Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation – YouTube

The kind folks at the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin have put up the video of the “conversation” I participated in on the 6th of March. The event was called Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation. Curtin Wong is now at Microsoft Research, but worked for some time at the Voyager Company back in the days when they were developing some of the most interesting multimedia works.

In evaluating digital humanities, enthusiasm may outpace best practices – Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed has a story by Steve Kolowich about the essays we published in the MLA journal Profession on evaluating digital scholarship. The story, The Promotion That Matters (Jan. 4, 2012) quotes my essay On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship about how the problem is now how to practically review digital scholarship if you have no experience with it (and are on a tenure and promotion committee.)

It’s interesting how the article begins with what is becoming a trope – that the digital humanities is the new new thing. This time we have no lesser pundit than Stanley Fish proclaiming the arrival of new newness. Kolowich opens the essay (which is mostly about evaluation) by talking about how Fish, the “self-appointed humanities ambassador”, says the digital humanities has replaced postmodernism as the next thing. Its a nice way to open a story on the digital humanities and I suspect we will see more of this opening for a year or two. (What will it mean when people can’t start their stories this way?)

As for Fish, check out his blog post on the MLA, The Old Order Changeth (Dec. 26, 2011). The essay is based on reading the program (rather than attending) and he notices, among other things, all the digital humanities sessions. As he puts it, after reminding us what it was like when postmodernism was the rage,

So what exactly is that new insurgency? What rough beast has slouched into the neighborhood threatening to upset everyone’s applecart? The program’s statistics deliver a clear answer. Upward of 40 sessions are devoted to what is called the “digital humanities,” an umbrella term for new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.

I’m intrigued by the possibility that the digital humanities might sweep through with the same arrogance that theory did. (Did it?) Is DH the same sort of new new thing? Fish lists some of the symptoms we might see if the digital humanities drives through like another revolution:

Those who proclaimed the good news in 20-minute talks at the convention welcomed the dawning of a brave new world; those who heard them with dismay felt that the world they knew and labored in quite happily was under assault, and they reacted, in counterpoint 20-minute talks, by making the arguments defenders of an embattled regime always make: it’s just a passing fad; everything heralded as new can be found in Plato and Aristotle; what is proclaimed as liberating is actually the abandonment of reason and rigor; a theory that preaches the social construction of everything collapses under its own claims; the stuff is unreadable; it has no content apart from its obfuscating jargon; maybe it will just go away.

I hope Fish is wrong. My hope is that colleagues not interested in the digital realize that we are not threatening to replace other forms of scholarship so much as to extend it. Digital practice does not deconstruct other practices/theories/methodologies, it supplements them and re-engages them. From the perspective of practice one of the things that exemplifies the digital humanities is that it is often experienced in projects that bring together “traditional” scholars and digital humanists rather than develop as a confrontation. Some of the more enthusiastic may think that the digital humanities can replace the practices of the last generation and in some cases the digital humanities does raise new questions, but the history of computing in the humanities has never been confrontational. (Instead, I would argue that the digital humanities has been a little too servile, pretending that all we wanted to do was bring new methods to old problems.) Our disciplinary history is that of a prosthesis or monster stitched from the old and the new. For that reason I doubt we will be the same sort of new new thing that postmodernism was. We don’t pretend to attack the foundations of the humanities so much as to extend them. We need our colleagues rather than despise them. We spend our time reaching outside of the humanities rather than gazing into its navel.

No … the danger is not that the digital humanities will try to deconstruct what came before, but that it introduces a new form of busy-ness to the humanities that distracts humanists from whatever is truly important. (And we all know what that is … don’t we?) The digital humanities is endlessly complicated, especially because it draws limbs from alien fields like the sciences and engineering. DH introduces new jargon, new languages (as in programming languages), new techniques, new practices, and new communal projects. All of this newness will keep us busy keeping up. All this newness will seem too much for many who haven’t the time to embrace something so time-consuming no matter how friendly. Many will keep quiet for fear that others think they are stupid because they don’t get computing when really they haven’t the time to do both the old, the new and the new new. Others will practice some cute put down just like all the cute ways we put down other movements we haven’t the time to master. Most will just feel the hug of the digital is a bit too friendly and a bit too tight. They will wait it out until one day something else will be announced as the new form of new new.

So what do I mean by busy-ness being the danger rather than replacement? Busy-ness is my word for the danger of constant activity Heidegger saw in “The Age of the World Picture” though there is something envious and cynical to his characterization of this technical turn. It is the danger of hyperpedantry when you perform the activities of wisdom faster and faster rather than thinking through wisdom. It really isn’t a new danger (Plato, of course, also warned us about this.) It is the danger that those tired of being left behind warn others about in the hopes they will slow down. It is a danger too often voiced by the grant envious which means we don’t listen too them. Here is Heidegger on it,

The decisive unfolding of the character of modern science as constant activity produces, therefore, a human being of another stamp. The scholar disappears and is replaced by the researcher engaged in research programs. These, and not the cultivation of scholarship, are what places his work at the cutting edge. The researcher no longer needs a library at home. He is, moreover, constantly on the move. He negotiates at conferences and collects information at congresses. He commits himself to publishers’ commissions. It is publishers who now determine which books need to be written.

