I am participating in this year’s Day of Digital Humanities. So my posts today will be cross posted to a blog called “Bill’s Digital Intervention“. I urge you to dip into the wealth of digital knowledge and insight being produced over at the Day of Digital Humanities headquarters or through the #DayofDH hashtag on Twitter.
When I signed up for the Day of Digital Humanities activities, they asked that I come up with a definition for the Digital Humanities. This is what I said:
What is Digital Humanities?
The digital humanities are an intervention. The space of the humanities has entered a period of rapid technological change which has forced scholars to become aware of the tools that they use for understanding their texts. This situation has inspired a new, more robust discourse centered on both the tools that humanities use and the knowledge that humanists produce. The Digital Humanities (Digital History, Digital Archaeology, et c.) embrace *techne* as it informs their epistemology.
I think the goal of the Day of Digital Humanities is for us to post how we work in this field throughout the day. So this is my first post:
If the broadest definition of digital humanities sees it as an approach to humanistic inquiry focused on a particular set of digital tools, then it is perhaps most fitting to start my “Day of Digital Humanities” with a discussion of the tools. This past week, I received an automated email from a good academic journal’s Editorial Manager software asking me to peer review an article. The software was very straight forward, efficient, and I am sure that the journal found it useful for managing submissions and reviews.
That being said, I still don’t like it.
This software intervenes into a particular delicate area of our academic mission. We as professional scholars are expected to provide peer reviews of our colleagues works. This ensures that the work in academic journals and in our field in general upholds academic standards and advances knowledge. In general, this work is uncompensated. At the same time, publishers profit from our collegial obligations while restricting access to the final product. I have peer reviewed for journals to which I do not have access because I cannot afford the final product of my review.
Requesting that a scholar peer review an article is a sacred act. It expects a scholar to sacrifice their time and professional energies for the greater good of the field and discipline. Even in our digital age an automated message hardly seems befitting one of the fundamental transactions of academic life. That this kind of treatment may come from a publication produced for a profit and that limits access to the knowledge that my labor produced is particularly disheartening.
The tools that we use shape the knowledge that we create.
Paper and the Machine
If digital humanities increased the emphasis on the various technologies central to the production of humanistic knowledge, it also made clear that despite inroads of digital technologies across all areas of academic research, we still very much live in a hybrid world.
I spent the world conducting a peer review. I had dutifully printed out a paper copy of the manuscript and spent three hours this morning scrawling notes in generous margins provided translation of the text from its original A4 size to 8.5 x 11. I’ll then transcribe or summarize my notes from the paper margins to a Byword file on my MacBook Air and save it to the iCloud. Before I submit my review, I’ll cut it from the Byword file and dump it in a Microsoft Word file.
While I’m writing this I’m listening to music stored in digital files but played through analog headphones. We life in hybrid world articulated by the range of tools at our disposal. Digital humanities must be a hybrid endeavor, unstable, and subversive.
I spend most of my days writing and the more I write the more tools that I use. I know it’s almost a cliche among digital humanists to have a bewilderingly cluttered desktop stretched over multiple monitors, but I suspect this super specialized interest in tools, workflow, and technology is a product of our seeing “digital” as a key heuristic for producing knowledge. It also creates a peculiar awareness of the tools we use in our digital worlds.
For example, I argue with a graduate student in our program over the relationship between the Apple hardware and software interface and aesthetic and my own workflow. I am comfortable in an Apple environment and that helps me be more productive because I can “imagine away” the interface and focus on the task at hand. Making the tool “invisible”, however, poses a risk for the critical digital humanists. The moment that we forget our tools we run the risk of pretending our tools don’t matter.
When I write this blog in the lovely and simplistic interface of Byword and then move it to the WordPress blog interface (for my Day of Digital Humanities blog) or into Mars Edit to post on my Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, I make a series of little decisions that locate my text in little networks of human and non-human actors. These actors do more than shape the context for my text (as if any text could exist separate from a context) but actually make the text itself. The audience, display, pagination, style, and words themselves, mark the text as the product of particular networks. In the digital world, these networks include the physical, electronic, and mappable world of software and the internets. As a digital humanist, I have to remember to feel the digital world.
Music, Mashups, and Multitasking
I spend most of day digital days listening to music. Some of it is streamed via Spotify, some of it is digital downloads, and some of it is ripped from CDs. As I continue to reflect a bit on my digital life, I was struck by how much more ubiquitous music has become for me. The portability and streamability of my music means that I can be as fickle as I like most days and interrupt albums and sometimes even songs. As I do this, I switch from one task to the next dancing across the open documents on my desktop with the attention span of a fly that’s got into some Red Bull.
Like my music I have the ability to move between various documents, texts, and media either by bringing them together in a single workspace like Scrivener or strewn across multiple applications and monitors. While we often hear that such workflows have eroded our students’ attentions spans and destroyed out ability to think deeply, it has also allowed us to operate in a comparative and transmedia framework that supports the growing convergence of communication tools.
Production of digital humanities, then, mimics our hope for the field. The fickle mind of the music obsessed scholar and compulsive multitasker produces and consumes technological mash-ups and demands that software and hardware support these work patterns. Everything must be happening all at once.