Essential File Types for Understanding Digital Culture
A Roundup of Community Ideas

A few weeks ago I wrote about studying digital culture through the lens of specific file types. In the fall I’m teaching DIG 101 (Introduction to Digital Studies)—an amorphous course that is part new media studies, part digital humanities, part science and technology studies. I was imagining spending a week on, say, something like GIFs as way to understand Internet culture. My question is, what other file types could be similarly productive to explore?

That short post generated great ideas in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. To make things easier to find again (for me and others), here are just some of the file type ideas that bubbled to the surface:

PDF

As commentator Sam Popowich put it, “love it or hate it” PDFs are everywhere. Ryan Cordell pointed out that Lisa Gitelman has a chapter devoted to PDFs in Paper Knowledge. Gitelman is exactly the kind of scholar I want undergraduates to read. Clear, perceptive, uncovering seemingly archaic history and showing why it matters.

WAD

Quite a few people suggested WADs, composite files made up sounds, sprites, graphics, level information, and other digital assets for PC games. Doom popularized WADs, but PC games continue to use similar composite files. You can use tools like GCFScape to unpack these files, and they lend themselves to digital forensic lab work in the classroom. Every time I teach Gone Home, for example, students explore unpacked sound and graphic files. It’s an alternative way of experiencing the game. My own research digging to WADS to find misogynistic game developer comments could come into play here too.

JPG

At first I thought studying JPGs would be redundant if GIFs are already on the table. Allison Parrish and Jeff Thompson make a strong case for JPGs though: they organize information differently, compress differently, and of course, are glitchable. Like PDFs, their very ubiquity renders them invisible as file types, especially to students who have grown up carrying a camera with them at all times.

EXIF

Vika Zafrin and Tim Owens recommended EXIF, one of the few file types I hadn’t already considered as a possibility. Technically I guess EXIF is a metadata standard, not a file type per se, but the relationship between metadata and data is crucial to understand, and EXIF can get us there. Plus, we can talk about privacy, tracking, and my colleague Owen Mundy’s fantastic I Know Where Your Cat Lives project.

Stigmatized File Types

@TopLeftBrick mentioned NFO files and Finn Arne Jørgensen brought up .torrent files, both of which belong to the world of pirated games, software, and media. Jason Mittell similarly suggested another what I call stigmatized file type:

Before the rise of HTML5, YouTube videos were Flash files (FLV = Flash Video), and there were (and are) tricks to downloading these videos to watch offline. But it was a format you weren’t supposed to encounter; YouTube strove to make streaming seamless, hiding the actual video file. I would love to spend some time in DIG 101 studying all of these stigmatized file types, not so much to understand the technical features of the file formats themselves, but to better understand the cultural rules that influence the circulation of knowledge.

The Big Picture

The above list is certainly incomplete. And leaves off the file types that originally inspired this idea (MP3s, GIFs, HTML, and JSON). But it’s a great start. It’s also important to zoom out and see the big picture. To this end, Amelia Acker pointed me toward this surprisingly philosophical technical report from Microsoft Research: “What is a File?”

Indeed, what is a file and what do they mean is something we’ll be asking in DIG 101.

Studying Digital Culture through File Types

I am revamping “Introduction to Digital Studies,” my program’s overview of digital culture, creativity, and methodology. One approach is to partially organize the class around file types, the idea being that a close reading of certain file types can help us better understand contemporary culture, both online and off.

It’s a bit like Raymond William’s Keywords, except with file types. A few of the file types that seem especially generative to consider:

  • MP3 (Jonathan Sterne’s work on MP3s is the gold standard to follow)
  • GIF (especially the rise and fall and rise of the animated GIF)
  • HTML (a gateway to understanding the early history and ethos of the web)
  • JSON (as a way to talk about data and APIs)

This list is just an initial start, of course. What other culturally significant file types would you have students consider? And what undergrad-friendly readings about those file types would you recommend?

Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies
Davidson College Tenure Track

Digital Studies and Digital Art students at Davidson making cyborg interfaces with Makey Makeys and toys.

The Digital Studies program at Davidson College is growing! We now offer an interdisciplinary minor and, through our Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), an interdisciplinary major. Last year Digital Studies and the History Department partnered on a tenure-track search—leading to Dr. Jakub Kabala joining Davidson as a digital medievalist with a background in computational philology and digital spatial analysis.

