The Digital Humanist

Fiormonte_DH_Cover_Front_CP_WEB

On Thursday I was part of a conference here in Verona (see my conference notes) that celebrated the seminar I led at the University of Verona and the English publication of The Digital Humanist by Domenico Fiormonte, Francesca Tomasi, and Teresa Numerico (with a Preface by me). This is the English adaptation/translation of their 2010 Italian book which has finally come out in English. Here is the edited text of my presentation. (Thanks to Domenico for helping me with the Italian!)


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Today we are here to celebrate the end of a laboratory on digital humanities and a beginning with the publication of the The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico and Francesca Tomasi.

Oggi si celebra la fine questa laboratorio che abbiamo creato insieme e una la publicazione in Inglese del libro L’umanista digitale che è stato pubblicato per la prima volta in Italiano nel 2010 e poi aggiornato e tradotto in inglese da Desmond Schmidt e Christopher Ferguson.

The English publication of this book is important to the book because part of what makes it “A Critical Inquiry” is that it questions the universality of English. I use the word universality in two senses, both of which are to be questioned:

First, that there is an assumption that we need a universal language or metalanguage – a dream of philosophers, a dream that can be said to have led to the idea of a universal machine or computer,

E secondo, uso la parola universale per il modo in cui l’Inglese invade l’informatica, dai motori di recerca ai linguaggi di programmazione, come abbiamo sentito oggi nelle presentazioni degli studenti.

Il filosofo della scienza e della tecnologia, Langdon Winner, ha scritto un bel testo dal titolo: “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In questo articolo Winner cerca di navigare tra due posizioni opposte – quella del determinismo tecnologico che sostiene che ogni messaggio è determinato dal tecnologia–

And, he argues that neither can technologies be said to be neutral – the argument of so many technologists that relieves them of the need to take responsibility for what they develop.

Instead Winner argues that we have to attend to the artefacts themselves – some bring baggage or structure experience and some less so.

One of the great contributions of this book is just such a critical attending to the digital artefacts themselves – especially those like search engines or electronic texts that are important to us in the humanities.

Questo libro, invece di parlare dell’informatica in generale – parla delle tecnologie che usiamo come umanisti e ci aiuta a capire l’importanza del nostro lavoro – infatti direi che ci aiuta capire come dobbiamo assumerci la responsabilità per le nostre technologie.

As Heidegger and others point out, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to notice technologies that we use every day like the glasses on the end of our nose. We need to find ways back to noticing the systems of ready-to-hand in which we navigate our desires and dreams. That includes for Heidegger also noticing the way language itself structures our thinking.

But how can we do that? How can we attend? What practices can we draw on from the humanities?

Lev Manovich in an online essay talks about the comedy of breakdowns as an interruption that forces us to notice technology – something that was normal in Russia, but isn’t normal in the West.

Siegfried Zielinski – in Deep Time of the Media proposes an archaeology that pays attention to the failed technologies – the branches that have been left out of the origin myths.

This book provides, I think, three other, uniquely humanities ways into thinking again about technology:

First, it is written from the margins – at least the linguistic margins of an Anglophone discourse of technology (and digital humanities.) It was first written in Italian and draws on an Italian humanities computing tradition. The book reminds us to pay attention to language, so important to the humanities and technology too.

Second, it historicizes the technologies we take for granted – looking, for example, at key figures who imagined our cybernetic future.

Terzo, questo libro non soltanto guarda agli artefatti e ai sistemi in un modo critico, ma guarda anche ai modi in cui noi organizziamo il discorso accademico sull’informatica umanistica – direi che tratta le digital humanities come artefatto umano che deve anche essere criticato, specialmente perché siamo ciechi ai modi nei quali l’organizzazione della disciplina segue la cultura anglo-sassone. The digital humanist ci chiede di criticare come siamo e potremmo essere dei digital humanists. Questa è un questione di ethos – come viviamo con la tecnologia, come ci organizziamo per porre attenzione alla tecnologia

E’ per questo che raccomando questo libro specialmente a voi dotorandi.

