The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

About the book by Steven E. Jones. See the publisher's page and Amazon page for the book. Read the Introduction.

Oct 7

Revisiting the Site of Pixel Pour

I recently paid a visit to the site of Kelly Goeller’s brilliant 2008 installation, Pixel Pour on 9th Street in New York City. The artist’s own photo of the ephemeral work graces the cover of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities.

When I give talks, it’s one of the images from the slides that people always want to discuss. Pixel Pour was dismantled within days in April 2008 and no trace of the colorful pixelated water remains.

The building in Greenwich Village where it was installed was once a branch of the Hebrew Technical Institute, a vocational high school that closed in 1939 (Wikipedia says). When I stopped by, the vent pipe had a graffiti sticker on it commenting on the self-surveillance state (“If you see ONLY. Say Something”), and I noticed another addition: one of those grey rectangular boxes you see around the city labeled DEP, for Department of Environmental Protection.

This is a sensor, a Meter Transmission Unit, part of a 2008 New York City program (it must have been installed soon after the artwork was removed), used for capturing data from water meters and transmitting it to data-collection nodes and the DEP, reportedly to make billing more accurate and to send automated alerts of leaks and malfunctions.

In other words, despite the removal of Pixel Pour, the site itself couldn’t have done a better job of illustrating the book’s focus (and, in my reading, a theme of Pixel Pour, as well)—the eversion of the data network out into the physical environment, for good and ill. The point of the book isn’t at all to celebrate this eversion, but to call attention to it as part of the conditions for the emergence of the new Digital Humanities, which happened at around the time Pixel Pour was installed, and to consider what DH might do in response to such changes in the world we move through every day.

Aug 28

Review of EDH by Roger Whitson

Roger Whitson of Washington State University has just reviewed The Emergence of the Digital Humanities on his site. Among other insights, Whitson detects a potential chiming of “eversion” and “emergence” that the editor and I did in fact notice when coming up with the title, and he embeds a famous clip of Louis C.K. riffing on technology to get at popular reactions to the eversion. He also thoughtfully points out that the book’s arguments about the social nature of the network sometimes work against its own calls for respecting the widespread alien-feeling, uncanny experience of the eversion today. In the end, Whitson says the book is “a true gift” and that it “uncannily explained [his] own experience and thinking.”

Jul 31

EDH in Reviews in History

The Emergence of DH was just thoroughly reviewed in Reviews in History by James Baker, who’s a historian and a Curator in the Digital Research team at the British Library. It’s particularly interesting to see a historian’s view, and the review is quite positive. Baker’s right, though, to point to my own background in literary and cultural studies and to suggest that the emergence could be “mapped more widely,” including “work clustered around centres, faculties, departments and libraries across Europe, Australia, South America, India, work undertaken by historians, geographers, musicologists, archaeologists, linguists, and art historians, as well as literary and new media scholars.” Some of that mapping is already underway by other scholars, and I look forward to seeing more of it in the future.

Feb 22

Digital Shakespeares on EDH

A good, clear, brief summary and review of EDH was posted last month by Dr. Erin Sullivan on her Digital Shakespeares blog. The author aptly paraphrases the book’s main premise, that “digital life is material, located, and social, and most fundamentally that it can no longer be clearly separated from what we might be tempted to call ‘real life’. Virtuality … is not a very useful way of thinking about what the digital is anymore, seeing as how digital tools are so enmeshed in so many very real aspects of modern daily life.” Then she connects that thesis to her own experience, so familiar to many of us these days, with mixed-reality teaching:

These questions are put into sharper relief this week as my university resumes teaching, and I find myself giving the same lectures and leading the same seminars on-site for campus students and online for distance learning ones. My approach has always been to combine and blend the two groups as much as possible, extending the on-site into the online, and the online into the on-site. But it would be silly to say that differences don’t remain. Which makes me wonder, are there limits to eversion, or is it simply a matter of time?
It’s my guess that the sense of teeming multidimensionality, of living in a mixed reality, isn’t being gradually reduced by the eversion, but that the “limits” are always being redrawn at different scales as our perception of them changes. It’s a messy, social process, in other words, so combine and blend.

