Not Looking Backwards

[This post is the text of my final essay for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar.]

Not Looking Backwards: Understanding New Technology’s Transformative Power and its limitations

For every study decrying technology’s negative societal impacts,1 a study detailing how it reinforces and improves society exists.2 The debate over digital technology is not whether or not it is changing society, but rather whether these changes are good or bad for society. A prolific writer on humans’ interactions with computer technology, Sherry Turkle addresses this issue in both Life on the Screen: Identity in the Internet Age and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, warning against the dangers of new technology, from artificial intelligence to sociable robots and online role playing games to social networks.3 Frontline’s “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” examines many of the same dangers, examining new digital methods for business, education, and even war.4 Society, as well as scholars more specifically, must listen to Turkle’s and Frontline’s warnings. However, these works overstate new technology’s uniqueness, failing to contextualize the digital present and future with the analog past.

In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle studies what she calls the “culture of simulation,” which created an environment that blended together virtual and real worlds and allowed users to explore different identities, leading to a more postmodern understanding of the self as a sum of many parts. Turkle begins with early computers, whose interface necessitated the typing of commands and reminded the user of the computer was a tool. However, the emergence and adoption of the Macintosh’s interface simulated real life, giving the user a “desktop” and folders with which to organize his or her things. This simulation, which Turkle refers to as one of “The Seductions of Interface,” allowed people to become users, not understanding the machine’s inner workings. Although computers became accessible to everyday people, not just hackers and hobbyists, Turkle argues the movement towards interacting with computers only at the interface level has made people more susceptible to the culture of simulation. After establishing the computer transformed into more than a tool,Turkle moves onto discussing artificial intelligence’s evolution and the blurring of life and technology, pondering artificial life. Turkle continues with another messy boundary, the one between real and virtual life and its power to reconstruct of identity. As the easiest, though not the only, space for people to explore new identities, virtual worlds, particularly Multi-User Domains (MUDs), facilitated the decentralization of the self, as well as the culture of simulation’s adoption, but raised questions of authenticity and reality.5

Though her warning against complacency with technology is valuable, Turkle overstates her argument frequently implying the negativity of certain developments that are not clearly negative. Arguing the culture of simulation’s rise began with the Macintosh’s interface, Turkle suggests the interface that no longer required the memorization of commands encouraged “exploration” and “play.” Instead of analyzing the potential benefits encouraging a playful mind might bring, however, Turkle situates her observations about the Macintosh within a loss of one’s ability to understand how the machine worked. Turkle proceeds with the assumption that one must know what happens “under the hood” to get the full use of a computer.6 While she is correct that knowing the inner workings can only benefit a user’s experience, Turkle writes with the assumption that computers are the only things humans use with interfaces hiding the object’s operation when in fact virtually every item of modern life has an interface. If included, a broader analysis of interfaces could have strengthened her argument, though its omission reveals her general negativity towards technology. Starting even with her table of contents, Turkle produces a tone suggesting the computer is “seducing” people, exploration of gender causes “trouble,” virtual worlds create “discontents” and examination of identity leads to a “crisis.” While Turkle notes many of virtual spaces’ benefits, like the benefits of the Macintosh’s interface, she couches these positive aspects within negative connotations.

Turkle expands on many of the Life on the Screen‘s ideas, particularly how the computer allows a person to “be a loner yet never be alone” in Alone Together.7 Arguing technology isolates its users, despite the fact they feel connected, Turkle breaks her argument into two parts. She first states increasingly sophisticated sociable robots present the illusion of companionship to isolated individuals. However, the rise of human-robot interaction is actually “tomorrow’s story” to Turkle. For people to be comfortable with the low quality relationships robotic companions provide, Turkle argues, people must come to expect less from interpersonal relationships, which the emergence of continual networked communication is now facilitating. Maintaining her stance from Life on the Screen, Turkle finds the technology’s seductive nature now threatening to replace human companionship. She emphasizing the performative nature of networked relationships, in which one can display any image desirable, as well as robotic relationships, during which robots only act like they understand and feel, suggesting real relationships will suffer from these performances.8

