26 April 2009

Lessons Learned Recently, in Bullets: MiT6 + Dan Dennett

Media in Transition 6 is near its end. Here's what I learned:
  • Some librarians still think the kids these days aren't learning their History; but most people know this is ridiculous.
  • Digital Humanities definitely needs more documentation. And interface design.
  • Andrew Piper's forthcoming book Dreaming in Books will, in fact, be as awesome as it sounds.
  • In attempting to resurrect Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, the Gutenberg Parenthesis idea has created a zombie. Ugly, but easy to kill.
And here's what I learned from a recent talk by Daniel Dennett on cultural evolution and the brain as software:
  • It isn't necessary to define culture to talk about culture as if you have.
  • Despite its obvious relevance, media studies is all but absent from the conversation on memetic cultural evolution.
  • Thinkos are like typos, but for ideas. As in: The Gutenberg Parenthesis is a thinko.
  • Dennett has a charming way of deflecting all criticism. Watch and learn.
  • Steven Pinker iz smartt. Droooool.

18 April 2009

Derrida's Computer

I wrote more and more 'straight onto' the machine: first the mechanical typewriter; then the electric typewriter, in 1979; then finally the computer, around 1986 or 1987. I can't do without it any more now, this little Mac, especially when I'm working at home; I can't even remember or understand how I was able to get on before without it. It's a quite different kind of getting going, a quite different exercise of 'getting to work'. I don't know whether the electric typewriter or the computer make the text 'too readable' and 'too clear' for us. The volume, the unfolding of the operation, obeys another organigram, another organology. I don't feel the interposition of the machine as a sort of progress in transparency, univocity, or easiness. Rather, we are participating in a partly new plot.
// Jacques Derrida, from "The Word Processor" in The Paper Machine

17 April 2009

Fore-edge Paintings on Books

The Boston Public Library has digitized images of fore-edge paintings on books.

What a great way of finding that third dimension on a page of paper.

16 April 2009

Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface

I'm finishing up a paper with my friend and colleague Madeleine Clare Elish*: "Acts of Translation: Digital Humanities and the Archive Interface." We'll be presenting it in about at week at the conference Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission. Here's a little taste from our latest draft:
From the successes of Project Bamboo to the formation of an Office for Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, myriad institutions, scholars and technologists have recently come together to develop standards for collaborating in digital spaces across the humanities. Indeed, this shared commitment across multiple disciplines has led many to describe Digital Humanities as a discipline in its own right, encompassing aspects of the library sciences, computer sciences and, of course, the humanities.

Notably underrepresented within the field are the standards and practices of visual design. As Johanna Drucker has observed, "many of the digital humanists I’ve encountered treat graphic design as a kind of accessorizing exercise, a dressing-up of information for public presentation after the real work of analysis has been put into the content model, data structure, or processing algorithm" (Drucker online). Drucker traces this attitude to the "long-standing tensions between images and text-based forms of knowledge production" within Western philosophy (Drucker) – a tension iterated in the concept of code and platform as mere containers for, rather than co-producers of, meaning. On a practical level, these boundaries are inscribed onto a division of labor between humanists – "scholars" who produce intellectual content but have few, if any, programming skills – and technologists who encode content without, it is presumed, participating in its production. Although most developers have some training in visual design, their skills are often subordinate to the scholar’s desired functionalities.
We go on to argue for the value of visual design in Digital Humanities:
Through convention, the user "drags" and "drops" items in a list, or "expands" and "collapses" browsing facets to "traverse" metadata, conceptualizing haptic movement to construct a narrative around underlying data structure. ... More than simply organizing materials on a screen, then, visual design negotiates a constant exchange of meaning between the grammar of HCI and the database or markup language. These mediations -- what we are calling acts of translation -- both open and foreclose interpretive possibilities, influencing the way scholars and students relate to the materials they study.
We explore these acts of translation in three case studies: NINES, the CHNM's Object of History, and SFMOMA's ArtScope.

Some of the more interesting empirical evidence we came across during our research didn't make it into the paper . . . like the fact that much-lauded 2006 ACLS report Our Cultural Commonwealth didn't include any prominent programmers or designers on its commission or among its commission advisors; nor does it address technologists as one of its many audiences, although the report -- basically on the state of digitizing cultural heritage artifacts -- clearly relates to the concerns of those that design and produce digital technologies. Certainly an enormous amount of good and even amazing things have come out of that report; but the absence perhaps speaks to the systemic division of labor that is still, still present in most DH labs and projects.

In the same vein, there are an astonishing number of practically unnavigable DH projects. The Rossetti Archive comes to mind. Imagine I want to get to Rossetti's Ballads and Sonnets (1881). It takes me at least four (really, five) clicks and three long pages of text to get to the object itself, following the confusing path Books Exhibit --> Collections Intro --> Browse Collection --> Document --> IMAGES --> Transcript (see the top of the image below). Once I get to facsimiles I want, the images are simply lined down the center of the screen, difficult to browse.

These difficult-to-traverse page hierarchies hide all the juicy stuff -- the images -- while the archive's organizational structures are opaque and hard to traverse. For instance, alphabetic lists work pretty well in a library; not so much on the web.

