[Humanist] 25.570 a surf's relief

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 22 09:33:14 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 570.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2011 10:27:57 -0600
        From: Patricia Galloway <galloway at ischool.utexas.edu>
        Subject: a surf's objection
        In-Reply-To: <mailman.19.1324123204.20919.humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org>

Here's how I feel about increasingly miniaturized and omnipresent 
communications technologies: when I am old(er) and babbling to myself on 
the public streets,  people will just assume that I am wearing a 
particularly miniaturized headset and will let me go my way in peace. 
That's one good side of the phenomenon...

Pat Galloway

On 12/17/2011 6:00 AM, humanist-request at lists.digitalhumanities.org wrote:
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>     1. 25.568 a surf's objection (Humanist Discussion Group)
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> Date: Sat, 17 Dec 2011 08:15:16 +0000 (GMT)
> From: Humanist Discussion Group<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
> To: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> Subject: [Humanist] 25.568 a surf's objection
> Message-ID:<20111217081516.A89F8241C58 at woodward.joyent.us>
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>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 568.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>          Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2011 12:09:57 -0800
>          From: Jascha Kessler<urim1 at verizon.net>
>          Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.567 a surf's objection
>          In-Reply-To:<20111216105115.E89EC23EBA6 at woodward.joyent.us>
> My thanks to a detailed objurgation to Surfdom by Reisz, from Mr. Rockwell.
> It might be well to step a bit further back and consider the ancient [cf
> Cynics'] besetting legacy of Primitivism, a recurrent motif in
> civilizations East and West.  It is a fundamental trope, so to say, as in
> "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...." A "hard primitivist" is
> to be found in Thoreau's WALDEN, who adjured us to keep our accounts on our
> thumbnail, and deplored, wittily, the excitement over the advent of
> telegraphy.  [Cf. attached published letter on this head, in Financial
> Times, March 2009].  This is not about Luddite phenomena.
> On the other hand there are ties that essentially bind, each and all, each
> to each, and all to all.  Freud wrote a short paper in 1917, in which he
> praised the telephone, a later derivative of telegraphy, for its ability to
> put us into contact with our nearest and dearest, virtually, by voice, over
> theretofore vast differences.
> Both are to be considered essential examples at extreme opposites, or 180?
> apart.  The matrix is communication. Not by naked touch, but by our
> fundamental attribute, speech, that is coded speech, or language. The
> tongue talks.  Digitization, of everything, that is our indexing index
> fingers, is a current manifestation.  Like speech, it can be nothing,
> merest palaver, or everything, and that everything is the second derivation
> from speech, or writing, that is translation of speech into letters or
> signs.
> Addiction to digitals, letters or images, is perhaps an individual problem:
> one cannot take a walk without passing 9 out of 10 walking and texting, or
> talking into headphones while jogging, or whatever. It is quasi-surreal, to
> be sure: people not even seeing the world about them, but focused on
> distant other persons, in so to say "touch."
> It is something new and strange, growing at full fathom five, like the
> coral in Shax's THE TEMPEST... but, mirabile dictu! alive, alive, oh!
> Jascha Kessler
> *** Attachments:
>      http://www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/Attachments/1324066206_2011-12-16_humanist-owner@lists.digitalhumanities.org_96.2.jpeg
> On Fri, Dec 16, 2011 at 2:51 AM, Humanist Discussion Group<
> willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>  wrote:
>>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 567.
>>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>>         Date: Fri, 16 Dec 2011 19:44:39 +0900
>>         From: Geoffrey Rockwell<grockwel at ualberta.ca>
>>         Subject: from a surf
>> Dear Willard,
>> This is a late answer to your pointing us to the Matthew Reisz article
>> ?Surfdom? (
>> http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418343) which
>> starts with,
>> ?The internet has revolutionised humanities research. But has the
>> development of ever-more sophisticated online resources freed up scholars
>> to explore new ideas, or made them slaves to the digital machine??
>> His approach seems to find someone to quote, ask a pointed question and
>> let that stand as evidence that there is a problem. While this approach is
>> irritating when you have been in the field for some time, it is probably
>> worth addressing taking some of the issues raised seriously.
>> * Serfdom. The title of the article, "Surfdom" and opening question about
>> whether online resources have made us slaves is just plain silly. Does the
>> existence of resources enslave anyone in any meaningful way? If so, were we
>> slaves to print before? Does Reisz think we were free before to explore new
>> ideas and are now serfs to the surfing machine? Yes, that old story of
>> technological slavery again; now dressed in cute questions about the
>> digital humanities which alas will have to put up with such reporting as
>> long as we are seen as the new new thing. As for serfdom, Reisz plies his
>> readers with suggestions that the technological (the mechanical) is
>> limiting scholarship or public access or some unidentified person who might
