that. There isn’t even any strategizing. You mindlessly tap on the screen to earn and spend money.

Anyway, the philosophy of the app can be found in the hints given while loading:

Dating famous people will get you more fans too.

Dating costs money, but it’s a quick way to level up!

Changing your look and buying nice clothes can get you noticed by the media.

You can get friends or game contacts to help you with projects by hiring them as co-stars.