How we organise, read and engage with information has changed radically.
We are in the midst of a significant technological shift, moving from print to digital as our primary information management system.
Image: Manchester City Library – Flickr; CC
In 2004, McGann drew comparison of the rise in digital communication to the impact of the printing press in the 15th century. He identifies that we are again in a period where there is an ‘upheaval of materials, means and modes of knowledge production. (McGann, 2004)
Examining what this upheaval means in practice, how do we respond to it and inform its emergence, is central to digital humanities enquiry and discourse. We are engaged in a collective process of designing and developing an entirely new set of apparatus for organising our collective knowledge. The question is how are we doing this.
McGann’s forecast that,
“the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be re-edited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination.”
This is fast becoming a reality. According to Wikipedia, as of October 2015, the Google Books number of scanned book titles was over 25 million.
From a technological perspective, there is a need to adopt and work within common protocol and practices, to create these repositories and make it possible to search and retrieve information in a meaningful way. There are therefore a number of key organisations that focus on this need to develop and maintain standards and principles for practice.
Standards and Principles
The Word Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an organisation responsible for the ongoing development of the WWW. They describe themselves as ‘an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web.’ (W3C) Their website, www.W3C.org, is an essential resource and community practice.
Their Strategic Highlight Reports illustrate the breadth of their work. The most recent report (“W3C Strategic Highlights”, 2017) shows that this includes continued development of HTML (Hypertext markup language) and Web of Data; working groups established towards meeting industry needs, for example on digital publishing, media and entertainment and the internet of things; and a focus on issues such as security, privacy, identity and accessibility.
The development of shared standards is important for many reasons, but the critical ones are encapsulated by the FAIR Principles – that is that digital information and data on the web should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Retrievable. (Hagstrom, 2014) The acronym FAIR also reflects an ethos to ensuring that the world wide web is an endeavour that maximises economic and social value. (OECD, 2017)
These standards and frameworks provide the necessary structures and stability needed to realise the technical functionality of the digital information environments.
Designing Digital Apparatus
McGann argues that developing effective apparatus in the digital environment can learn much from complex information systems used in bibliographic practices. He suggests that ‘bibliography and the sociology of texts are key points of departure for anyone who wants to understand and design digital environments.’(McGann, 2004)
Hall goes further, suggesting we are moving from a grammatical to a post-literary period. He quotes Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, in saying that ‘letter form was just a hack’. He points to tools like Snapchat that are picture-based and more like aural than written communication in their transience. Overall, he challenges the authority of author, individual subjectivity and proprietary nature of writing. (Hall, 2017)
As we develop digital infrastructures, we must balance practical convenience with a critical awareness of the political, epistemological and ontological perspectives we perpetuate within the apparatus we employ.
As Gregory Bateson illustrates, in this excerpt from An Ecology of Mind, there may be multiple ways to describe a thing and “the division of things into parts tends to be a device of convenience.” (Nora Bateson, 2010)
Extract from An Ecology of Mind; YouTube
Posner raises this question and is critical of the adoption of “infrastructure, data models, and visual rhetoric from other areas” by digital humanities (Posner, 2015). She highlights for example, how the Union List of Artist Names (ULAN), whilst being an important tool and resource to share and network information across institutions, records gender as binary. This understanding of gender does little justice to contemporary discourse on gender and identity.
She also calls out the use of Google Maps within digital humanities, “…which powers a lot of our projects. Many have observed — I’m certainly not the first — that this technology enshrines a Cartesian model of space that derives directly from a colonialist project of empire-building.” (Posner, 2015)
Another critique is that TEI tagnames are English. Priani raises questions around the epistemological, cultural and political implications of using one language within another for its digital representation (Priani, 2017).
The issue, as Posner succinctly puts it,
“…is that, technically speaking, we frankly haven’t really figured out how to deal with categories like gender that aren’t binary or one-dimensional or stable.”
Hall’s approach is a response to this challenge. He describes the value and importance of creative digital practices that deliberately seek to be less stable, less comfortable, less convenient – ‘performative interventions’ that seek to make things land in unexpected places. In contrast to making work findable, The Post Office is deliberately named to be difficult to find, to be disruptive. (Hall, 2017) You can find out more about Hall and his practice here.
For digital humanities this is the key challenge going forward. We need to find ways to respond to both the need for structure and shared operating frameworks and the need for disruptive creative practice.
Hagstrom, S., 2014. The FAIR Data Principles [WWW Document]. FORCE11. URL https://www.force11.org/group/fairgroup/fairprinciples (accessed 12.3.17).
Hall, G., 2017. Masked Media: On Open Humanities, Living Books and Pirate Philosophy.
Hayles, N.K., 2010. How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine. MLA ADE Bull. Number 150, 62–79.
McGann, J., 2004. A Note on the Current State of Humanities Scholarship on JSTOR. Crit. Inq., Winter 2004 30, 409–413.
Nora Bateson, 2010. An Ecology of Mind – Documentary on Gregory Bateson.
OECD, 2017. Maximising the economic and social value of data – OECD [WWW Document]. URL http://www.oecd.org/internet/enhanced-data-access.htm (accessed 12.3.17).
Posner, M., 2015. What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. Miriam Posner039s Blog.
Priani, E., 2017. A language embedded in another. Markup with TEI. (English) | Language Acts and Worldmaking [WWW Document]. URL https://languageacts.org/blog/language-embedded-another-markup-tei-en/ (accessed 10.30.17).
W3C Strategic Highlights – November 2017 [WWW Document], 2017. URL https://www.w3.org/2017/11/w3c-highlights/ (accessed 12.3.17).
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://www.w3.org/ (accessed 12.3.17).