Her warning against complacency with technology is again warranted as new technology should not be a substitute for personal relationships. However, Turkle once again takes an overly negative, alarmist stance against technology, ignoring the broader contexts in which technology exists. Turkle argues against, as she sees it, less personal communication like texting, instant messaging or email, but rather than providing evidence for her argument, she more often glorifies past technology. She titles a chapter “No Need to Call,” though a telephone is scarcely more personal than her other examples of networked technologies. If Turkle had examined the telephone’s reception, she may have found complaints similar to hers about new technology. In her epilogue, Turkle bemoans the fact that her texts and video chats with her daughter studying abroad will not be preserved like the letters between herself and her mother. Turkle seems to forget she does not have any records of her phone calls, which presumably she made, or that not all letters are preserved. Turkle’s nostalgic evidence does little to support her argument or explore the ways in which technology improves society.9

A more even-handed and comprehensive look at society’s relationships with technology, Frontline’s “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” examines the emergence of digital devices in everyday life. The episode looks contemporary scientific research on how technology affects people and explores the transformative nature of technology in education, business, and the military. By taking a broader view than human relations, Frontline touches on many important issues such as the implications of integrating computers into every facet of the classroom, conducting business virtually, though still “in person” with second life and commuting to a war fought with unmanned drones. Like Turkle, Frontline presents the dangers of fully submitting to technology. Though, the episode also explores the possibility that technology may in fact create a better society, questioning if the book is the best learning method and presenting a world which will value building and creativity and not require memorization.10 While Frontline’s product is far from perfect, relying on a comparatively small amount of case studies and carefully edited clips, by presenting multiple views on technology, the short documentary surpasses Turkle’s in-depth studies.

Each of these works examines human and social relationships with computers and the Internet, questioning both how technology changes people and society as well as whether the changes are good or bad. Although society should not accept technology without scrutiny, in many cases it receives blame for longstanding social problems. Turkle, particularly in Alone Together, indulges the most in this overstating of technology’s influence, suggesting any and all distractions during interpersonal relations result from technology. Even though her analysis of the potential changes in social relationships remains largely useful, her overly nostalgic depictions of past technology neuter her argument. While “the digital is only ephemeral if you don’t take the trouble to make it permanent,”11 the analog is also only ephemeral unless you take the trouble to make it permanent. Online networks facilitate less personal relationships than ones founded in physical companionship. However, Turkle assumes this change means people’s real life relationships are degrading, instead of thinking this new technology may allow for relationships that would have never existed or disappeared over time.

New technology and communication networks have changed society, but not completely. Frontline notes the potential distractions that come with giving students laptops for class use, but distracted students are not a new phenomenal. Students may be surfing the Internet, sending emails or texting, instead of doodling and passing notes, but distractions are present nevertheless. Frontline presented teachers complaining about the declining reading and writing skills of students, on which technology likely has an affect, but the state of the American educational system, specifically its nineteenth century methods, undoubtedly has a larger influence.12 Likewise, Turkle holds up a multitasking granddaughter feeling guilty for distracted communication with her grandmother as an example of the ways in which technology degrades social relationships, but Turkle fails to present an alternative.13 This relationship would not be stronger if the granddaughter was writing letters while on the phone rather than emails, nor would it be better if they did not communicate at all unless in person. Turkle also decries the average consumer’s ability to see “under the hood” of technology, though in reality a minority of tinkerers exist with any given technology while the majority remain users.14