The Rossetti Archive has been an amazing, inspiring project, one of the first I used and studied as a student of Digital Humanities. It goes without saying that Jerome McGann and the staff on the project are pioneers in the field -- hell, we might not have a field of DH without them. But it's worth taking a step back and considering it and all DH projects not as a scholar editing and compiling artifacts and metadata, but as a user trying to find them. It forms a very different picture.

From my experience in a DH lab, the typical workflow for most projects is: gather and analysis the data you want to present; figure out what you want to emphasize within that data set; lay out the functionalities the user can perform on that data; and, finally, design the interface. From a visual design perspective, this is all backwards -- first you figure out themes, your Big Picture, your story you want to tell with the visual interface; then you bring the actual data into the picture. Of course, this approach is very different from the scholarly research process in the humanities -- but then it has to be different. We're dealing with a different production medium.

None of the above has made it into my paper with Madeleine, but it's been bouncing around the back of my skull as we pass drafts back and forth. If a technologically competent scholar willing and able to use DH projects gets frustrated with the interface designs, how can we expect to entice others, especially non-scholars and those who couldn't otherwise access these materials?

* Madeleine has been a brilliant collaborator, contributing immensely to my own thinking on this and so many topics. If I say anything interesting about Digital Humanities in the next few weeks, she deserves co-authorship. Without her, I'd still be sputtering on about my little literary wheel machines, not knowing a thing about visual design. As in: whut, colors and shapes and pretty things make people do stuff online?

** We're obviously not the first to make this point. Johanna Drucker and Matthew Kirschenbaum have both talked about the importance of interface design in DH, and Lev Manovich was an early and important figure in the field.

11 April 2009

final draft of my thesis is up!

So here it is: a final draft of the web version of my thesis, as submitted for my defense on Friday.

There are glitches, yes. And 1/3 of the text is either not online, or not yet written. And the hover-over on the citations are not entered. Nor are the translations. And I haven't debugged it for IE so please, please use FireFox or Safari if you take a peek. But damnit, I'm close.

As I mentioned previously, my research explores the art of combination as a media topos across different periods, focusing in particular on actual mechanisms or machines for generating text. Really, it argues for an understanding of reading and writing as two sides of the same coin -- interlocked, material practices interfacing with a particular platform. Rather than squeezing and pinching and prodding a rather untraditional media archaeology into a rather traditional 70-page thesis, I've created a website that enacts the very mechanisms I investigate, involving the reader in cutting up and recombining the text to produce meaning. Here's what it looks like:

The four square design is, first and foremost, a product of screen realty -- my original design added a new block with each click, creating this sprawling, unmanagable grid of flippable, changeable texts -- but second, an echo of the cut-up methods of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, who would slice a page into four equal parts and remix them to create a new text. Although I've designed the outcome of each link, there's no set order in which to explore; you can go clockwise, counterclockwise, or just jump back and forth between two blocks.

The grid on the left side of the screen is a visual map to help orient you in the text. (Because this is a draft, not all of the texts have been assigned a block on the grid.) Hovering over different sections will tell you which topics are being explored, so you can see what you've covered and where you still have to travel. Clicking on any block in the grid removes all four blocks on your screen and starts you over in the top left corner. And, finally, the color coding of the blocks links to the shadow behind each square to indicate when you've jumped to a new topic.

Every block that slides onto your screen is added to "Your Text" at the bottom of the screen, generating a linear version the thesis. The colored blocks link back to the themes above to create a layering effect -- as if the linear text itself is an archaeological site, depositing meaning.

I hesitate to share this publicly, because the writing is still very much in progress. For instance, although the section on digital poetry looks small, it isn't -- I just haven't added those texts to the visual map yet. So while I welcome and want feedback on the website design and functionality, please know that what you're reading is a draft.

That being said, what do you think? Am I insane? Or is this actually read-able?

10 April 2009


. . I've just officially accepted at Duke, where I'll be pursuing a PhD in English next year. It was one of the more difficult decisions I've had to make personally and professionally, but I feel good about it.

I need to start preparing myself for North Carolina. And: North Carolina needs to start preparing itself for us. The Trettien-Torres Duo Does Durham not a story I thought I'd find myself writing, or even a narrative whose potential existed until very recently. In my mind, it already has a very Dr. Caligari vibe.

The Residue of the Past, Part IV

Walter Benjamin, from Illuminations:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. (254)

(Anima est vita corporis, una in toto. From Comenius' Orbis pictus (1658), snagged from here.)

The Residue of the Past, Part III

Raymond Williams, from Marxism and Literature:
The residual, by definition, has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practised on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social and cultural institution or formation. (122)

04 April 2009

Type-A INTJ masochism

Not dead yet -- but close.

If you'll indulge a little whining . . I do not recommend attempting to finish a Masters thesis while co-writing two papers, taking a class at Harvard, preparing two presentations for a conference, finishing grant proposals, and working fifteen hours a week. Oh! And buying a house that needs renovations. "A handy-(wo)man's fixer upper!"

I'm a Type-A masochist. There's solace in the fact that most of the academic blogs I follow aren't updating, either.