Closed Bots and Green Bots

The Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference was last week in Milwaukee. I hated to miss it, but I hated even more the idea of missing my kids’ last days of school here in Madrid, where we’ve been since January.

If I had been at the ELO conference, I’d have no doubt talked about bots. I thought I already said everything I had to say about these small autonomous programs that generate text and images on social media, but like a bot, I just can’t stop.

Here, then, is one more modest attempt to theorize bots—and by extension other forms of computational media. The tl;dr version is that there are two archetypes of bots: closed bots and green bots. And each of these archetypes comes with an array of associated characteristics that deepen our understanding of digital media. Continue reading “Closed Bots and Green Bots”

Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities

Five years ago in this space I attempted what I saw as a meaningful formulation of critical thinking—as opposed to the more vapid definitions you tend to come across in higher education. Critical thinking, I wrote, “stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty.”

Two hallmarks of difficult thinking are imagining the world from multiple perspectives and wrestling with conflicting evidence about the world. Difficult thinking faces these ambiguities head-on and even preserves them, while facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity—both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts. Continue reading “Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities”

DIG 210: Data Culture

Data chart from We Feel Fine

A new course for the Digital Studies program at Davidson College. Influences for the syllabus abound: Lisa Gitelman, Lauren Klein, Ben Schmidt, Matt Wilkens, and many other folks in the digital humanities.

Course Description

“Data” is often considered to be the domain of scientists and statisticians. But with the proliferation of databases across nearly all aspects of modern life, data has become an everyday concern. Bank accounts, FaceTime records, Snapchat posts, Xbox leaderboards, CatCard purchases, your DNA—at the heart of all them is data. To live today is to breathe and exhale data, wherever you go, online and off. And at the same time data has become a function of daily life, it has also become the subject of—and vehicle for—literary and artistic critiques.

This course explores the role of data and databases in contemporary culture, with an eye toward understanding how data shapes the way we perceive—and misperceive—the world. After historicizing the origins of modern databases in 19th century industrialization and census efforts, we will survey our present-day data landscape, considering data mining, data visualization, and database art. We will encounter nearly evangelical enthusiasm for “Big Data” but also rigorous criticisms of what we might call naïve empiricism. The ethical considerations of data collection and analysis will be at the forefront of our conversation, as will be issues surrounding privacy and surveillance. Continue reading “DIG 210: Data Culture”

Sites of Pain and Telling

The Expressive Work of Spaces of Torture in Videogames

At the 2014 MLA conference in Chicago I appeared on a panel called “Torture and Popular Culture.” I used the occasion to revisit a topic I had written about several years earlier—representations of torture-interrogation in videogames. My comments are suggestive more than conclusive, and I am looking forward to developing these ideas further.

Today I want to talk about spaces of torture—dungeons, labs, prisons—in contemporary videogames and explore the way these spaces are not simply gruesome narrative backdrops but are key expressive features in popular culture’s ongoing reckoning with modern torture. Continue reading “Sites of Pain and Telling”

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)”

What crisis in the humanities? Interactive Historical Data on College Majors

A History of College Degrees over time

If you’re an academic, you’ve probably heard about the recent New York Times article covering the decline of humanity majors at places like Stanford and Harvard. As many people have already pointed out, the article is a brilliant example of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence to support an existing narrative (i.e. the crisis in the humanities)—instead of using, you know, actual facts and statistics to understand what’s going on.

Ben Schmidt, a specialist in intellectual history at Northeastern University, has put together an interactive graph of college majors over the past few decades, using the best available government data. Playing around with the data shows some surprises that counter the prevailing narrative about the humanities. For example, Computer Science majors have declined since 1986, while History has remained steady. Ben argues elsewhere that not only was the steepest decline in the humanities in the 1970s instead of the 2010s, but that the baseline year that most crisis narratives begin with (the peak year of 1967) was itself an aberration.

