Speculative Web Space

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Digital Humanities, Contemplations

The title ‘Centre For 21st Century Humanities’ anticipates an entire century, setting a very broad scope given the way technology has transformed humanity and the humanities in the past century. We have moved from the telegraph, black and white photography and hardback books, to the ability to, with a few virtual buttons, take a full colour movie on a mobile phone and instantly broadcast it to people all around the world. This reminds us that the IT revolution is not settled now that the .com boom of 2000 and the adoption of mobiles is history but that we remain at the beginning of something so different to what we are now adapted to that we cannot hope to foresee it. Although 21st Century Humanities is not limited to digital humanities, whatever happens in the long term it’s clear that in the near future Digital Humanities will be an increasingly important activity. In the following I’ll briefly discuss some issues, caveats and implications related to digital humanities activity.

The core activities and roles of humanities I suspect won’t change much. As humanities researchers, practitioners and teachers, we will still search through large amounts of material, organise it, create from it, critique it and tell stories about it. The demonstrable depth, breadth and rigour of research will establish the credibility of the story teller, as it does now. University research will remain at the cutting edge of innovative speculation, drawing on the broadest extent of accumulated and conserved knowledge and experience from history and around the world, respectfully drawing from, and for, the broadest possible range of people. A 'University' is so called because it's scope is universal, inclusive not exclusive, unlimited and unlimiting. The way all this is done will change greatly. Computers can be used to access and process information that would have taken many lifetimes to access or process, making it possible to ask and answer questions that were not possible before. Vast amounts of supporting material and interactive visualisations can be presented as evidence and for people to form their own opinions. The authority of the story teller can be questioned in interactive global real time chats, 'blockbuster' audiences can be in the millions while there can be millions of niche interests with only a few participants.

Iconoclasts John Grammaticus and Anthony I of Constantinople, depicted in Chludov Psalter, 9th Century.

We live at a crucial time for considering how this activity is to be done. What will happen to humanities with our unprecedented rate of population growth and technological and environmental transformation? While the scope of '21st Century Humanities' is only 100 years, events are occurring with significance across thousands of years. ISIS has demolished ancient sites such as Palmyra, the US Army camped on ancient Babylon, destroying and contaminating the site, and artefacts from the oldest civilisation in the world have been looted from Baghdad museums. If an interest in history is sustained for another thousand years, these will be remembered as significant events in the destruction of the ancient world, perhaps on a par with Byzantine iconoclasts or Emperor Qin’s burning of books. Whatever our politics, as humanities researchers our concern is with the preservation and critique of humanities – like Li Qingzhao in Records on Metal and Stone, always loading what books she can into carts and boxes, escaping one destruction after another.

The internet was invented by the United States Defence department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) as a way to protect lines of communication - by sending packets of information through a network, if one node goes down the message can still get through other channels. The strategy also included relinquishing central control so that the system could not be destroyed by destroying that central control. The decentralisation of control increases the resilience of the system. This decentralised network structure is also crucial to those resisting (benevolently or malevolently) large well organised systems of power, such as terrorist cells and hackers. This structure of decentralised networks of independently operating groups is not new but it has become emblematic of our time. It is the structure of our zietgiest:

randomstuff - The Vapor Wave 蒸気波 (2015)

A vaporwave background by eyedroop, tumblr.

Uncredited image posted in vaporwave overview at https://levels.io/vaporwave/

The same strategies of distributed networks of independently functional cells that are a hallmark of contemporary conflict can factor into digital humanities and the conservation and critique of the world's heritage. The network is a foundational structure of digital humanities. Perhaps the easiest to understand and most common digital humanities activity - establishing an online digital archive - means that people around the world, via the network, can access and copy important material as part of their own research, critique, curiosity or entertainment. Individuals will be able to access, construct and discuss their own archives around categories and areas of interest that the institutional custodian of the original could not have conceived of. While digital information can be easily erased, such networks mean that if an original or copy is destroyed, the more copies that exist, the harder it is to erase absolutely all traces of the significance of the past or every one of the voices texting now. These networks also give individuals greater capacity to choose, post, repost and preserve what they recognise as culturally valuable, independantly from insitutions of power - whether it be French Hip Hop, Hetalia shipping or early modern women's writing. Increased access to cultural content and enhanced ability to communicate should, overall, work against the objectification of ‘other’s. If you can have an online chat with someone in or see a blog post from Syria, rather than relying solely on government and/or corporate controlled media, it has a subjectifying effect. Culture online, and greater capacity for more people to communicate, we hope, despite some exceptions, will foster mutual understanding, respect and appreciation. Digital archives are only one form of digital humanities enabling the continuation of research and the broader spread of knowledge and understanding around communities. Perhaps people will soon digitally 3D print copies of Grecian Urns or Ming vases to decorate their home.

