Love and Instrumentalism in the Digital Humanities

Last week I attend­ed the 2013 Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties con­fer­ence in Lin­coln, Nebras­ka, and came away with a strong and renewed sense of what the field is about and where it is head­ing. The talks I attend­ed were on the whole engag­ing and many showed signs of gen­uine inno­va­tion, at the lev­els of method, the­o­ry, self-reflec­tion, and even domain-spe­cif­ic research results. (I hope to describe some of these talks in more detail in oth­er posts.) The field has def­i­nite­ly come into its own and has devel­oped a new con­difence, even a swag­ger, that comes with pub­lic recog­ni­tion and from the sat­is­fac­tion of achiev­ing clear and com­pelling results in the appli­ca­tion of its meth­ods. I do not recall, for exam­ple, a dig­i­tal human­i­ties research project with the com­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty of Jen­ny Clay’s “Map­ping Homer’s Cat­a­log of Ships,” a tour de force pre­sent­ed by co-inves­ti­ga­tors Court­ney Evans and Ben Jas­now (this year’s Forti­er Prize win­ners), and devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Schol­ars’ Lab at Vir­ginia. I am sure many human­ists out­side of the dig­i­tal human­i­ties, and not only clas­si­cists, will grasp both the method and its results, and will be inspired to ask inter­est­ing ques­tions of both Homer and the researchers on the basis of this under­stand­ing. Google’s Ngram View­er and the relat­ed Cul­tur­omics school had some­thing of this effect on human­ists at the annu­al AHA meet­ing cou­ple of years ago, but we still don’t know what their results are about—“word death,” being some­thing much less than cul­ture, notwith­stand­ing.

What sur­prised me about the con­fer­ence, though, was that in spite of this suc­cess, the ethos of the field—the atti­tudes of the peo­ple I met and with whom I reconnected—has remained that of a com­mu­ni­ty (gemein­schaft) and not yet that of a soci­ety (such as the MLA), although signs of a shift in this direc­tion were evi­dent as well. I say “in spite of” because with suc­cess often comes com­pet­i­tive­ness and enclo­sure. Instead the meet­ing pos­sessed a good deal of what George Eliot called “fel­low feel­ing,” or what Vic­tor Turn­er called com­mu­ni­tas. This result was no doubt due in large part to the skill of the orga­niz­ing com­mu­ni­ty in orches­trat­ing the event on so many lev­els, includ­ing the social (social as in Amy Van­der­bilt, not Max Weber). It also has to do with the scale of the DH com­mu­ni­ty, which remains rel­a­tive­ly small. But there is anoth­er rea­son too: I am hap­py to report that the dig­i­tal human­i­ties is still found­ed on a sit­u­a­tion, a gen­er­a­tive source of ideas and prac­tices that make intel­lec­tu­al inno­va­tion pos­si­ble. How else to explain the sus­tained col­le­gial inter­ac­tion among hard-core com­pu­ta­tion­al sta­tis­ti­cians, enthu­si­as­tic crowd-source librar­i­ans, and crti­cal­ly-mind­ed post-colo­nial the­o­rists? These groups inhab­it quite dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al spaces dur­ing their day-to-day lives, and are brought up in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tions. (Ask your­self: is there any one major text that all dig­i­tal human­ists are likey to have read? A cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist can cite many, and so can a com­put­er sci­en­tist.) Where­as most dis­c­plines are unit­ed by a dis­course tra­di­tion (in addi­tion to a less vis­i­ble prac­ti­cal exper­tise in work­ing with spe­cif­ic forms of data), the dig­i­tal human­i­ties is, con­tin­ues to be, unit­ed by some­thing else: a love of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy and an opti­mism that, in spite of its dark side, tech­nol­o­gy can help advance the work of inter­pre­ta­tion and edi­fi­ca­tion (as Richard Rorty used to say) that lies at the heart of the human­i­ties.