From an inner compulsion,the researcher presses forward into the sphere occupied by the figure of, in the essential sense, the technologist. Only in this way can he remain capable of being effective, and only then, in the eyes of his age, is he real. Alongside him, an increasingly thinner and emptier romanticism of scholarship and the university will still be able to survive for some time at certain places. (p. 64, from the collection Off the Beaten Track, trans. by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes.)

Whatever Heidegger says, I believe it is impossible to distinguish between busy-ness and whatever is considered “real work” or real scholarship. The difference is ineffable, but that is not why busy-ness is a danger to the digital humanities. Busy-ness is the danger because it is the other of technical activity. Practical activity is what the humanities needs after theory, but also what it will tire of. At the very moment when we think the digital humanities has made a pragmatic difference we will worry that there is no meaning to all the technique. The digital humanities will not be critiqued as another replacement or another post post; it will exhaust itself and be found empty. The rhetoric will turn to wisdom and away from best practices.

Video games can never be art – Roger Ebert’s Journal

I had, of course, heard that Roger Ebert had made statements to the effect that games can’t be art, but hadn’t bothered to track them down. Here is his sustained argument, Video games can never be art which takes as its foil Kellee Santiago’s TED talk on the subject. One way to read this debate is that it becomes a matter of definition. If you define art in a certain way then yes, games aren’t art, by definition. And Ebert seems to feel that either games can never be art, or it will take so long that we will all be dead by then (which is more or less the same thing.) Santiago, by contrast, argues that one shouldn’t judge the artistry of a genre in its infancy. I will have to think so more on this, but here are some first reactions:

  • Ebert’s definition of art from Plato, that it is the” imitation of nature,” does not, to my mind, define games out of the picture. One could respond that games imitate different features of nature like movement, flow, and interactivity. Ebert goes on to argue that art “grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an (sic) passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” Again, I don’t think this definition excludes games in principle. What it does is reiterate a Renaissance belief in the vision of a genius, which even Ebert realizes excludes all sorts of art (like cathedrals.) The particular way we interact with games tends to hide the genius of creators – we don’t look on them with wonder at their creation. If caught up in them we play as if we were in the fictional world. Ebert may be right that our relationship with games is not a sacred one of visionary transformation before FINE ART, but that is a questionable and historically constructed relationship. I can imagine a future where games and their designers are treated with such reverence.
  • If Ebert is going to draw on Plato and Aristotle he should be open to another sense of art as craft. The painter who imitates nature uses technique to craft a believable representation. That craft or techne is what Plato and Aristotle were interested in, not some sacred relationship through genius. Plato was concerned with the effects of performing the poets (as opposed to listening to them) which is how epics were consumed – they were acted out – and he worried about youth playing disreputable characters. Video games are criticized in very similar ways – that they habituate youth to doing nasty things like killing zombies. Plato wanted to banish the poets and would probably have similar concerns about game designers today. Fine art, however, has been safely neutered so youth don’t really get to do more than wear tights for a Shakespeare play which no one seriously considers dangerous. In that sense games are the inheritors of a craft of imitation and context for player imitation that Plato called art. Art is no longer the art Plato warned us about. Games are now the dangerous imitation of nature. As for Aristotle, he was concerned with the place of craft in a hierarchy of knowledge and games are clearly technical productions that fit the class of crafts.
  • Ebert is right at the end to suggest that it shouldn’t matter to players that games are not art just as chess players don’t worry about it being an art. Perhaps we just need to define our terms and create a supercategory of fictions (imaginative things that we make). The fine arts and games are all members of this category. There are better and worse games just as there are better and worse plays. There are serious games that are meant to be high culture and there are potty performances that appeal to the worst in us. We have developed traditions of interpreting, playing and judging both games and fine art.
  • Why does it matter that games be an art? I suspect this says more about the maturing of gaming than it does about art. Gamers and game studies want the respect of being high culture for all sorts of reasons from academic acceptance to acceptance as a past-time. We used to treat games as something children played and adults were encouraged to get serious. I was certainly encourage to drop (or hide) my passion for military simulations (war games) when I entered high school and realized there were all sorts of cool women I wanted to talk to (who would laugh at my passion). Things have changed – boy culture or nerd culture is triumphant and it rightly wants to shed the association of its values with adolescence. Where I stopped playing games this generation is unafraid to be openly associated with gaming. The only remaining barrier is the perception that games, while they may be an adult pastime, are not serious art capable of bettering the soul (which is what we tell ourselves that the fine and performing arts do.)
  • Which returns us to the question of transformation? Can a game change your mind, influence your imagination, or transform your life the way we think high art can? I would argue that they can, but they do it in a different way than the fine art or philosophy does. Monopoly doesn’t tell you about capitalism or show capitalism at work. It creates a context in which you play as if a certain view of capitalism were true (that acquiring property and bankrupting people is the goal.) If you are changed by Monopoly it is not that you think “Oh, the designer had an interesting view about Monopoly that has changed my mind.” Instead you take on the habits or world view of a monopolist (or someone who is appalled by monopolies). It can change you, but in ways we aren’t trained to talk about the way we can talk about the transformative vision of Michelangelo. With time we will develop the critical traditions and feel just as comfortable asking about the world imitated in a game and its assumptions. Asking if games are art is one way to open this up. One day we will wake up and find there is a canon of what were transformative games. Until then we can play without thinking too much.