Of course, Ben’s data is in the aggregate and doesn’t reflect trends at individual institutions. But you can break the data down into institution type, and find that traditional humanities fields at private SLACs like my own (Davidson College) are pretty much at late-1980s levels.

Clearly we should be doing more to counter the perception that the humanities—and by extension, the liberal arts—are in crisis mode. My own experience in the classroom doesn’t support this notion, and neither does the data.

Digital Humanities at MLA 2014

An old typewriter, surrounded by weeds

This is a list of digitally-inflected sessions at the 2014 Modern Language Association Convention (Chicago, January 9-12). These sessions in some way address digital tools, objects, and practices in language, literary, textual, cultural, and media studies. The list also includes sessions about digital pedagogy and scholarly communication. The list stands at 78 entries, making up less than 10% of the total 810 convention slots. Please leave a comment if this list is missing any relevant sessions. Continue reading “Digital Humanities at MLA 2014”

The Poetics of Non-Consumptive Reading

Ted Underwood's topic model of the PMLA, from the Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 2., No. 1 (Winter 2012)

“Non-consumptive research” is the term digital humanities scholars use to describe the large-scale analysis of a texts—say topic modeling millions of books or data-mining tens of thousands of court cases. In non-consumptive research, a text is not read by a scholar so much as it is processed by a machine. The phrase frequently appears in the context of the long-running legal debate between various book digitization efforts (e.g. Google Books and HathiTrust) and publishers and copyright holders (e.g. the Authors Guild). For example, in one of the preliminary Google Books settlements, non-consumptive research is defined as “computational analysis” of one or more books “but not research in which a researcher reads or displays substantial portions of a Book to understand the intellectual content presented within.” Non-consumptive reading is not reading in any traditional way, and it certainly isn’t close reading. Examples of non-consumptive research that appear in the legal proceedings (the implications of which are explored by John Unsworth) include image analysis, text extraction, concordance development, citation extraction, linguistic analysis, automated translation, and indexing. Continue reading “The Poetics of Non-Consumptive Reading”

no life no life no life no life: the 100,000,000,000,000 stanzas of House of Leaves of Grass

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a massive novel about, among other things, a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems about, among other things, the expansiveness of America itself.

What happens when these two works are remixed with each other? It’s not such an odd question. Though separated by nearly a century, they share many of the same concerns. Multitudes. Contradictions. Obsession. Physical impossibilities. Even an awareness of their own lives as textual objects.

To explore these connections between House of Leaves and Leaves of Grass I have created House of Leaves of Grass, a poem (like Leaves of Grass) that is for all practical purposes boundless (like the house on Ash Tree Lane in House of Leaves). Or rather, it is bounded on an order of magnitude that makes it untraversable in its entirety. The number of stanzas (from stanza, the Italian word for “room”) approximates the number of cells in the human body, around 100 trillion. And yet the container for this text is a mere 24K. Continue reading “no life no life no life no life: the 100,000,000,000,000 stanzas of House of Leaves of Grass”

The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

Cops used a forward-looking infrared device (FLIR) to find traces of Tsarnaev’s heat signature.

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it.

A manhunt summons forth the great machinery of the state: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, helicopters, infrared flybys. There is no evading it. It’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive. And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” The more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater the role they will play in our symbolic repertoire. In film, literature, music, art, videogames—in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. Fugitives will come to occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century—while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous—the 21st century will be dominated by the symbolic figure of the fugitive. Continue reading “The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee”

Building Digital Studies at Davidson

I am thrilled to share the news that in August I will join the faculty of Davidson College, where I will be building a new interdisciplinary program in Digital Studies. This is a tremendous opportunity for me, and my immodest goal is to make Davidson College a model for other liberal arts colleges—and even research universities—when it comes to digital studies.