It’s true—digital human­ists as a group are unit­ed by a shared love of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, not an unself­con­scious tech­nolophil­ia, but nonethe­less a fun­da­men­tal embrace of the pro­tean pow­er of the computer—as algo­rithm, as data­base, as net­work, as media play­er, as mobile plat­form, as desk­top machine—to do things with texts and images and oth­er vehi­cles of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry that can­not (or would not) oth­er­wise be done. What oth­er con­nec­tion is there between mak­er lab his­to­ri­ans and top­ic mod­el­ers from com­put­er sci­ence? Among these and the many oth­er prac­tices asso­ci­at­ed with DH there is no shared par­a­digm in Kuhn’s sense, no replic­a­ble exam­ple of intel­lec­tu­al work that unites all of them. Instead there are many more or less well devel­oped meth­ods, each com­pet­ing for atten­tion and play­ing more or less well with oth­ers, even if cer­tain ideas, such as graph the­o­ry, cross-cut many of them. (Which explains why so many dig­i­tal human­ists are averse to “defin­ing” the dig­i­tal human­i­ties.) Encom­pass­ing all of these is the shared expe­ri­ence of apply­ing some spe­cif­ic dig­i­tal­ly-informed tech­nique to some equal­ly spe­cif­ic inter­pre­tive prob­lem, refract­ed through the humanist’s sense of nuance. (In an ear­li­er piece, I half-jok­ing­ly called this the expe­ri­ence of trans­duc­tive plas­ma—the lim­i­nal, cre­ative play that aris­es when we cross-map the het­ero­ge­neous domains of old and new media.) When dig­i­tal human­ists get togeth­er, we bond over the sto­ries we tell about our expe­ri­ence in this space, a space that con­tin­ues to yield ideas, sur­prise, and joy, even when our efforts fail there, and even as it becomes sur­round­ed by gawk­ers, pick­eters, and the occa­sion­al heck­ler.

Of course, there are crit­ics among dig­i­tal human­ists as well, most notably those right­ly con­cerned about the exclu­siv­i­ty of a com­mu­ni­ty whose mem­bers are pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, male, straight, and Eng­lish-speak­ing (even if the field con­tains many promi­nent women). But note that although some of the crit­i­cisms com­ing from this direc­tion address the deep­er foun­da­tions of dig­i­tal humanities—why this love of technology?—most of them are found­ed on a pri­or valu­ing of the field. For the main con­cern is to open up the dig­i­tal human­i­ties to oth­er regions of the world and to peo­ple whose bod­ies are not white and male. Isabel Gali­na, for exam­ple, speak­ing on behalf of Mex­i­co and of Span­ish, Por­tuguese, and Ital­ian speak­ing dig­i­tal human­ists in gen­er­al, was pre­dom­i­nant­ly con­cerned with issues of access and recog­ni­tion. She did not address the premise of the dig­i­tal human­i­ties, our love of tech­nol­o­gy and our hope in its trans­for­ma­tive effects on the human­i­ties. On the con­trary, her talk showed that the dig­i­tal human­i­ties has become a scarce resource to be shared, a fun­da­men­tal pub­lic good, not a con­ta­gion to be con­tained.

This talk of love is of course meant to illu­mi­nate Willard McCarty’s lec­ture, giv­en on the occa­sion of his acc­cep­tance of the Busa Award at the con­fer­ence. Of the many things touched upon by Willard in that talk—and there were many—his insis­tance that one ought to engage in the dig­i­tal human­i­ties for the love of it was the one thing that ignit­ed after-talk con­ver­sa­tion. “What’s love got to do with it?” tweet­ed one attendee, quot­ing Tina Turn­er, and rais­ing the issue of sex­ism in the field. Oth­ers point­ed out that exploita­tion of love forms the basis of the cur­rent aca­d­e­m­ic serf econ­o­my. But, if I am cor­rect, we dig­i­tal human­ists are already in it for the love of it. We get that. So why the fuss?  Beyond the inevitable gen­er­a­tional con­flict being played out here—between younger for­mal­ly trained dig­i­tal human­ists for whom the very term “aca­d­e­m­ic” has become a con­test­ed cat­e­go­ry (think “alt-ac”) and an old­er self-taught gen­er­a­tion for whom the lib­er­al arts served as a refuge from the insis­tent demands of cap­i­tal and the need to always have a point—there is a anoth­er ques­tion we should be ask­ing our­selves, and which I think lies the heart of what Willard was get­ting at. Giv­en that love has every­thing to do with what we do, the ques­tion becomes, to bor­row from Bo Did­dley, who do you love? What do you love in the dig­i­tal human­i­ties and why and how?