Feb 15

British Library blog cites EDH

The Digital Scholarship blog at the British Library recently cited EDH in explaining the current mixed-reality environment of the Library itself:

… scholarship is responding to massive changes in the world around us. Not only has the distance between online and offline all but disintegrated – just think how archaic the once ubiquitous phrases ‘log-on’ and ‘cyberspace’ sound today – but this lifestyle shift has had massive repercussions for academic research. As Steven Jones eloquently puts it:
The emergence of the new digital humanities isn’t an isolated academic phenomenon. The institutional and disciplinary changes are part of a larger cultural shift, inside and outside the academy, a rapid cycle of emergence and convergence in technology and culture.
Just look at the British Library. Whilst we still collect, preserve and provide access to all manner of physical stuff, over the last two decades we have become a vast resource of digital objects. These data range from digitised text, sound, visual, and philatelic material, to born-digital collections of personal archives and web content: so data representing both our past and our present. Together these data are transforming research and setting the agenda for future research, with new tools and computational techniques used to wrangle, process, share and analyse these data generating new discoveries and new understanding in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Feb 11

Lovecraft in EDH

I’m pleased to see that David Haden’s blog on H.P. Lovecraft, Tentaclii, recently noted that chapter 2 of The Emergence of the Digital Humanities “[h]as several pages on ideas of ‘Lovecraftian dimensionality’ in relation to knowledge.” Well put. In fact, I see in Lovecraft—as he’s been adopted by science fiction and geek culture in general in our own time—as a kind of “premediation” (to use Richard Grusin’s term) of the kind of parallel-universes, multidimensional feeling often associated today with the Internet and its eversion (as William Gibson puts it).

Jan 16

EDH is ATG Book of the Week

The Emergence of the Digital Humanities was named book of the week this week by the publishing and libraries journal, Against The Grain.

Jan 11
At the Routledge booth, MLA 2014, Chicago.

At the Routledge booth, MLA 2014, Chicago.

Dec 9

Talk at Indiana University’s CATAPULT center

A thoughtful post by Justin Hodgson follows up on a recent talk I gave at Indiana University.

My sincere thanks to everyone who attended and to the CATAPULT Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Analysis of Texts for inviting me. It was good to see friends there from both textual studies and DH.

As Justin notes, the conventions of book publication dates make it look as though The Emergence of the Digital Humanities has appeared, as if though some kind of wormhole, from the near future (2014). In fact, given all the generous and interesting responses to the book I’ve already experienced, August seems like only yesterday.

Oct 29

Against the Smart City

Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, has a new “pamphlet” out, Against the Smart City, a kind of first installment of a larger book in progress, The City is Here for You To Use. It’s a valuable polemic against the rhetoric of “the smart city” as presented especially in the marketing and publicity of corporate urban planning projects based on ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things. Like William Gibson, Greenfield recognizes the importance of a shift, a new context for understanding such technologies (and the hype surrounding them), what Gibson calls the eversion of cyberspace.

In an earlier time, during a period in which the physical world and the virtual were widely believed to be separate and autonomous spheres of being, this lapse of sensitivity [on the part of “smart city” planners] might have passed without comment. Both history and whatever urban texture that history gave rise to were thought of as impediments, sources of friction. things that might safely be discarded.
In the last decade or so, he says, things changed.

But sometime between the Clinton administration’s 2000 decision to offer a clean GPS signal to non-military operators and the rise of Facebook as clearinghouse for unitary identity, circa 2008, the virtual was folded back onto the physical very decisively. In the process, much of what had once “passed into cyberspace” passed right back, if it had ever truly left. Far from dematerializing the self into a permanent state of “bodyless exultation,” our technologies of biometric recognition now increasingly moor it in and to the individual body. And as the world has, block by block and building by building, been translated into ones and zeroes—both mapped in ultra-high resolution by Google’s fleet of Street View cars, and parceled into discrete, geocoded Foursquare venues—we can see that the virtual realm those embodied selves occupy is one largely layered onto the actual, even at many points coextensive with it. As they have always been, then, the urban design challenges we find ourselves confronting in the networked era remain to a very great degree those associated with the movement of real bodies through real spaces. [Kindle edn., loc. 305]
“Layered onto the actual” is right, which is why I don’t think the metaphor of the world’s being “translated into ones and zeroes” really serves the argument. As Greenfield said in the first place, it’s no longer assumed that the physical and the virtual are “separate spheres of being.” What Street View cars are doing is more like tagging for their own use (in both the markup and graffiti sense) an already data-soaked environment. Real spaces, with real radio waves radiating out from those houses, WiFi to be snooped on while wardriving. Anyway, it’s a stimulating and important book (or pamphlet).

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