I’m delighted to announce that Digital Studies is collaborating once again on a tenure line search, this time with the Art Department. Along with Jakub and myself, this position will form the core of the Digital Studies faculty. My vision for Digital Studies has always emphasized three areas: (1) the history, practice, and critique of digital methodologies; (2) the study of cultural texts, media, and practices made possible by modern technology; and (3) the design and creation of digital art and new media, which includes robotics, interactive installations, and physical computing. Roughly speaking, I think of these three areas in terms of methodology, culture, and creativity. This latest tenure track search addresses the last area, though of course the areas blur into each other in very interesting ways.

Here is the official search ad for the digital artist position. Please share widely!


Davidson College invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies, with a specialization in interactive installation, transmedia art, robotics, data art, physical computing, or a similar creative field. Artists must demonstrate a distinguished record of creative work and a commitment to undergraduate education. Preference will be given to artists with a broad understanding of contemporary trends in Digital and New Media Art, including its history, theory, and practice. MFA by August 1, 2016 is required.

This tenure-track position is shared between the Art Department and Digital Studies Program. Art and Digital Studies at Davidson explore the contemporary technologies that shape daily life, focusing on critical making and digital culture. The successful applicant will teach in both Studio Art and Digital Studies. The candidate’s letter of application should highlight experiences that speak to both roles. The teaching load is 5 courses per year (reduced to 4 courses the first year). Classes include introductory and advanced digital art studio courses, as well as classes that focus on digital theory and practice.

Apply online at http://jobs.davidson.edu/. A complete application includes a letter of application, CV, artist’s statement, teaching philosophy, and a list of three or more references. In addition, submit links for up to 20 still images or up to 7 minutes of video in lieu of a portfolio. The application deadline is December 1, 2015. Do not send letters of reference until requested.

Davidson is strongly committed to achieving excellence and cultural diversity and welcomes applications from women, members of minority groups, and others who would bring additional dimensions to the college’s mission. Consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Davidson College is a highly selective, independent liberal arts college located in Davidson, North Carolina, close to the city of Charlotte. Davidson faculty enjoy a low student-faculty ratio, emphasis on and appreciation of excellence in teaching, and a collegial, respectful atmosphere that honors academic achievement and integrity.

Electronic Literature Think Alouds
2015 ELO Conference, Bergen

ELO 2015 PosterI’m at the Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference in Bergen, Norway, where I hope to capture some “think aloud” readings of electronic literature (e-lit) by artists, writers, and scholars. I’ve mentioned this little project elsewhere, but it bears more explanation.

The think aloud protocol is an important pedagogical tool, famously used by Sam Wineburg to uncover the differences in interpretative strategies between novice historians and professional historians reading historical documents (see Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001).

The essence of a think aloud is this: the reader articulates (“thinks aloud”) every stray, tangential, and possibly central thought that goes through their head as they encounter a new text for the first time. The idea is to capture the complicated thinking that goes on when we interpret an unfamiliar cultural artifact—to make visible (or audible) the usually invisible processes of interpretation and analysis.

Once the think aloud is recorded, it can itself be analyzed, so that others can see the interpretive moves people make as they negotiate understanding (or misunderstanding). The real pedagogical treasure of the think aloud is not any individual reading of a new text, but rather the recurring meaning-making strategies that become apparent across all of the think alouds.

By capturing these think alouds at the ELO conference, I’m building a set of models for engaging in electronic literature. This will be invaluable to undergraduate students, whose first reaction to experimental literature is most frequently befuddlement.

If you are attending ELO 2015 and wish to participate, please contact me (samplereality at gmail, @samplereality on Twitter, or just grab me at the conference). We’ll duck into a quiet space, and I’ll video you reading an unfamiliar piece of e-lit, maybe from either volume one or volume two of the Electronic Literature Collection, or possibly an iPad work of e-lit. It won’t take long: 5-7 minutes tops. I’ll be around through Saturday, and I hope to capture a half dozen or so of these think alouds. The more, the better.

Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs

This is a quick note to myself, so I remember the best way to protect PDFs behind a password on a course blog. Joe Ugoretz highlights the problems with most methods, and then proposes the solution I’m using here: Ben Balter’s WP Document Revisions plugin. There are a few tricks involved to get WP Document Revisions up and running on a WordPress multisite installation. Here’s what works for me: Continue reading “Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs”

History and Future of the Book (Fall 2014 Digital Studies Course)

A tentative syllabus for DIG 350: History & Future of the Book, a course just approved for the Digital Studies program at my new academic home, Davidson College. Many thanks to Ryan Cordell, Lisa Gitelman, Kari Kraus, Jessica Pressman, Peter Stallybrass, and many others, whose research and classes inspired this one.

DIG 350: History & Future of the Book

Course Description

A book may only be made of paper, cardboard, ink, and glue, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of technology—about which we have mostly forgotten it is a piece of technology. This class is concerned with the long history, the varied present, and the uncertain future of the book in the digital age. Continue reading “History and Future of the Book (Fall 2014 Digital Studies Course)”

From Fish to Print: My 2012 in Review

Like the pair of mice in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book, I had a busy year in 2012. It was a great year, but an exhausting one.

The year began last January with a surprise: I was mentioned by Stanley Fish in an anti-digital humanities screed in the New York Times. That’s something I can check off my bucket list. (By the way, my response to Fish fit inside a tweet.) Ironically, had Fish read my chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which was published the very same week, he might have seen some strange correspondences between his stance toward the digital humanities and my own. This chapter, “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities,” has recently become open-access, along with the rest of the book. Hats off to Matt Gold, the Debates editor, as well as his crew at the Graduate Center at CUNY and the University of Minnesota Press for making the book possible in the first place, and open and online in the second place.

In January I also performed my first public reading of one of my creative works— Takei, George—during the off-site electronic literature reading at the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. There’s even grainy documentary footage of this reading, thanks to the efforts of the organizers Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inmans Berens. I also gave a well-received talk at the MLA about another work of electronic literature, Erik Loyer’s beautiful Strange Rain. And finally in January, I spent odd moments at the convention huddled in a coffee shop (this was Seattle, after all) working with my co-authors on the final revisions of a book manuscript. More about that book later in this post.

All of this happened in the first weeks of January. And the rest of the year was equally as busy. In addition to my regular commuting life, I traveled a great deal to conferences and other gatherings. As I mentioned, I presented at the MLA, but I also talked at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention (Boston in March), Computers and Writing (Raleigh in May), the Electronic Literature Organization (Morgantown in June), and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (Milwaukee in September). In May I was a co-organizer of THATCamp Piedmont, held on the campus of Davidson College. During the summer I was a guest at the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit (Redmond in July). In the fall I was an invited panelist for my own institution’s Forum on the Future of Higher Education (in October) and an invited speaker for the University of Kansas’s Digital Humanities seminar (in November).

If the year began the publication of a modest—and frankly, immensely fun to write—chapter in an edited book, then I have to point out that it ended with the publication of a much larger (and challenging and unwieldy) project, a co-authored book from MIT Press: 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 (or 10 PRINT, as we call it). I’ve already written about the book, and I expect more posts will follow. I’ll simply say now that my co-authors and I are grateful for and astonished by its bestselling (as far as academic books go) status: within days of its release, the book was ranked #1,375 on Amazon, out of 8 million books. This figure is all the most astounding when you consider that we released a free PDF version of the book on the same day as its publication. More evidence that giving away things is the best way to also sell things.

I was busy with other scholarly projects throughout 2012 as well. I finished revisions of a critical code studies essay that will appear in the next issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, and I wrapped up a chapter for an edited collection coming out from Routledge on mobile media narratives. I also continued to publish in unconventional but peer-reviewed venues. Most notably, Enculturation and the Journal of Digital Humanities, which has published two pieces of mine. On the flip side of peer-review, I read and wrote reader’s reports for several journals and publishers, including University of Minnesota Press, MIT Press, Routledge, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. (You see how the system works: once you publish with a press it’s not long until they ask you to review someone else’s work for them. Review it forward, I say.)