There are many things we love, of course, too many to enu­mer­ate here. But I think one can describe a his­to­ry of DH by cre­at­ing a geneal­o­gy of love inter­ests, and of how love itself has changed over time. McCar­ty did just this in his talk, or at least he pro­duced the out­lines of such a his­to­ry. It goes some­thing like this. In the begin­ning was the computer—not the com­mer­cial prod­uct that has now become a vec­tor of cap­i­tal for­ma­tion and gov­ern­ment control—but the abstract machine that mate­ri­al­ized on cam­pus­es around the world some­time in the 1950s and 1960s and which inspired fascination—the ear­ly signs of love—for both its util­i­ty and its ances­try. Its util­i­ty, we now know, was some­what over­sold at the time. But its ances­try was a glo­ri­ous thing—for here was the mate­r­i­al off­spring, the ever­sion to use Gibson’s term (with com­pli­ments to Steve Jones), of an entire cos­mol­o­gy that gets born in 1948, the year that infor­ma­tion the­o­ry and cyber­net­ics burst onto the pub­lic scence and trans­form sci­ence for­ev­er. To ear­ly dig­i­tal human­ists, the com­put­er was the avatar of an infor­ma­tion­al cos­mol­o­gy (or, if you like, an infor­ma­tion­al imag­i­nary), a move­ment whose ori­gins may be traced at least as far back as Hobbes and Leib­niz and which under­went pro­found devel­op­ment after Kant in the long nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, not only through the work of Bab­bage and Lovelace, but of Laplace, Boole, Gibbs, AT&T, Tur­ing, MuCul­loch, IBM, and many oth­er strands that were to be joined in a new synethe­sis, to a degree not seen since Aris­to­tle, and under whose sign we still live. The love that McCar­ty describes I take to be a con­tin­u­a­tion and mat­u­ra­tion of this fas­ci­na­tion, in which play­ing with com­put­ers to mod­el texts, for exam­ple, becomes a com­bi­na­to­r­i­al glass bead game in which an under­stand­ing of the stuff of mind, of the limen between tex­tu­al mean­ing and machinic causal­i­ty, is at stake.

All of this changed with the advent of the World Wide Web in the ear­ly 1990s. Berners-Lee’s sin­gu­lar inven­tion, the social link—added to a charged mix of per­va­sive per­son­al com­put­ing, the dereg­u­la­tion of the Inter­net (Al Gore’s con­tri­bu­tion), and a healthy BBS network—changed every­thing. For where­as before this event the com­put­er could remain as much an object of con­tem­pla­tion as a tool for get­ting work done, from this point on its social util­i­ty as a node in a free, instan­ta­neous, and gloa­bal pub­lish­ing net­work would dwarf every­thing else. At this point, to bor­row Sun’s mot­to, the net­work became the com­put­er. The com­put­er qua comptuer became sub­li­mat­ed to the human-com­put­er net­work as a dom­i­nant social form, a sphere of exchange that would end up reshap­ing every­thing from com­merce to con­scious­ness, pre­cip­i­tat­ing its own forms of cul­ture and modes of social orga­ni­za­tion. Open Source, for exam­ple, far from being just a new way of pro­duc­ing soft­ware (with roots in a decades-old free soft­ware cul­ture), became an eth­ic and a par­a­digm for social inter­ac­tion of all kinds, from col­lab­o­ra­tive author­ing to every­thing that would even­tu­al­ly be dubbed “2.0.” What I heard McCar­ty say is that when the Web hap­pened, things shift­ed rad­i­cal­ly for those in human­i­ties com­put­ing, away from a con­cern for com­pu­ta­tion and mod­el­ing and toward mass dig­i­ti­za­tion, archive build­ing, blog­ging, and social net­work­ing. Lost in tran­si­tion was an appre­ci­a­tion of the com­put­er itself, the abstract and uni­ver­sal machine, its his­tor­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance as a won­der­ful prob­lem, which after all had become a ver­tex among a set of edges.

Regard­ing consciousness—why do we think so eas­i­ly and nat­u­ral­ly in terms of net­works now? Why are they the coin of the realm, to such a point where just show­ing a force direct­ed graph becomes an end­point in an argu­ment, a cog­ni­tive rest­ing place? The sym­bol­ic form of the net­work has been around for some time. Mary Dou­glas, of How Insti­tu­tions Think, would argue that it is our lived social expe­ri­ence of the net­work that pre­dis­pos­es us to think this way.