The potential ‘humanising’ effect of DH is a tantalising hope but it’s worth remembering many people in the world are illiterate, and only 45% have access to computer (though the outlook is positive with this proportion steadily growing). It’s easy for someone in a position to be reading a contemplation on digital humanities to feel as if digital information access is normal and commonplace (when I go outside everyone I see seems to have a mobile phone), but we must always be suspicious of living like the modernised hero of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, blithely unaware of what’s happening behind the aesthetic walls of the city, perplexed when violence erupts, not having known who our mobile phones, bargain jeans and chocolate treats come from. Access to IT has become yet another factor in the world’s perennial social problems of poverty, class division, economic exploitation, political violence and so on. It is an important factor because information is a catalyst for other traditional factors in these divisions – information can help you predict changes in the economy, changes in weather that could effect crops, access electrical plans for backyard wind turbines, educate yourself or share and access innovations, health care, and justice – just about every facet of life. Importantly this can be done in a self directed way, not necessarily imposed from without. Without wanting to seem to confuse ‘humanities’ with ‘humanism’ or ‘humanitarian’, information technology, and so digital humanities, is not automatically ‘good for humanity’. It requires directed effort to make it so.

Metropolis, Fritz Lang

People are right to be sceptical of this wave of application of IT to the humanities. In the IT industry technology changes at a high frequency and along with this come many flawed fads, empty buzzwords, get rich quick myths and failed attempts to change the world from a basement. One important area to be sceptical, because it can so easily pass unnoticed with tacit collusion or as the 'emporer's new clothes', with the recent recognition of and turn towards the digital humanities by institutions and funding bodies, is the fetishisation of information. This occurs where instead of research and education outcomes obtained through information technology, all that is funded or achieved is the technology itself. An institution might purchase a vast amount of storage or high speed network specifically for research data, but the storage never gets used because nobody is aware of it and if they are, aren’t sure what they would use it for. The organisation might even use the unused storage to boast of technological advancement and research support. A vast archive of scanned and digitised texts might be created which is not accessed by anyone because it doesn’t show up in a Google search, yet nobody even knows this is a problem because they aren’t monitoring usage statistics. It’s not a large repository of data that we want. What we want is a large repository of data that is available, accessed and used by people. As the industry and institutions learn, this situation is improving, but is still a significant risk.

This fetishisation can also occur because funding models focus on completion of projects rather than establishing ongoing supported and maintained tools and resources. When a project is completed, the software or website has been built, the funding ends. Everybody signs off and the project owner is no longer motivated to put in the effort to promote it to the world, to upgrade it and to take time out of their already stretched workload to maintain it and handle help requests. Consequently nobody finds out about it, and if they do it is difficult to use, so they stop, and it becomes outmoded in a couple of years. The bureaucracy maintains the illusion that it was a success because the thing exists, the money was spent and everyone has signed off on a job well done and it looks good on everyone's record to have had such a success. But such projects are reaching the end just as they should be beginning.

Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Information, one of the most influential foundational theories in Information Technology implies an analogy, something like a Zen koan, that is particularly pertinent to Digital Humanities. Is there information in a library if there is no-one to read it? In Shannon's thesis a series of symbols, such as the letters coming down a communication wire, and how much information is in each letter are considered in great mathematical detail but one of the most important points is simple - the ‘amount’ of information is the probability of the symbol occuring in the language (eg: in English 'e' provides the information because it's the most probable or expected letter). Importantly, the ‘information’ occurs when the letter is seen. Before that it is uncertain and afterwards it is known. The ‘information’ occurs at the moment of disambiguation. While ‘meaning’ in a general sense is not the subject of Shannon's thesis and pertains to our interaction with any phenomena, not just letters, it is a good analogy to bear in mind for digital humanities. Even if materials are stored in vaults, ink in libraries, and electrons in server rooms, it is only so they may be experienced, wondered at and enquired into by people in future. If we preserve things and data, or acquire knowledge, it is for somebody. Not only is it for somebody but it is for that moment when they encounter it, think about and experience it, that extended moment when meaning occurs. It is a moment that may be shared by many, again and again across time and across the world, and so connect us through this participation in 'culture'. It is that moment we learn something so strange and unfamiliar it would never have occurred to us but which changes the way we look at everything from that moment on and moves us to action, or when we sit down with a book and recognise a kindred spirit living centuries ago on the other side of the world.

"You need to know what the songs are about to appreciate them properly. I should not imagine you are very familiar with this sort of entertainment; so unless you read the libretto of the songs first before listening to them, I fear you may find them rather insipid." - The Fairy of Disenchantment to the child Bao-yu in Dream of the Red Chamber.

Maharana Jawan Singh hunting c. 1830, National Gallery Of Australia http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail-LRG.cfm?IRN=177851

Maharana Jawan Singh hunting, Detail c. 1830, National Gallery Of Australia

You can't expect someone who can't read to appreciate a book. Recently I was in the traditional Aboriginal art section of the National Gallery of Canberra, when I overheard a man with a thick English accent say, "I know it's cultural 'n' all, but..." Aboriginal art works on many levels so without literacy we can only only appreciate it on an aesthetic level, as if it were abstract modern art. On one level some of it is, but that is only one level. With my own limited literacy I couldn't help but think that his appreciation of the art would have been transformed if he were given just a little background on how to read. Later, on the other side of the art gallery I met Maharana Jawan Singh hunting. If I, as a naive Westerner, am looking at a narrative map of the Mewar King hunting I wonder what it means. The small plaque provides some interpretive information but even though it’s more than usual I’m still left with many questions that can’t be answered. I don’t know how to read Hindu cultural artefacts. There is great scope to augment this with Digital Humanities, perhaps a code to scan to bring up information on my phone. It's probably been done before in a more innovative part of the world. Depending on my level of interest I could learn when and where the Mewar kingdom was, and what its significance is. What the story is behind the single figure shooting a tiger. Why the journey has 9 stages. Why this hunt warranted such a large painting. Whether the different colours of the retinue’s turbans mean anything. Why there are only women and cows in the village. How this Mewar map compares to other works in the narrative map genre, such as those Nahuatl one's I saw on the web last month. This information need not be provided exclusively by the museum but could merely come up in web search results - so long as it exists and is well networked. As we learn to read in other cultures' signifying systems, our appreciation of artefacts and writing and understanding of the world increases exponentially.

When contemplating humanities and culture, I always return to a memory of Japanese Noh theatre, performed unchanged for hundreds of years. The tradition and experience of it, the coming together of actor, audience and eternity does not exist if you are not there as a necessary component of the performance. In the West the tradition (one that is changing) of collecting and preserving culture is well symbolised by cabinets of beautiful butterflies from all parts of the world, carefully killed, categorically pinned, and preserved under glass for ease of observation by a subject of an object. The Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie in Paris is a visual spectacle that speaks for itself. By contrast, in the museum and gallery precinct in Kyoto an exhibit is equally likely to be an ancient elaborately carved wood awning as a master craftsman carving an elaborate wood awning. Digital humanities, by radically improving ease and speed of access and augmenting with connected texts and artefacts, has the potential to help transform the way we experience humanities from a collection of objects of study and the accumulation of stored knowledge into an informed, meaningful, lived, human experience.

See also, What Is Digital Humanities?

Many ideas expressed here are echoed in the long but interesting speech at Living Knowledge: The British Library 2015 – 2023


William Pascoe


Digital Humanities Lab

Centre For 21st Century Humanities

University of Newcastle