MLA Profession 2011: On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship

My paper “On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship” has just been published online in MLA: Profession 2011 (pp. 152-168). The PDF is freely available. The abstract reads,

As more and more scholarship is digital, we need to develop a culture of conversation around the evaluation of digital academic work. We have to be able to evaluate new types of research, like analytic tools and hypermedia fiction, that are difficult to review. The essay surveys common types of digital scholarly work, discusses what evaluators should ask, discusses how digital researchers can document their scholarship, and then discusses the types of conversations hires and evaluators (like chairs) should have and when they should have them. Where there is a conversation around evaluation in a department, both hires and evaluators are more likely to come to consensus as to what is appropriate digital research and how it should be documented.

This is part of a collection put together by Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell and Stephen Olsen about Evaluating Digital Scholarship. McGann and Bethany Nowviskie, among others, also have papers in this issue of Profession.

TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

Gordon Lebredt Get Hold Of This Space 1974

Go see the TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980 exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta. It is a dense exhibit with hundreds of works and relevant documentation. It is organized by cities (a room for Halifax, one for Montreal …) and seems carefully researched. You will find yourself bewildered and amused at the variety of conceptual art projects executed in Canada. You will notice that everything was done back then with typewriters, video and tape recorders. The colors look bleached the way old and cheap photographs are. The aging of all those postcards and paper forms dates the works as if they were brought out of the attic or from the back of the family station wagon left in the sun.

This show was developed by a number of museums (from Vancouver to Halifax) and is touring those museums. You can read about the show when it was in Toronto. Or you can read about it in Magenta.

BBC – Domesday Reloaded

Thanks to Paul I came across the BBC Domesday Reloaded. The original Domesday Book was commissioned in 1085 by William the Conqueror.In 1986 the BBC published a Laser-Disk based Domesday Project that gathered articles, amateur photographs and other materials. The Laser-Disk Project only ran on a properly configured BBC computer which was hard to find in Canada. I actually played with the system (and the Domesday Project) when I was working at the University of Toronto Computing Services. It was a phenomenal example at the time of computer-based multimedia even though it was limited to a particular play-back system.

Now the Project has been remediated for the web by the BBC as Domesday Reloaded. You can search the content and the places. They have crowdsourcing features to let people add an updated article about a place. Some of the content seems to be inaccessible from outside the UK.

Reality is Broken

Reality is Broken is the recent book about gamification by Jane McGonigal (New York, The Penguin Press, 2011) that has been getting a lot of attention. My copy finally came in the mail so now I guess I have to read it. I sound reluctant because everything I’ve read about the book disposes me to dislike it. The vapid “computers are going to save the world” (once more) hype by and for the author is enough to choke on. The idea that gamifying can solve all sorts of problems reminds me of when I thought I could get students to learn by making games out of completing assignments (yes, I too used scratch-and-sniff stickers to gamify learning.) I say all this to acknowledge that as I write one or more blog entries on this book as I read it, I am not reading the work with a fair mind, so readers of my comments beware.

Continue reading Reality is Broken

NFB: Out My Window

Joyce pointed me to a National Film Board (NFB) interactive work, Out My Window: Interactive Views from the Global Highrise. The work, directed by Katerina Cizek documents the lives of people in apartments through their apartments. For each apartment there is a 360 degree view that you can pan around (sort of like QuickTime VR.) Certain things can be clicked on to hear and see short documentaries with the voice of the dweller. These delicate stories are very effective at giving us a view of apartment life around the world.

Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information

Christian directed me to a fascinating chronology of information technology (in French) by Sylvie Fayet-Scribe. It is called Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information. and the web design isn’t the best, but it seems detailed and annotated. It seems like a good place to start if you want to understand the types of information aides from encyclopedias, indexes, and so on. Here division of time into epochs is also interesting. The bibliography is also good.

Informatica Umanistica: Interrupting Digitization

Informatica Umanistica has just published a paper of mine on digitization titled, “Interrupting Digitalizatin and Thinking about Text”. The article starts,

One of the memes of new media is that the form of communication determines the content. As McLuhan puts it the medium is the message, and therefore, as we digitize the evidence of human culture from the Roman forum to Hamlet we inaugurate not just a new edition of our knowledge, but a new knowing and with it a new way of thinking. This paper will not engage the question of technological determinism, instead it will assume that the enthusiasts are right and ask then what is digitization? or what is the message of the digital form? Asking such questions is an interruption in the rush to digitize everything; imagine the scanner has broken down for a moment letting us pause and ask if we really understand the digital, if we understand what is gained and lost, and if we understand the possibilities before us or how we are constrained.