This means I am leaving George Mason University, and I am doing so with much sadness. I have been surrounded by generous colleagues, dedicated teachers, and rigorous thinkers. I cannot imagine a better place to have begun my career. At the same time, my life at GMU has always been complicated by the challenges of a long distance commute, which I have written about here and elsewhere. My new position at Davidson will eliminate this commute. After seven or so years of flying 500 miles to work each week, it will be heaven to simply bike one mile to work every day.

And a good thing too—because I have big plans for Digital Studies at Davidson and much work to do. Students are already enrolling in my Fall 2013 courses, but more than individual classes, we have an entire program to design. I am thrilled to begin working with my new colleagues in both the humanities and sciences. Together we are going to build something both unique and uniquely Davidson.

Electronic Literature after Flash (MLA14 Proposal)

I recently proposed a sequence of lightning talks for the next Modern Language Association convention in Chicago (January 2014). The participants are tackling a literary issue that is not at all theoretical: the future of electronic literature. I’ve also built in a substantial amount of time for an open discussion between the audience and my participants—who are all key figures in the world of new media studies. And I’m thrilled that two of them—Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop—just received an NEH grant dedicated to a similar question, which is documenting the experience of early electronic literature.

Electronic literature can be broadly conceived as literary works created for digital media that in some way take advantage of the unique affordances of those technological forms. Hallmarks of electronic literature (e-lit) include interactivity, immersiveness, fluidly kinetic text and images, and a reliance on the procedural and algorithmic capabilities of computers. Unlike the avant garde art and experimental poetry that is its direct forebear, e-lit has been dominated for much of its existence by a single, proprietary technology: Adobe’s Flash. For fifteen years, many e-lit authors have relied on Flash—and its earlier iteration, Macromedia Shockwave—to develop their multimedia works. And for fifteen years, readers of e-lit have relied on Flash running in their web browsers to engage with these works.

Flash is dying though. Apple does not allow Flash in its wildly popular iPhones and iPads. Android no longer supports Flash on its smartphones and tablets. Even Adobe itself has stopped throwing its weight behind Flash. Flash is dying. And with it, potentially an entire generation of e-lit work that cannot be accessed without Flash. The slow death of Flash also leaves a host of authors who can no longer create in their chosen medium. It’s as if a novelist were told that she could no longer use a word processor—indeed, no longer even use words. Continue reading “Electronic Literature after Flash (MLA14 Proposal)”

From a Murmur to a Drone

Not so long ago a video of a flock of starlings swooping and swirling as one body in the sky went viral. Only two minutes long, the video shows thousands of birds over the River Shannon in Ireland, pouring themselves across the clouds, each bird following the one next to it. The birds flew not so much in formation as they flew in the biological equivalent of phase transition. This phenomenon of synchronized bird flight is called a murmuration. What makes the murmuration hypnotic is the starlings’ seemingly uncoordinated coordination, a thousand birds in flight, like fluid flowing across the skies. But there’s something else as well. Something else about the murmuration that appeals to us at this particular moment, that helps to explain this video’s virality.

The murmuration defies our modern understanding of crowds. Whether the crazed seagulls of Hitchcock’s The Birds, the shambling hordes of zombies that seem to have infected every strain of popular culture, or the thousands upon thousands of protestors of the Arab Spring, we are used to chaotic, disorganized crowds, what Elias Canetti calls the “open” crowd (Canetti 1984). Open crowds are dense and bound to grow denser, a crowd that itself attracts more crowds. Open crowds cannot be contained. They erupt. Continue reading “From a Murmur to a Drone”

CFP: Electronic Literature after Flash (MLA 2014, Chicago)

Another View of the Feeds Mode of Strange Rain

Attention artists, creators, theorists, teachers, curators, and archivists of electronic literature!

I’m putting together an e-lit roundtable for the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago next January. The panel will be “Electronic Literature after Flash” and I’m hoping to have a wide range of voices represented. See the full CFP for more details. Abstracts due March 15, 2013.

When Does Service Become Scholarship?

When does service become scholarship?

When does anything—service, teaching, editing, mentoring, coding—become scholarship?