While these works broadly discuss technology’s influences on society, computers and the Internet have begun to affect the humanities. However, like Turkle and Frontline, academics must be careful not to overstate the role of technology. Embracing the digital, does not make a scholar any less of a humanist. Just as technology will not be the destroyer or savior of education or social relations, evolving methods of scholarly analysis and communication will always involve humanistic inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration. However, digital humanists should still heed Turkle’s and Frontline’s warnings. As humanists use digital research methods and communication networks to distribute their findings, they must be cognizant of their tools’ underlying structures and inner workings. Distant readings of texts have emerged as an innovative look at traditional sources. A humanist using a tool to read a corpus at a distance does not need to be able to build the tool from scratch, or even know how the each line of code works. However, every humanist reaping the benefits of such a tool must understand the program’s function. Scholars cannot function as uninformed users. To extract information out of a tool, like text analysis or topic modeling, the inquisitive scholar must understand the way in which the program organizes the data so that he or she may analyze the results and inquire further. Likewise, in building communication networks, digital humanists must be aware of the underlying economic and legal structures or else find themselves at the mercy of others less concerned with scholarly research.

Turkle and Frontline contribute to the discussion of the ways in which technology changes society. Each work fails to fully contextualize societal changes, overlooking technology’s influential role throughout history, but in investigating the digital medium, these works take the vital first step to understand the changes society is undergoing. However, the future requires an understanding of both the variables and the constants. Like digital scholarship, which incorporates new research and communication methods into traditional humanistic practices, new technology will change human interactions, though human needs for interaction, companionship, and community will persist.

Notes:

1. Angela Harrison, “Children ‘missing out on sleep’ Newsround” BBC News, February 18, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/8520918.stm accessed December 15, 2010.

2. Richard Florida, “How Twitter Proves That Place Matters,” The Atlantic Cities, December 7, 2010, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/technology/2011/12/how-twitter-proves-place-matters/663/ accessed December 15, 2010.

3. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Internet Age (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

4. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier” (WGBH, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/ accessed December 15, 2010.

5. Turkle, Life on the Screen, 9-13, 29-49.

6. Ibid., 34-41.

7. Ibid., 30.

8. Turkle, Alone Together, 1-20.

9. Ibid., 187-209, 297-305.

10. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier.”

11. Turkle, Alone Together, 299.

12. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” particularly chapter 4 “Teaching with Technology and chapter 5, “The Dumbest Generation?”

13. Turkle, Alone Together, 13-14.

14. Turkle, Life on the Screen, 32-36.

Digital (Urban) History

[In lieu of readings for the final class meeting of UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. Each student was to give a brief presentation on the digital humanities in their field.]

As a field built around places, urban history has always been cognizant of space. Beginning with Phil Ethington’s Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge digital urban history has used the digital medium’s visual power to explore space. As an early digital history project, Ethington modeled the digital medium’s visual power for spatial analysis. Building on his Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge, Ethington developed HyperCities, an analysis of space in cities around the globe. HyperCities compares space over time by laying historic maps on top of themselves in addition to present day maps. Likewise, The Welikia Project, which grew out of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project, explores the ecology of New York City before European encounter, again presenting the past over the present. Most recently, a number of crowd driven projects, like Historypin and WhatWasThere, allow users to upload pictures and place them onto Google Maps’ street view. These projects’ juxtaposition of past and present highlight space’s analytical importance.

Harnessing the digital humanities’ visual power, urban history has taken spatial analysis further. Standford’s Spatial History Project explores space in a variety of times and locations moving beyond the historical representation of places and towards understanding the social constructions of space. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City examines pace in Gilded Age Lincoln, Nebraska with spatial narratives, fusing traditional text explanations with interactive visuals. What Middletown Read breaks from previous projects centered on visualizing space, using a database of library activity in Muncie, Indiana to explore the city’s inhabitants. Though What Middletown Read is developing a spatial aspect, the project reminds scholars urban history in the digital realm need not be only visual.

The future of urban history in the digital humanities will continue to lay narrative analysis on space, possibly with a move to 3-D modeling. Scholars will continue to attempt to understand how historical actors saw their surroundings both in a literal sense, like the emerging mobile applications that similarly overlay the past and the present, and in the figurative sense of space’s social conceptions, which various projects like the Spatial History Project, Gilded Age Plains City, and What Middletown Read attempt.