You can see that there are at least two modes of affec­tion here, oper­at­ing at dif­fer­ent lev­els in the same sys­tem and relat­ing to two great phas­es in the his­to­ry of the dig­i­tal human­i­ties. The love that McCar­ty declares is a Hei­deg­ger­ian care in which the machine is the hori­zon of the inter­pre­ta­tion, if we under­stand “machine” to be some­thing that encom­pass­es atoms, genes, bod­ies, soci­eties, and com­put­ers, emer­gent metasta­bil­i­ties out of which appear prop­er­ties of agency and mind. It is the great Idea, mate­ri­al­ized and evolv­ing, that stands before us in this moment. It is new and resists reduc­tion to the old tropes of pow­er, desire, class, even play. In many ways, this con­cern is very close to Harraway’s project, which explores the same prob­lemet­ic (as we used to say) but with a good deal more suspicion—the machine, for those fields of rep­re­sen­ta­tion which seek to encom­pass it, is a “dan­ger­ous thing,” to echo Lakoff.

Our new mode of love is dif­fer­ent. Ours is a hap­py instru­men­tal­ism, a bright-col­ored prag­ma­tism buoyed by the cachet of the Open Source ethos that spawned it, and inher­it­ing the latter’s social opti­misim and implic­it moral supe­ri­or­i­ty vis-à-vis neolib­er­al cor­po­ratism. For us, tech­nol­o­gy is less of a sacred flame and more of a camp fire; we embrace it for its play­ful util­i­ty and social engage­ment, not for its grav­i­tas and orac­u­lar pow­er. We cel­e­brate the suc­cess­es that quan­tit­tive and dig­i­tal meth­ods have in illu­mi­nat­ing the nature of his­tor­i­cal sources (such as Homer), but we do not typ­i­cal­ly sub­mit these meth­ods to the same through-going cri­tique that we apply to the sources them­selves. (In all of the talks and posters pre­sent­ed at DH 2013, I think only one even came close to being crit­i­cal of tech­nol­o­gy itself—one on “Google’s pros­the­sis,” which takes seri­ous­ly the fact that Google is in the busi­ness of adver­tis­ing more than any­thing else.)

I do not mean to sug­gest that human­i­ties com­put­ing did not pos­sess its own kind of instru­men­tal­ism. The gen­er­al sense one gets in read­ing the work of Sper­berg-McQueen, Ren­ear, and Unsworth, to cite a few of the lumi­nar­ies from the peri­od in which I dis­cov­ered DH, is a deep respect for com­put­er sci­ence and for the ana­lyt­i­cal con­cepts that came along with it—context-free gram­mars, first-order log­ic, and knowl­edge rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Unlike, for exam­ple, Lucy Such­man and Diana Forsythe, two anthro­pol­o­gists who pio­neered ethno­graph­i­cal­ly-informed cri­tiques of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, these thinkers regard com­put­er sci­ence as a fun­da­men­tal good, a new frame with­in which to inves­ti­gate long­stand­ing issues in the study of texts and lit­er­a­ture. Which is not to say that they accept­ed the frame at face val­ue. Rather, any cri­tique would emerge in eval­u­at­ing how well these meth­ods  han­dle the com­plex­i­ties of human­is­tic data. And this is very close to where we are now. But the great dif­fer­ence between then and now is that we are much less philo­soph­i­cal.

Nor do I mean to sug­gest that dig­i­tal human­ists have a blind love of tech­nol­o­gy, a gung-ho technophil­ia that is blind to its lim­i­ta­tions and poten­tial evils. For one thing, we dig­i­tal human­ists are picky about the tech­nolo­gies we love. Gam­ing has still not made its way to the cen­ter of the tent, and rela­tion­al databases—unless buried under the stack of a Rails appli­ca­tion, where they are domes­ti­cat­ed and dressed to behave like object models—remains less cool than non-SQL alter­na­tives. The heart of the dig­i­tal human­i­ties remains in the tex­tu­al edi­tion and the archive and this bias still exerts a pro­found influ­ence on what gets in and what stays out. For anoth­er thing, DH has in recent years become more and more close­ly allied with Media Stud­ies, a field that spe­cial­izes in the social cri­tique of tech­nol­o­gy on the one hand and empha­sizes its aes­thet­ic dimen­sion on the oth­er. If the mar­riage goes through, I expect to see hybrid forms of dig­i­tal human­i­ties work in which cri­tique dri­ves method as much as method dri­ves research.

In the end, I think Willard’s point comes down to this: human­i­ties com­put­ing was phi­los­o­phy by oth­er means; dig­i­tal human­i­ties is post-philo­soph­i­cal. Now that we have reached a cer­tain lev­el of suc­cess, we dig­i­tal human­ists would do well to con­sid­er how we may become more philo­soph­i­cal, remem­ber­ing that the first half of that word is love.

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