Discussions on Digital Humanities – #UCLDH

Tonight I visited the pub for the monthly meeting ‘Decoding Digital Humanities’ [#DDH] run by the UCL Digital Humanities Centre (or soon-to-be centre) [@UCLDH].  The general theme of the meeting is to try and explore ideas of ‘digital humanities’, with a side-order of ‘what should the centre do’ and an article to discuss to kick things off. Meeting in the top room of a pub was great and informal enough that I didn’t find it intimidating. Definate thanks go out to the UCLDHers for the organisation and planning. [edit - You can find a piece on the night on the UCLDH blog here]

Today’s article was Michael Mateas’ ‘Procedural Literacy – Educating the New Media Practitioner‘ (just follow that link for the PDF if you’re interested). Admittedly the article sounds pretty dull and the title doesn’t really give anything away, but it ended up being a pretty interesting read.

In large parts it felt pretty self-evident to me – the main thrust of the argument was that ‘new media practitioners’ (ie Digital Humanists) should have some basic understanding of what a programming language is and how it works, or they’re missing out a big chunk of what it is to work in ‘New Media’.

What he wasn’t so explicit about, but really caught my eye, was his idea that programmes are designed to do specific things – they enable those things, to the detriment of other ways of interacting. Additionally they are all built by humans – we all have a bias, a subjectivity. In this way programmes like Photoshop, or Maya, are texts to be read just as much as any other cultural artefact.

I found this really thought-provoking, without taking into account the ‘free text’ included by programmers in their code – which I can conceive as being a really interesting source for anthropological examination of  programmers in the future! I can’t wait until we’re doing the anthropology of programming. As some of us discussed during one of the breaks – is the traditional anthropology of technology theory going to be of any use to us?

The meeting itself was an interesting mix – couple of archaeologists, a classicist, artists, a ‘digital anthropology’ student and a ‘digital humanities’ student amongst others. I was surprised at the people who argued against the importance of Mateas’ idea of a ‘procedural literacy’. I think what he is arguing for is the teaching of the  ‘grammar’ of programming languages, rather than actual languages, so that we can understand applications better. This seemed quite sensible.

Of course, my opinion may be because I have received the kind of education Mateas refers to – I have learnt C++, HTML, CSS, and PHP at some point or other, and will happily drop into programming language in things like SPSS if I think it’ll get what I want done quicker. When I mentioned this I was rather amusingly shot down as being ‘too old‘ (at 26!) to compare myself to today’s undergrads who were now all ‘cut and pasting’ (!). We’ve all heard that last point before – experience suggests it isn’t true but I imagine the opinion persists throughout the more cynical parts of academia.

More constructively, an analogy in support of Mateas is the idea of being a football critic. You don’t need to be able to play football to critique it – but you do need to know the off-side rule. You don’t need to be able to write programmes to be a digital humanities critique. But you do need to understand the grammar, the underlying structure that makes up digital forms of communication.

Otherwise it would be like taking Roman period literature at face value, and everything those rich white Roman men said as the truth. It’s okay if you just want to enjoy the product, the football or the literature, but it’s no good if you’re meant to be a researcher, surely? You need to understand who and what is controlling, interpreting, constraining, constructing and influencing your experience. Take the Second Life Catal Hoyuk experience – if you don’t know anything about how the programme limits what objects you build in Second Life, you won’t understand the limitations of the Catal Hoyuk recreation.

I did mention that it perhaps comes down to how much want people to interpret things for you. I’m not buying an Ipad because I don’t want Apple’s idea of the web – I want it as unmediated as possible.

The question on some lips was – what benefit could this procedural literacy have? This was difficult to answer – and although I feel that I have benefited tremendously from the programming training I received, perhaps along with the scientific perspective have identified so strongly with, I was uncertain how to identify what I feel I have gained. The person who raised this question seemed to want concrete, tangible evidence.