My answer is simply this: a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.


Now for some background behind the question and the rationale for my answer.

What counts as the threshold of scholarship has been on my mind lately, spurred on by two recent events at my home institution, George Mason University. The first was a discussion in my own department (English) about the public humanities, a concept every bit as hard to pin down as its two highly contested constitutive terms. A key question in the department discussion was whether the enormous amount of outreach our faculty perform—through public readings, in area high schools, with local teachers and lifelong learners outside of Mason—counts as the public humanities. I suggested at the time that the public humanities revolves around scholarship. The question, then, is not when does outreach become the public humanities? The question is, when does outreach become an act of scholarship?

The department discussion was a low-stakes affair. It decided the fate of exactly nothing, except perhaps the establishment of a subcommittee to further explore the intersection of faculty work and the public humanities.

But the anxiety at the heart of this question—when does anything become scholarship?—plays out in much more consequential ways in the academy. This brings me to the second event at Mason, the deliberations of the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Promotion and Tenure committee. My colleague Sean Takats, whom some may know as the Director of Research Projects for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the co-director of the Zotero project, has recently given a devastating account of the RPT committee’s response to his tenure case. Happily, the college committee approved Sean’s case 10-2, but what’s devastating is the attitude of some members of the committee toward Sean’s significant work in the digital humanities. Sean quotes from the committee’s official letter, with the money quote being “some [committee members] deter­mined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valu­able, should be con­sid­ered as major ser­vice activ­ity instead.”

Sean deftly contrasts the committee’s impoverished notion of scholarship with Mason’s own faculty handbook’s definition, which is more expansive and explicitly acknowledges “artis­tic work, soft­ware and media, exhi­bi­tions, and per­for­mance.”

I absolutely appreciate Mason’s definition of scholarly achievement. But I like my definition of scholarship even more. Where does mine come from? From the scholarship of teaching—another field, like digital humanities, which has challenged the preeminence of the single-authored manuscript as the gold standard of scholarship (though, like DH, it doesn’t exclude such forms of scholarship).

More specifically, I have adapted my definition from Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In “Taking Learning Seriously,” Shulman advances a persuasive case for the scholarship of teaching and learning. Shulman argues that for an intellectual act to become scholarship, it should have at least three characteristics:

it becomes public; it becomes an object of critical review and evaluation by members of one’s community; and members of one’s community begin to use, build upon, and develop those acts of mind and creation.

In other words, scholarship is public, circulating in a community that not only evaluates it but also builds upon it. Notice that Shulman’s formulation of scholarship is abstracted from any single discipline, and even more crucially, it is platform-agnostic. Exactly how the intellectual act circulates and generates new work in response isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that the work is out there for all to see, review, and use. The work has been made public—which after all is the original meaning of “to publish.”

Let’s return to the CHSS committee’s evaluation of Sean’s work with Zotero. I don’t know enough about the way Sean framed his tenure case, but from the outside looking in, and knowing what I know about Zotero, it’s not only reasonable to acknowledge that Zotero meets these three criteria of scholarship (public, reviewed, and used), it’d take a willful misapprehension of Zotero, its impact, and implications to see it as anything but scholarship.

Sean notes that the stance of narrow-minded RPT committees will have a chilling effect on digital work, and I don’t think he exaggerates. But I see this as a crisis that extends beyond the digital humanities, encompassing faculty who approach their scholarship in any number of “unconventional” ways. The scholarship of teaching, certainly, but also faculty involved in scholarly editing, the scholarship of creativity, and a whole host of public humanities efforts.

The solution—or at least one prong of a solution—must be for faculty who have already survived the gauntlet of tenure to work ceaselessly to promote an atmosphere that pairs openness with critical review, yet which is not entrenched in any single medium—print, digital, performance, and so on. We can do this in the background by writing tenure letters, reviewing projects, and serving on committees ourselves. But we can and should also do this publicly, right here, right now.