Most promising about urban history in the digital humanities, though, is the prevalence of smaller projects in the field. Phil Ethington constructed Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge by himself. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City evolved from an article. Though Stanford’s Spatial History Project and HyperCities are massive undertakings, more manageable modules comprise the larger projects. Because spatial analysis’ importance to urban history and the digital medium’s visual power, digital urban history has encouraged scholars, even those working alone like Ethington, to produce digital scholarship. The model of smaller scale projects, either as part of a larger whole or individually, will encourage a broader acceptance of the digital humanities as more scholars are exposed to and participate in the digital humanities.

On #UNL_DHS & #hastac2011

Perhaps it was because I finished my reflection for Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together before hopping on my flight to Ann Arbor, but her argument and the UNL Digital Humanities Seminar was on my mind quite a bit during HASTAC V. Particularly Turkle’s argument that networked communication was making people isolated by distracting them from real relationships and giving them false relationships. Cathy Davidson began the conference with a wonderful talk in which she brought up a famous psychology experiment. (Check it out here before I spoil it)

Davidson noted that when she first saw the video at a public talk, she was distracted by other things going on, but because she was distracted from the “task” (counting the passes) she was able to see the gorilla. This anecdote struck me as counter to Turkle’s argument. By being distracted, Davidson was able to properly see experiment. In very much the same way I found being “distracted” by twitter during the conference enlivened my experience and I think made the conference a a more meaningful experience than it would have had I chosen to “pay attention.”

Choosing to tweet was a self-conscious choice I made the morning of Friday’s official start to the conference. I had attended the #alt-ac workshop the night before and only brought a pen and paper, so no tweeting. Friday morning, however, I grabbed my computer and cord, leaving the paper behind. My reading of Turkle’s argument was that online networks like twitter encourage false personas and false relationships. However, over the course of the conference I found twitter to enrich, encourage, and facilitate my “real” interactions with people.

Cathy Davidson’s talk had a small experiment, in which she gave instructions for the audience to write down a couple of things in a short amount of time after which she told the audience to share their answers with a person next to you. Afterward she revealed the activity was very much a gorilla in the room situation. We were not told to silently write down our answers, though the entire audience worked that way. We had to be told to collaborate. Davidson then began to describe the fascinating history of how the educational system conditioned people to default to quiet, individual work. That is a side note, however. Getting back to twitter, when discussing my answers with a neighbor, I met a grad student from the University of Michigan, who followed me on twitter and I later followed on twitter. Before networked communication we simply would have shaken hands, had a few words and maybe seen each other at another conference. However, the possibility for extended communication exists beyond the occasional accidental meeting.

Similarly, a senior scholar followed me on twitter after I briefly talked with her at the Friday night reception. Twitter does not guarantee any further communication. This senior scholar may never remember the UNL grad student she talked to at HASTAC V (I imagine she talked to a lot of people) but my name appearing in her twitter feed every so often certainly raises the possibility that she may remember me if we meet again. Are these relationships, which began with an introduction, but will now exist on twitter, “real”? They are certainly more real than having no professional relationship.

On Friday night I also met an early career scholar who had led the pre-conference #alt-ac workshop. Saturday morning after the first keynote, I began a conversation with him by saying I like his tweets about that talk. There are many ways to begin a conversation, but having a low pressure online relationship, the one that Turkle argues will lead to human’s reliance on robotic relationships in the future, does not erode person relationships. Rather, it helped to have a (in Turkle’s sense) “fake” relationship to begin a “real” relationship.

The same thing happened when I met another senior scholar. He mentioned he had heard of me through my blog (and I had certainly heard of him). While we did not have a real life relationship before meeting, networked communication allowed us to have familiarity with each others’ work and ideas. This sort of groundwork for in-person relationships does not have to happen online; I read the senior scholar’s work before meeting in-person. But what was this senior scholars going to read of mine before social media? Networked communication does not actually degrade “real life” communication. Rather, the online facilitates and enriches the “real life.”

