I found this article by the BBC in January of this year, and I’m glad I bookmarked it then. I finished one of my recent posts with a declaration of advocacy for the DH, but it is important to remember that not everybody feels this way. This article talks about the ever-burgeoning influence of social media on all aspects of modern life. What I really like about this article is how the author’s tone is by turns disapproving, fearful, stimulated and intrigued. Take a look at one of his introductory sentences:
“Increasing amounts of our life will be controlled with our mobiles in 2013. One by one, bank cards, loyalty cards, travel cards and boarding passes are being sucked out of our physical wallets and becoming integrated into smartphone software.”
Although it could be a simple statement of fact, there is a hint of apprehension in the idea of something reassuringly concrete, like a boarding pass, is being transferred from paper to a series of 1s and 0s, unreadable by humans. And yet who can deny the bare convenience of such a system?
It’s not just that we are addicted to this fast, easily digestible, accessible information – it’s that we are being encouraged to become even more so by phone manufacturers and the brands which mobile adverts represent. When techniques or strategies to keep us hooked to mobile technology are being built into the very devices we use, they become harder to recognise and resist or even acknowledge. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is honestly impossible to predict; it is the end of November 2013, and digital addiction clinics have not yet materialised in the UK, but some of the author’s other predictions are such a part of everyday life it is already hard to imagine life without them.
It reminds me a lot of Charlie Brooker‘s dark Channel 4 mini-series Black Mirror, which also explores this fine line between rushing to embrace technology, and the fear of it overwhelming our lives in an ultimately negative way. The more… mature among my readers might find it reminds them of the 60s show The Twilight Zone. In one episode, it examines the danse macabre reality TV show contestants must contort their way through to gain approval by the masses. In another, the viewer is a helpless spectator to the way a fictional British government negotiates a grotesque “trial by Twitter” of the British Prime Minister, like a modern Greek tragedy.
Some of the episodes are set in a future perhaps 10 or 20 years away;others could easily happen tomorrow. Brooker, an English comedian known for his sardonic and nihilist wit, explains his vision in this Guardian article. Here, like Newman in the BBC article, he talks about “technology… as a drug” and the “area between delight and discomfort”. The enigmatic title of his series is also explained.
I really do recommend Black Mirror, just for the way it encourages the viewer to think about technology. I would advise you to watch it with a loved one because you will want to hug somebody after it’s all over, believe me. I won’t give away any endings, but those who are curious about its philosophical premise might want to pursue this article (spoiler alert!)
This post may at first seem unrelated, but the connection with the digital humanities is palpable. Many humanities academics share this feeling of unease about incorporating technology into their more traditional methods, fearing it will render their work obsolete or irrelevant. Techniques utilised in the DH like OCR, distant reading, and macroanalysis can work fruitfully alongside other, more familiar, methodologies like close reading and linguistic analysis, but it has in places been treated with hostility and suspicion. One might say that the humanities has long fostered a “cultivation of subjectivity”, where the individual critic asserts themselves through their apparent genius, unchallenged. In other words, we ‘take their word for it’, that what they say if not true, must have some weight. This might go some way to explaining why DH methods are slow to engage with some academics. Simply it might be a fear for their subject, that something might be ‘lost’ if books are fed to a virtual machine, which reduces them to strings of words.
Technologies allow scholars to examine these claims statistically and on a huge scale - imagine being able to search all the works of James Joyce for instances of the word ‘rhythm’ to assess whether Joyce really was as musical as it has long been believed. One of the assertions held dear in the heart of literary critics is that the Victorians, obsessed with origins and heritage, pioneered and cherished the autobiography. Thanks to DH techniques, one could for instance search the entire corpus of works published under Queen Victoria for the word ‘biography’, ‘me’, ‘I’, and so on to test this claim. You don’t have to imagine it, because it’s being done now.
Often it seems to me that many people focus on the ‘D’ of ‘DH’. They think of it either as some magical solution which can salvage the humanities from cuts in funding, or as a soulless machinisation of letters and words into binary and HTML. Neither is wholly representative. Too often, critics attack the ‘D’ and forget the ‘H’: in a truly successful digital humanities project, one will find the seamless integration of the human component and the technological one. The ‘digital humanities’ merely signal the cultivation of new methods, allowing the modern scholar many more channels of investigation at her disposal.
Jockers, Matthew. ‘On Distant Reading and Macroanalysis.’ (01 Jul 2011). Web.
Schulz, Kathryn. ‘What is Distant Reading?’ (24 Jun 2011). Web.
ABBYY Finereader 11, ‘What is OCR?’ article. Web.
Bohannon, John. ‘Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies.’ Science. 330 (17 Dec 2010). Web. 23 Sept 2011.