In retrospective I believe that skills learn in programming, with its ideas of clearly delineated and explicit networked, flowing, intensely complex processes allow me to deconstruct human processes, thoughts and patterns with much greater ease than a pure humanities student. It makes it way easier to conceptualise these ideas, which in turn makes designing experiments and surveys much easier. On a more practical level, the internet is not a black box to me. Frankly, if you rely on it as much as we do, that’s pretty important unless you just want to be a passive consumer!

Of course, eventually we had to tackle the idea of what Digital Humanities actually is. We can say what it is not – it is not publishing your work online, not even necessarily open access publishing. If you do traditional research, using traditional methodologies, and then publish in a normal way except that publishing is also online, then I don’t think you’re doing Digital Humanities. There should be much more permeation of digital techniques – digital archiving, manipulation, communication, interpretation, and display are not things you bolt-on to the end of a research project. They are driving factors at the centre of the project from start to finish, tools you use in every day work.

Of course, it was also suggested that Digital Humanities it isn’t actually anything. In twenty years perhaps all humanities will have the synergistic concepts of digital humanities at the base of their activities. In which case, who will need a ‘centre’ for digital humanities? Are DHers essentially transitional caretakers, trying to manage a change-over that will occur with or without our help?

One thing we didn’t discuss much was the idea of legitimacy and power. What makes a Digital Humanist? Can I say I am one? Then is it okay for me to design a course and churn out graduates who also think they are? Who decides who is a Digital Humanist if the subject is so nebulous it might not even have a definition? Isn’t the idea of a traditional degree in such a subject a little anachronistic and counter productive? How can we complain about people not taking blogs seriously as academic writing, if we then focus our education work on providing traditional university-based degrees?

But one of the things I did question – much to the outrage of a number of those present – was a kind of combination of ‘how much impact is the Digital Humanities really having‘, ‘how fast is the world really changing‘ and ‘is the current digital revolution really all that?

I realise now that I was essentially saying ‘Digital Humanities and the Digital revolution really isn’t that important‘ and that I shouldn’t be surprised that so many people disagreed withe me. But I basically couldn’t agree with some of the statements of how weird and in one example ‘mind altering’ the digital experience was. As far as I can see, we’re all still communicating in broadly similar ways. Yes, we’re using new tools to talk to more people, over a greater distance, with much greater speed. But that’s just humans doing what humans like doing – talking.

I think the ‘New Media’ or ‘Digital Revolution’ is exciting, and it is important. But I can’t bring myself to put it in the same box as spoken language, or the written word. It’s more of an ‘invention of the printing press’ or ‘discovery of the number zero’ thing for me.

I also compared the current time to the Industrial Revolution, and that really did elicit outrage! I’ve only studied that period for personal interest, but as the growth of the Steampunk genre shows, I think a lot of people feel a strong identification with the sense of confusion, disjointedness, dissociation, even fear and panic that you can see in some of the Victorian literature.

Most people seemed to think that the Digital Revolution is much more important than the Industrial Revolution. A few people thought it was less important. I don’t want to quantify it that closely quite yet, but I think a little perspective would be a useful thing, particularly in the case Digital Humanities. After all, doesn’t it sound a bit like a department of ‘Printed Humanities’ starting up after the invention of the press?

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3 comments on “Discussions on Digital Humanities – #UCLDH

  1. The comparison with the industrial revolution is quite important (I think I may have said this at the meeting, but I’ll say it in ‘bits’ again). The industrial revolution effectively devalued industry. Similarly, the information revolution is devaluing information. Just as as industrial revolution sowed the seed for a class of person now known as a ‘consumer’ (someone for whom manufactured products are easy to obtain and easy to throw away), so the information revolution will bring about information consumers who can obtain and discard as much information as they like, thus reducing the worth of any given unit of information.

    • Good to see that I didn’t offend everyone at the meeting! I did hear that said, and I liked the analogy. However it feels like we’re trying to write the history of things before they’ve actually finished happening – but then perhaps this is the problem DH is dominated by social scientists who express things in the ways most familiar to them.

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