Alone Together

[This is a post for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. The week’s readings was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.]

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores human interaction with technology, concluding that as technology provides companionship it also isolates individuals. Turkle presents this argument in two parts, first looking at “tomorrow’s story” of sociable robots and later examining “today’s story” of online networks and connectivity (17). Turkle suggests that as people and technology become closer, people grow further apart. While Turkle’s use of extensive examples make her point clear and understandable, as a historian, I found her analysis lacking genuine reflection on comparing the interpersonal relationships in the Internet Age with relationships before this new technology. By not historicizing her argument, skepticism over the uniqueness of her findings remains.

Turkle begins her work by examining what she sees as the future, sociable robots. Detailing case studies of people’s interactions with increasingly sophisticate robots, Turkle builds the argument that people are and will continue to develop sociable robots to fill emotional voids. She warns the “safe” interactions robots provide seem beneficial, but may in fact hinder society in the long run. While sociable robots give the impression of a relationship, they in fact only give a “performance” (101). She makes this point most powerfully when discussing the use of robots in nursing homes. Turkle acknowledges that the relationship seems to benefit seniors and allows younger generations the comfort of knowing their elders have companionship, but she questions whether this reliance on technology merely allows society to, guilt-free, ignore seniors.

Society accepting the replacement of personal relationships with technology is the second step in Turkle’s narrative, however. Turkle argues that before sociable robots will provide the appearance of companionship to isolated individuals on a societal level, society must first learn to feel connected while alone. Turkle argues online networks and mobile connectivity are already building the appearance of connectivity while people are increasingly losing touch with “real” relationships. Social networks and continual connectivity, Turkle maintains, lower expectations for social interaction, paving the way for robotic relationships. Networked communication lowers people’s social interaction by placing technology in-between personal relationships. Through more case studies, Turkle explores online communication from Facebook to texting to confessional websites, arguing people feel more connected, while they are, in reality, only superficially connected. Like the sociable robot, networked communication is more a performance than a relationship.

However, I felt quite skeptical from Turkle’s interpretations of her observations in regards to these networked communications. In her introduction, Turkle tells a story of a young woman Skyping with her grandma. While Turkle notes the service Skype allows increased face-to-face communication (mediated by a computer though), the woman felt guilty for doing other things while chatting with her family member. Turkle suggests this anecdote exemplifies the superficial connectivity of new technology: more quantity, but less quality (14). However, I find this view to romanticize the past. How many people talk distractedly on the phone to a family member? Or in person to a family member? Likely the same proportion that do so online. Turkle’s observations of new communication technology eroding personal relationships seems alarmist when much of the behavior she observes takes place with pre-Internet communication.

Turkle repeatedly overstretches her argument with similar examples. One of Turkle’s biggest points is that people create alternate online identities, which Turkle emphasizes as performance. However, social interactions have nearly always been dependent on performance. I was not convinced the performance of a Facebook profile is all that much more damaging than the performance of eighteenth and nineteenth gentility (or any other cultural system), in which people surround themselves with objects meant to convey a sense of self that may or may not be genuine. Social relations seem to be by their nature part performance, so why would online relationships be different?

Perhaps the most egregious is her assertion that young people are so busy that they can no longer date, but only “hook up.” It is not my area of expertise, but I have to believe low commitment sexual relationship are not new to the Digital Age. In attributing every instance of low quality communication to new technology, Turkle undermines her argument’s effectiveness. Though she briefly notes past comparisons in a few spots, she does not examine the historical trends that may shape this new technology’s influence. Turkle’s fears may merely be a product of new technology’s reception, similar to Wu’s “cycle.” It is certainly possible every new communication technology brings reports of new “distractions” and cheapened personal communications (though this is just speculation on my part).

Even though Turkle may overreach at points, she does make an overall valid point about technology. Just because there is more communication does not mean it will better communication. The humanities and academia more generally should heed this broader argument. Academics can now “friend” or “follow” other academics and even follow along with conferences via twitter. Scholars use popular (twitter, Facebook, etc.) and scholarly (H-Net) networks for communication, allowing the academics to work together regardless of their place on the globe.