For those of you just discovering the digital as a subject for humanities attention I recommend this book – it is a way in for humanists.

Voglio concludere con un commento sulla presentazione dei libri – se un libro e come una neonato – un natio come ne parlava Vico –è anche importante come il libro viene educato insegnato e interpretato.

Remember the lesson of Frankenstein. The tragedy is not that he was made of parts, but that he was abandoned at birth. The same can be said of the digital humanities – a field made of parts.

Questa e la seconda volta che aiuto a presentare questo libro. La prima volta è stata la settimana scorsa a Roma. Direi che addesso sono diventato un presentatore con esperienza nell’ allevamento. Posso annuciare il tour?

As I was just saying in Italian, this is the second time I present this book – and I’ve chosen to do it in two tongues – English and Italian. In this I’m drawing on a Canadian political tradition of bilingual presentations which I have always admired. Such bilingual talks weave two languages to make something that is not a universal language but is free of the particular blindness of a particular language.

My reason for switching is that if we are to avoid the universalizing tendency of technologies of thinking like language we have to habituate ourselves to travel back and forth translating and thinking across. That used to be obvious to the humanities, but we seem to have forgotten that discipline.

Attraversare le lingue è qualcosa che voi Italiani dovete fare per forza – per noi anglo-sassoni è una nuova esperienza – troppo volte aspettiamo che l’atro venga da noi invece di incontrarci a metà strada.

Nel frattempo, The Digital Humanist è un importante tentativo che attraversa Italiano e Inglese per invitarci tutti a dialogare.

 

Shade

>look

The tiny figure crawls out from under the sands. It’s dead.

“You win,” it says. “Okay, my turn again.”

>…

Nothing left to do. Time passes.

The sun crawls higher.

*** SHADE ***

I just finished playing the interactive fiction (IF) Shade (2000) by Andrew Plotkin. A poetic work that plays with the genre without playing for the sake of playing. The meditation on life and the end of the game is for real and fiction. You can see other fictions by Plotkin at Zarf’s Interactive Fiction and/or read a nice review Enlightening Interactive Fiction: Andrew Plotkin’s Shade by Jeremy Douglass (electronic book review: 2008). I also recommend the review as a nice introduction to IF in general.

If you need some hints (as I did) see the comments here (and then enjoy his other posts).

Text Mining The Novel 2015

novelTMworkshop

On Thursday and Friday (Oct. 22nd and 23rd) I was at the 2nd workshop for the Text Mining the Novel project. My conference notes are here Text Mining The Novel 2015. We had a number of great papers on the issue of genre (this year’s topic.) Here are some general reflections:

  • The obvious weakness of text mining is that it operates on the novel as text, specifically digital text (or string.) We need to find ways to also study the novel as material object (thing), as a social object, as a performance (of the reader), and as an economic object in a market place. Then we also have to find ways to connect these.
  • So many analytical and mining processes depend on bags of words from dictionaries to topics. Is this a problem or a limitation? Can we try to abstract characters, plot, or argument.
  • I was interested in the philosophical discussions around the epistemological in novels and philosophical claims about language and literature.

 

Dennis Cooper: Zac’s Haunted House (A Novel)

Dennis Cooper has created an interesting novel of looping animated gifs called Zac’s Haunted House (A Novel). The novel is published by Kiddiepunk. I’m not sure why he deliberately calls it a novel when it has so little language, though one can think of the animated gifs as some sort of linked visual language. Perhaps animated gifs are becoming the visual equivalent of words with which we can compose.

I found this courtesy of 3QuarksDaily.

Alain Resnais: Toute la mémoire du monde

Thanks to 3quarksdaily.com I came across the wonderful short film by Alan Resnais, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956). The short is about memory and the Bibliothèque nationale (of France.) It starts at the roof of this fortress of knowledge and travels down through the architecture. It follows a book from when it arrives from a publisher to when it is shelved. It shows another book called by pneumatique to the reading room where it crosses a boundary to be read. All of this with a philosophical narration on information and memory.