In addition to scholarly work, I’ve invested more time than ever this year in creative work. On the surface my creative work is a marginal activity—and often marginalized when it comes time to count in my annual faculty report. But I increasingly see my creativity and scholarship bound up in a virtuous circle. I’ve already mentioned my first fully-functional work of electronic literature, “Takei, George.” In June this piece appeared as a juried selection in Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, a media art exhibit held in conjunction with the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization conference. A tip to other scholars who aim to do more creative work: submit your work to juried exhibitions or other curated shows; if your work is selected, it’s the equivalent of peer-review and your creative work suddenly passes the threshold needed to appear on CVs and faculty activity reports. Another creative project of mine, Postcard for Artisanal Tweeting, appeared in Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process, an online exhibit curated by Kari Kraus on The New Everyday, a Media Commons Project.

My own blog is another site where I blend creativity and scholarship. My recent post on Intrusive Scaffolding is as much a creative nonfiction piece as it is scholarship (more so, in fact). And my favorite post of 2012 began as an inside joke about scholarly blogs. The background is this: during a department meeting discussion about how blogging should be recognized in our annual infrequent merit salary raises, a senior colleague expressed concern that one professor’s cupcake blog would count as much as another professor’s research-oriented blog. In response to this discussion, I wrote a blog post about cupcakes that blended critical theory and creativity. And cursing. The post struck a nerve, and it was my most widely read and retweeted blog post ever. About cupcakes.

Late in 2012 my creative work took me into new territory: Twitterbots, those autonomous “agents” on Twitter that are occasionally useful and often annoying. My bot Citizen Canned is in the process of tweeting every unique word from the script of Citizen Kane, by order of frequency (as opposed to, say, by order of significance, which would have a certain two syllable word appear first). With roughly 4,400 unique words to tweet, at a rate of once per hour, I estimate that Citizen Kane will tweet the least frequently used word in the movie sometime five months from now.Another of the Twitterbots I built in 2012 is 10print_ebooks. This bot mashes up the complete text of my 10 PRINT book and generates occasionally nonsensical but often genius Markov chain tweets from it. The bot also incorporates text from other tweets that use the #10print hashtag, meaning it “learns” from the community. The Citizen Cane bot runs in PHP while the 10 PRINT bot is built in Processing.

Alongside this constant scholarly and creative work (not to mention teaching) ran a parallel timeline, mostly invisible. This was me, waiting for my tenure decision to be handed down. In the summer of 2011 I submitted my materials and by December 2011, I learned that my department had voted unanimously in my favor. Next, in January 2012 the college RPT (Rank-Promotion-Tenure) committee voted 10-2 in my favor. It’s a bit crazy that the committee report echoes what I’ve heard about my work since grade school:

Mark Sample presents an unusual case. His work is at the edge of his discipline’s interaction with digital media technology. It blurs the lines between scholarship, teaching, and service in challenging ways. It also marks the point where traditional scholarly peer review meets the public interface of the internet. This makes for some difficulty in assessing his case.

In February my dean voted in favor of my case too. Next came the provost’s support at the end of March. In a surprise move, the provost recommended me for tenure on two counts: genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research. Professors usually earn tenure on the strength of their research alone. It’s uncommon to earn tenure at Mason on excellence in teaching, and an anomaly to earn tenure for both. By this point, approval from the president and the Board of Visitors (our equivalent of a Board of Trustees) might have seemed like rubber stamps, but I wasn’t celebrating tenure as a done deal. In fact, when I finally received the official notice—and contract—in June, I still didn’t feel like celebrating. And by the time my tenure and promotion went into effect in August 2012, I was too busy gearing up for the semester (and indexing 10 PRINT) to think much about it.

In other words, I reached the end of 2012 without celebrating some of its best moments. On the other hand, I feel that most of its “best moments” were actually single instances in ongoing processes, and those processes are never truly over. 10 PRINT may be out, but I’m already looking forward to future collaborations with some of my co-authors. I wrote a great deal in 2012, but much of that occurred serially in places like ProfHacker, Play the Past, and Media Commons, where I will continue to write in 2013 and beyond.

What else with 2013 bring? I am working on two new creative projects and I have begun sketching out a new book project as well. Next fall I will begin a year-long study leave (Fall 2013/Spring 2014), and I aim to make significant progress on my book during that time. Who knows what else 2013 will bring. Maybe sleep?

[Header image: A Busy Year by Leo Lionni]