However, this virtual communication cannot substitute for personal relationships and conference attendance. These virtual networks should support real life relationships, not overtake them. Scholars should use networked communication to virtually attend conferences that would have previously been out of reach. If, or perhaps when, scholars begin using virtual conference attendance to substitute for physical attendance then Turkle’s fear will be realized in the humanities.

Similarly, online communication removes space as a barrier for collaboration. Any scholar can work with any other scholar, provide they have Internet access. However, Turkle’s warning should be heeded as it is easy for scholars to collaborate online while (literally) shutting the door on their real life colleagues.

Turkle’s warning can also be extrapolated to address the digital humanities specifically. Digital tools open the possibilities of analyzing data in new way. Though many of these tools read texts at a distance, like text mining and topic modeling. These new methods are important, though the humanities would be cheapened if scholars abandoned traditional close readings of text. Turkle urges society to be careful of the ways in which new technology changes people and their relationships. Digital humanists must likewise be careful to watch the ways in which new digital tools change their scholarship.

The Master Switch

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Tim Wu’s The Master Switch.]

Tim Wu contextualizes the Internet in communication technology’s long history of optimism. Like Lawrence Lessig and Evgeny Morozov, Wu suggests the free and open Internet may not always remain that way. With increasingly powerful companies such as Facebook, which virtually operates as an online ID card now, and Google, which has amassed an absurd amount of information on which many people daily rely, the Internet does run the risk of bowing to private corporate interests. Even if the Internet is too large, too international to fully control, the corporate influence in politics could allow businesses de facto control over a nation’s access.

However, what does Wu’s examination of “Information Empires” mean for the digital humanities? Most DHers use, promote, and build open tools, though the dominance of private business is undeniable. The obvious example may be the Google Books or Google Scholars projects, which have become indispensable resource for scholars. However, my own experience in the digital humanities has placed me at the mercy of Google. By using Exhibit, a tool developed by MIT that relies on Google Maps, I place the sustainability of my visualizations in the hands of a company, which probably cares very little about my small digital project (understandably so).

What struck me most about Wu’s look at the optimism of new technologies in respect to the digital humanities, however, was how much this technological optimism has hurt the digital humanities. Many scholars, historians in particular, recoiled at the suggestion that the Internet or e-book would replace the printed book. In many respects, this unfounded fear (books will be a vital part of scholarship for the rest of my life at least) has built irrational resistance, though it seems to be lessening in most corners of academia, to developing new methodologies with these new technologies.

Four Stages of DH

[This mostly serious look at the four stages of DH reflect my own journey in learning about the digital humanities/digital history. The experiences of others may vary and I reserve the right to add stages at a later date.]

Practical-ist
You see DH as another way to make yourself stand out as a job applicant. While not really knowing what DH means or how to go about practicing DH, there is curiosity.

What you should do if you are a practical-ist:
Learn more about DH. Some good starting places are Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History, Stephen Ramsay’s On Building, Mark Sample’s reflection on DH as sharing, and the Day of DH (2011, 2010)

Optimist
You have just learned what DH is and are now excited (possibly overwhelmed) with the possibilities and promise of the digital medium. DH is more than a job opportunity, but now a way of life.

What you should do if you are an optimist:
Talk to someone about digital scholarship and tenure/publishing. Read some dystopic literature (try Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death). The readings from my UNL seminar this week were also nice and dark.

Pessimist
After finding out the realities of the job market and the way in which much of academia values digital scholarship (still not very much) you are down on the future of DH. The realities of the unchanged scholarly infrastructure have you convinced that nothing is going to change while you are on the job market.

What you should do if you are a pessimist:
Learn about alt-ac opportunities. There are a number of great DH opportunities that are valued, though not “traditional” academic jobs. #alt-academy and Bethany Nowviskie are great resources with which to begin.