The short shows big analogue information infrastructure at its technological and rational best, before digital informatics disrupted the library.

HathiTrust Research Center Awards Three ACS Projects

A Advanced Collaborative Support project that I was part of was funded, see HathiTrust Research Center Awards Three ACS Projects. Our project, called The Trace of Theory, sets out to first see if we can identify subsets of the HathiTrust volumes that are “theoretical” and then study try to track “theory” through these subsets.

YOU: A Novel

I recently finished the science fiction novel YOU: A Novel by Austin Grossman. The novel is about Russell’s returning to get a job with Black Arts a game development studio. Russell distanced himself from his high-school friends with whom he got into designing a role-playing computer game. After dropping out of the liberal arts to law trajectory he had been on, he goes back and gets a job with the company  his friends had created in the meantime. Grossman has worked in game design, so the book has an authentic feel. It is also good on how franchises are maintained as the story turns around the creation of yet another sequel to a tired franchise with flashbacks to when they created the other versions. There are a number of interesting ideas and enigmas to YOU including:

  • YOU is about the dream of the ultimate game. The book starts and ends with the question of the ultimate game and how the imagining of that game is so important to gaming,

    Finally, there is the secret of the ultimate game, inscribed on a series of crumbling scrolls in a language that is no longer well understood. But partial translations suggest that the secret of the ultimate game is that you’re already in the ultimate game, all the time, forever. That the secret of the ultimate game is that the ultimate game is a paradox, because there’s no way to play a game without knowing you’re playing it. That games are already awesome, or else why are we making such a fuss? (p. 365)

  • Part of the issue of the ultimate game is the drive to greater realism as if graphical realism were the only metric. The novel forces us to ask what is realism and whether better graphics are necessarily more immersive (compared with better stories or more open worlds.)
  • Simon, the genius behind the game engine of Black Arts dies before the beginning of the novelistic present in an elevator. It isn’t clear how he died, but it seems relevant at the beginning of the novel. Grossman answered questions about the novel here including an answer about how Simon’s death is a “bait-and-switch.”
  • Finally, there is a really interesting reference to the story of love told in Plato’s Symposium that men and women are separated and want to join up again,

    To forestall any future threat, the gods decreed we should each be separated into halves, and each half hurled into a separate dimension. There was the human half, weak but endowed with thought and feeling, and the video game half, with glowing and immortal bodies that were mere empty shells lacking wills of their own. We became a fallen race and forgot our origins, but something in us longed to be whole again. And so we invented the video game, the apparatus that bridged the realms and joined us with tour other selves again, through the sacred medium of the video game controller. The first devinces were primititive, but every year the technology improved, and we say and heard and sensed the other world more clearly. Soon enough we’d be able to feel and smell and taste and live entirely in our own bodies again. And on that day, he finished portentously, we’d challenge the gods once more.

    “First of all,” I said, “you ripped that whole thing off from that story in Plato. …” (p. 301)

WPA: Uses and Limitations of Automated Writing Evaluation

The Council of Writing Program Administrators has made available a very useful Research Bibliography on the Uses and Limitations of Automated Writing Evaluation Software (PDF). This is part of a set of WPA-ComPile Research Bibliographies. There are paragraph long summaries of the articles that are quite useful.

What seems to be missing is an ethical discussion of automated evaluation. Do we need to tell people if we use automated evaluation? Writing for someone feels like a very personal act (even in a large class). What are the expectations of writers that their writing would be read?

Pentametron: With algorithms subtle and discrete

Scott send me a link to the Pentametron: With algorithms subtle and discrete / I seek iambic writings to retweet. This site creates iambic pentameter poems from tweets by looking at the rythm of words. It then tries to find ryhming last words to create a AABB rhyming scheme. You can see an article about it on Gawker titled, Weird Internets: The Amazing Found-on-Twitter Sonnets of Pentametron.