>> be fooled into thinking the digital is the real thing. Philosophers and
>> historians of science and technology have long questioned such facile
>> deterministic views which would have a dominant technology drive our
>> thinking. There is undoubtedly a connection, but it goes both ways. Perhaps
>> the digital is being enslaved by the humanities. Perhaps computing is going
>> to turn out to be driven by the questions of English profs. What matters is
>> that we continue to discuss the digital and how it might change the
>> questions we ask, and that is one of the things we have been doing
>> seriously in the digital humanities.
>> * Digitization driving scholarship. Reisz quotes Peitch to the effect that
>> "what gets digitsed drives scholarship." There is some truth to this, but
>> the same holds for any scholarly work. What is published (in your language)
>> also drives scholarship as do all sorts of other things like public
>> funding, conferences, and student enrolments. Has it ever been any
>> different? I would call it ?changing? not driving with its slave driving
>> connotations. If anything digital archives are coexisting and supplementing
>> traditional archives so that scholars can choose what will drive them.
>> Would we want it any different? Imagine if a field like the digital
>> humanities had no effect? While I doubt we are driving scholarship (the
>> cuts in the UK to universities are doing that) the digital humanities
>> should make a difference and there is nothing wrong with that. What
>> discipline does not try to engage others? Why should projects be funded if
>> we don't try to change the scholarship?
>> * Access. Reisz manages to turn virtues of access into sins. He quotes
>> Pietsch that "digitisation does reduce some of the obstacles imposed by
>> distance" and then quotes her to the effect that most of what she needs
>> remains unavailable "in bricks-and-mortar institutions". In other words all
>> this digitization doesn't help (even if it driving things). One story
>> hardly touches the issue of access. Reisz may still have to travel, but how
>> many scholars don't need to travel because they can access a digital
>> surrogate? Reisz himself admits, "It is a rare researcher in the humanities
>> today who doesn't draw frequently on digital resources, as well as using
>> the internet to check factual details or read texts that are long out of
>> print." Digitization of materials was never meant to entirely replace
>> archival access, it is meant to broaden access to those without travel
>> grants and to reduce the need for fragile documents to be constantly
>> consulted. The digital surrogate supplements, but doesn't replace the
>> original. Use of digital resources is one more tool available to the
>> scholar.
>> For that matter, access isn't only for the scholars like Pietch working on
>> neglected topics. Access is also for the geneaologists, the amateurs, and
>> the citizens who pay for universities. We would be fools to think that only
>> professionals with travel grants are interested in online resources or the
>> only people important. Digitization is a way to engage a broader community
>> and return scholarship to them, not that Reiz thinks much of that argument
>> (see below).
>> * Limitations. Reisz quotes Turner about the "limitations imposed by the
>> mechanical process" of digitization. I wonder what the alternative to
>> mechanical processes is? Copying out by hand? Are there not limitations to
>> the mechanically printed editions we read, to the opto-mechanical
>> microfilms we use to consult newspapers, or even the "originals" which were
>> often mechanically produced (and are still housed in infrastructure like
>> archives.) Sure things get missed in digitization - that is what archiving
>> does and what editing does - it keeps and discards, it shows and hides.
>> Digitization is no different - content experts make choices about what to
>> digitize, how to encode it, and what sort of access system will deal it up.
>> Archivists make similar choices. Scholars should question these decisions,
>> they should look closely at the medium and infrastructure they use to study
>> the past whatever the form. Surely a serious scholar, who uses a computer
>> in everyday work as most do in this age, will not be fooled into "a false
>> sense of security in some digital projects". After all they are scholars
>> and most are really go at asking questions. No doubt we all need continued
>> training and other opportunities where we can learn about the limits of the
>> digital, but that too is what the digital humanities offers. Reisz seems
>> limited in his view of what the digital humanities is. He thinks we
>> digitize mindlessly without ever wondering about the choices made.
>> * Utility, Democratisation and Thinking. Underlying much of Reisz's
>> argument are some assumptions about what the point of scholarship is and
>> what is useful. His opening, phrased as a question, contrasts the slavery
>> of online resource development to exploring "new ideas."  Digital
>> development not only threatens thinking, he also complains that it isn't
>> even useful to amateurs as a resource. He writes about the Digital Image
>> Archive of Medieval Music being organized in a way that is useless to the
>> "amateur music lover". He complains about Paul Vetch's argument about
>> democratisation (by making scholarly resources available through
>> digitization), "If democratisation means anything, it must surely mean more
>> than just making freely available online something of interest to only a
>> handful of specialists." But that is exactly the point - digitization can
>> make specialized information available for use by anyone who can surf the
>> web instead of keeping it to a professional caste lucky enough to be paid