Realist
You have now emerged from your depression. You are now developing specific skills that will benefit you in the future. You acknowledge the real challenges facing DH in academia, but they no longer seem insurmountable.

What you should do if you are a realist:
Encourage people to check out DH. Bum out Optimists. Cheer up Pessimists. Have fun

The DH Delusion

[Brian goes to a dark place after reading Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar.]

Evgeny Morozov examines the Internet’s relation to authoritarian states, arguing there is a Western misconception, rooted in the Cold War, that the Internet, and information systems more broadly, create political change. This “cyber-utopianism,” as Morozov dubs it, assumes that the Internet inherently favors democracy and works against oppressive governments. Morozov warns that cyber-utopianists, combined with a misguided strategy he calls “Internet-centrism” creates the “Net Delusion,” a misunderstanding of the Internet that does not promote democracy and freedom, but rather threatens to harm global efforts on their behalf.

Jaron Lanier’s essay arguing against collective thinking, though already largely outdated, hits on a similar misguided notion of Utopianism. Lanier says, “A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds.” Like the Net Delusion, this Wiki Delusion (he calls proponents “wikitopians”) promotes the idea that technology, or perhaps more accurately the use of technology, can solve any problem.

Like Morozov and Lanier, I find a similar Delusion, though one more academically minded, let’s call it the “DH Delusion.” The DH Delusion begins with a similar sort of cyber-utopianism. I remember the excitement of my first Digital History course in which it seemed not only possible, but probable that in a matter of years most scholarship would be produced in the digital medium. The Internet seemed to be promote the sort of intellectual freedom and scholastic democracy that could topple an oppressive and outdated structure of academia.

However, just as Morozov points out that photocopies and radio programming did not cause the collapse of Communist Europe (broader structural issues did) and the Internet will not overturn oppressive governments worldwide, the Internet will not revolutionize scholarship without structural changes. Though the Internet has been influencing scholarship for quite a long time (see the Valley of the Shadow’s 20th reunion panel at the AHA) academic structures remain largely the same. Academic credit for digital scholarship, particularly in terms of the tenure process, seems to have remained a contentious issue even at some of the most DH-friendly of institutions. The infrastructure for publishing and peer reviewing digital scholarship still remains largely undeveloped.

Likewise, Lanier’s argument against wikitopians raises potential pitfalls the DH community should avoid. As Lanier says, “The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all.” Just because there is a community that identifies as DH, does not mean DH will change academia. More people accepting DH as an identifier does not necessarily correlate to DH’s power to transform scholarly structures. In fact, if people content to maintain or replicate the scholastic infrastructure identify as a DHer, the power of the digital to remake academia lessens. I do not mean to bring up the debate of who’s in or who’s out, but rather hope to translate Lanier’s warning against the hive mentality to academia. Just because collective thinking holds potential, that does not mean it will live up to that potential. Just because DH holds potential, does not mean it will live up to that potential.

Code Version 2.0

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Lawrence Lessig’s Code Version 2.0.]

Facebook and Google have a hand most businesses and nearly every person’s lives. Seeing the interplay of commerce and the law is not a difficult task for a reader in 2011. While code and commerce are clearly connected to a number of issues of interest to scholars on a personal level including free speech and privacy, most valuable to academics is Lessig’s evaluation of intellectual property.

The obvious examples for digital humanists are Creative Commons, which Lessig says has created a “private law” (199) and the “permission culture vs. free” (192) of which the HathiTrust lawsuit over orphan works serves as the the best example, as soon judges will influence the way in which scholars access texts online for years.

Perhaps less obvious, but no less relevant is Lessig’s musings on how software can influence copyright law. It may have only been a hypothetical at the time but software that can regulate a user’s reading of the text. I immediately thought of e-readers, to which libraries have now adapted and can virtually loan a copy of a text. The more obvious example was on the next page (178) when Lessing posed the hypothetical tiered subscription to the New York Times, which has already became reality. NYTimes.com offers twenty free articles, after which you must pay for a subscription. The same used to be the reality of Pandora, which offered 40 hours of free music a month (now unlimited) and limited the number of skipped songs.