>> to chase the stuff down. Since when are only scholars interested in
>> specialized resources. Reisz should get out more and meet some of the
>> people who love this stuff without a PhD. Digitization opens up
>> specialization letting anyone play at it, and we should be very careful
>> making assumptions about what will be useful to whom over time. As for
>> generating ideas, he should read his Plato. Socrates in the Phaedrus
>> complained that writing would not make us wiser. I've seen no evidence that
>> any form of writing, scholarship, or information access makes anyone wiser
>> or helps them think. Information, whatever form it takes, is something we
>> think about or think through, it isn't the new ideas themselves, they are
>> what people have. If anything Reisz isn't radical enough. If we want people
>> to explore ideas we might try discouraging writing altogether, including
>> his writing (and mine) and get back to dialogue with a philosopher. We
>> simply don't know where or when new ideas are going to come and if there is
>> a problem it is that we are inundated with cheap information dressed as
>> reporting instead of knowledge.
>> * Funding Ideas. At the same time that he complains about digitizing too
>> much specialized stuff he also quotes an anonymous researcher that,
>> "Meanwhile, there was less money available to fund researchers wanting to
>> investigate a substantive question or develop an original idea." The
>> implication is that digitization doesn't further substantive or original
>> research. Or perhaps the wrong people are being funded as he complains
>> about how digital humanities is done in teams (with graduate students being
>> funded.) Do these people have no original ideas? Do they not pursue
>> questions? I think there is a hidden snobbery here that some more worthy
>> club of people who wouldn't stoop to manage a digital project are the real
>> thinkers that should be funded. There is the suggestion that all sorts of
>> much more worthy traditional research is being neglected as money is wasted
>> on digitization. People, that great anonymous and undocumented people,
>> "raised questions about whether there aren't just as many pointless
>> projects and whether the field always justifies the hype that surrounds
>> it." So who decides what is a pointless project? One anonymous and unhappy
>> reviewer or the committees who judged the digital grants fundable? The
>> humanities have been whipped pointlessly since Socrates was martyred and
>> Reisz knows that, even as he tries his hand without admitting it. I would
>> answer that it is in the nature of pure research to do things that seem
>> pointless to others and it has ever been so, even before the digital
>> humanities. Find me a project which no one complains about.  Digitization
>> doesn't change the tendency of scholars to pursue ever more specialized
>> questions and it won't change the pointless criticism. At least when
>> projects are accessible on the web we aren't hiding in an ivory tower. At
>> least through digitization we are openly sharing the research and digital
>> evidence with a potential public. I hope some publics see through to things
>> that interest them and continue to support universities and granting
>> councils still interested in substantial work whether digital or not,
>> useful or not.
>> * Waste. The one point I would agree with is that we need to be talking
>> about what works best and how to best husband the resources available, more
>> so now that we are facing cutbacks in the humanities. Sure, some digital
>> projects have wasted their funds and some resources aren't being used
>> (yet), but isn't that normal at a time when we are experimenting with new
>> technologies that are changing. Should we just sit back and wait until the
>> dust settles and someone outside tells us how to do things right or should
>> we try solutions relevant to the humanities. The fact is that the digital
>> humanities has led the discussion about how to best leverage computing for
>> scholarship. We have been addressing these issues for decades, but Reisz
>> seems to think the digital humanities is just a stampede to digitize stuff.
>> One could rewrite his article in praise of how the issues of access,
>> limitations, audience, and technology he is raising now in 2011 have been
>> discussed in the digital humanities since the 1970s. Central to the digital
>> humanities are questions about digitization and computing with the
>> digitized, but he wouldn't know without consulting the (online) record. I
>> want to tell readers who think we are wantonly digitizing without thought
>> to take a course in our Humanities Computing MA program or read about the
>> TEI. The solution to the issue of poorly thought out digitization is the
>> ongoing and rigorous discussion of the issue and that is what informatics,
>> library and information science and the digital humanities have been
>> cultivating for decades.
>> No doubt the length of this response says something about how artfully he
>> pricks my hopes and beliefs about the digital humanities. I wish responding
>> to reporting were not necessary, or that I believed that any reporting like
>> any review is good (whatever it says), but as we move from a discipline
>> largely ignored to one questioned publicly we need to prepare for critical
>> reporting and respond. We should be prepared to take criticism seriously
>> and explain what we do over and over. It has, alas, become part of the job
>> of the humanities to explain the value of our work. As you (Willard) point
>> out in your comment below the article, he has an awfully limited idea of
>> what the digital humanities is which means others do too.
>> Best,
>> Geoffrey Rockwell

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