Software that regulates users’ usage is already a reality, so how does this affect the digital humanities? Regulating software poses some promise for scholars. The publishing industry clearly does not like free sharing of texts (again see HathiTrust lawsuit), so regulated use, perhaps a small number of texts per month, could alleviate some of the tension between publishers and academics. However, it seems regulation of this nature would lead to more paywalls. After all, the New York Times used to be entirely free online. If this ability of regulation leads to restriction, which seems to be likely as of today, this regulation by commerce is no better than the restrictive legal regulation that stifles scholars’ use and sharing of different works.

Writing History in the Digital Age

[In lieu of readings this week, our digital humanities seminar chose sections of Writing History in the Digital Age on which to comment during their open peer review stage. You can find my contributions under my name here, or when you read through the two essays on which I commented (I have a feeling these links may not be permanent so my apologies if future people find them to be broken).]

Open peer review is a great layer of scholarly discussion that should be added to, not replace, current practices of peer review. Peer review’s current practices of total secrecy seem a bit excessive, but open peer review is not perfect either. The most bothersome aspect of open peer review is that not everything attracts comments. I was the first commenter on one of the essays and there were several others with few or no comments. For peer review to work, peers need to review every part of a work, which is why three outside scholars will still review of Writing History in the Digital Age as a whole. However, I still found open peer review incredibly valuable. In particular, the potential for discussion is open peer review’s most exciting aspect. The author of the first essay I reviewed had himself commented frequently throughout the essay, prompting discussion. Instead of writing some distant review of the entire piece, I found it more interesting to comment at various points, joining the discussion of the essay at both the whole page and paragraph level. By inspiring discussion about a work, open peer review can remove some of the distance of current peer review practices. The secrecy of peer review prevents any real discussion of the work. There are certainly comments communicated, but open peer review allows a broad range of scholars, not one or two, to make suggestions on the text. Looking over the list of commentators, I recognized several names as active members of the digital humanities community. Though they might not have the time to review every aspect of the book, they can still provide feedback for an essay or two. This type of open review was perfect for an edited volume of essays, though I wonder about open peer review and monographs. Will enough scholars read through enough of a monograph online to make substantive comments?

Bruno Latour

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.]

Something tells me Bruno Latour would not like the analysis of “social networks” in my research. Latour breaks down both “social” and “networks,” as well as several other terms in a useful theoretical book. However, I find his deconstructions only partially useful, as his theoretical arguments do not always seem practical.

In order for Latour’s reassemblage of the social to have significance, he must first object to the current definitions of social. Though he might not argue as strongly if not trying to be somewhat provocative, it seems Latour is content to throw the baby out with the bath water. Latour seems most concerned with the improper usage of the word social. He may even be correct. However, to discount the value of studying social structures or social influences seems extreme. Latour can find fault in the words we use to define these phenomenon, but I find the content of the research and not the words used to describe the field more important.

Though I felt Latour got too obsessed with defining social, I find Latour’s definition of a network, “Network is a concept, not a thing out there” (131), incredibly useful. In my own research, I have attempted to visualize networks, which is difficult if a netowrk is not a thing to see. The danger with visualizing networks is that the personal relationships that comprise a social network are very diverse and dynamic. Relationships change over time and are never quite as simple as lines connecting names. The very act of visualizing a social network seems to cheapen the intimacies of personal relationships by equating deep friendship with acquaintance. However, in reality, there is little alternative. As historians looking at personal relationships in the past it is very difficult to partially understand on personal relationship let alone a vast set of them. Instead of giving up on quantifying something that is in reality impossible to fully understand, I prefer to take what little understanding I can. Even if I cannot fully grasp the depth or shallowness of a past personal relationships, I find exploring these relationships, even speculatively, more useful than ignoring them.