Author Archives: Allison Wheatley

A Web of Things

The Bizer, Heath, and Berners-Lee article made some points that intersect with the humanities and with previous discussions we have had in this class.  One is slightly disturbing to me: “Linked Data uses RDF to make typed statements that link arbitrary things in the world. The result, which we will refer to as the Web of Data, may more accurately be described as a web of things in the world, described by data on the Web” (2).  I’m not sure how literally I am supposed to take this statement, but to me, things in the world are not data.  They can be described by data, but the Web of Data cannot include things in the world.  The web refers to things in the world and identifies many different bits of data that refer to the same thing in the world.  When things are related in the real world, this relationship is distinct from the data relationship, or predicate, between them.  I’m uncomfortable with the appropriation of real objects by the (capitalized, as Michael points out) Web of Data, and I wonder what the authors intended to communicate by including the world in their data web and emphasizing the distinction (or non-distinction) between a web of things and a Web of Data.  I’m interested to hear how others read this phrase.

The rhetoric that bothers me did not extend throughout the article: “The RDF Vocabulary Definition Language (RDFS) (Brickley & Guha, 2004) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL) (McGuinness & van Harmelen, 2004) provide a basis for creating vocabularies that can be used to describe entities in the world and how they are related” (4).  Here, it is clear that the web describes real things and relationships rather than including them.  I really like the idea that people can create their own words within an existing language to describe real relationships that have not yet been defined on the web of data.  I feel like writers who have created new words would be into that.  Jabberwocky!  These data authors translate a relationship from the real world, and the word for it, into a data vocabulary.  The individual creativity and control this gives contributors seems to fit right into the collaborative nature of DH and the internet as a whole.

On another note, the biography of Tim Berners-Lee has an especially impressive and punchy beginning and ending.  Just in case not everyone scrolled down all the way, these are some pretty fun facts: “Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web…In 2001 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society” (26).

A Database for “One Idea”

I found the Powerpoint on Intro to Relational Databases and SQL fairly straightforward and informative. However, a large portion of “Why Databases?” was unclear without the author’s explanation. In an attempt to expand on the argument for databases in Digital Humanities, I’d like to propose a possible interpretation of the section so nicely decorated with Simpsons characters. As an introduction to the “One Idea” model, I wonder if the photos of the Table of Contents and Index represent inflexible data sets, an old model for cross-referencing that is static and limited compared to databases. The “One Idea” seems to be something that could be stored as a database or as a document, perhaps a research topic about which a scholar wants to gather and curate essays. The first contributor adds four essays to this document or database. The second contributor adds three essays, which become part of the curated information on the topic. The pattern continues until the “One Idea” includes 18 essays. If the essays and the data about them, including subject tags, are stored in a database rather than only in document files, it becomes possible through querying to pick out which essays meet certain additional criteria, in this case, perhaps those that reference Shakespeare’s works.  Using the database, this list of essays (generated by querying the subgroup Shakespeare) can also be sorted using other data attached to each essay, perhaps in this case the year the essay was written.  This allows for much more flexibility and useful searching in a digital archive than only links to documents provide. I’d be interested to hear other theories about this section, if anyone else was curious about its contribution to the overall argument.

Ctrl + Brain + Del

Nicholas Carr’s prognosis for the human brain is that the omnipresent machine is shrinking our capacity for sustained thought, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  The issue of control seems relevant to this discussion; Carr thinks that we can’t control our own brains when faced with the Internet.

I identify with his experience: “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” If I’m working on my computer, it can be hard not to check that e-mail when it pops up or look up or handle something that I suddenly remember.  When I’m reading a printed book, I stay focused for much longer, but phone notifications still lure me in to check them sometimes.  If I’m writing, and, as usual, the words aren’t flowing easily, it’s especially tempting to give up every so often for a minute or two, distract myself, and then dive back in.  I know this hurts my productivity and concentration, and I’ve been trying to stop, with partial success.  What strikes me about my own experience with this issue are my feelings of control or lack thereof.  When I give in to the urge to check Facebook, I know I’m making a choice, however compulsive.  When I resist, it’s a small victory for my willpower.  Sometimes I can almost feel my brain telling me to do what I’ve slowly been programming it to do – distract itself.  My actions have led to its “rewiring,” but I think (/hope?) I can reprogram new habits.

Carr comes near the issue of control when he discusses the introduction of clocks: “In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.”  We decide how to schedule our lives.  We can choose to listen to our senses, or we can choose to listen to the clock.  It takes more self-control to continue the natural action of obeying one’s internal clock when a clock is present.  Similarly, it takes more self-control to focus on reading or writing one text for an extended period of time when the Internet stares you in the face, overflowing with e-mails, social media, bullet point posts, and kittens.  But these carrots can be refused, if not all the time, at least within working hours.

James Olds, a professor of neuroscience at George Mason University, “says that even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’”  Carr uses this source to show that the Internet has reprogrammed our brains, but it equally indicates that we can reprogram them back the way we want them.  Habits are hard for our brains to break, but we can break them.  I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should stop using the Internet, but I think that with determined self-control we can choose to regain, to some degree, our attention spans and our focused and analytical method of thinking.

DHPoco’s Great Wikipedia Dream

I seem to be drawn to the topic of Wikipedia as a model, anti-model, or something in between for the digital humanities. Given our discussion last week about the DH Manifesto 2.0’s idealization of Wikipedia and the impossibility of a scholarly Wikipedia if anyone can contribute, I find it fascinating that one of DHPoco’s recurring projects is to rewrite Wikipedia. Instead of creating their own platform for scholarly resources, they aim to affect available information that millions (billions?) of internet users are already searching and accessing through Wikipedia and through Google, which seems to privilege Wikipedia entries in its search results. The (re)writers at DHPoco are concerned with producing somewhat scholarly work for Wikipedia, as evidenced by their guidelines on how to create Wikipedia entries, but not with maintaining their claim to practicing scholarship or potentially gaining anything from it themselves by publishing this work on a vetted or exclusively DH platform. While Wikipedia is not itself scholarly and never guarantees the accuracy of its information, DHPoco’s entry creation and editing may affect the ideas of readers, non-scholarly and scholarly, who search for or stumble across entries about members of underrepresented groups or postcolonial authors or texts by making sure that accurate, unbiased entries exist. To quickly gauge postcolonial presence on Wikipedia, I searched for the Nigerian novel that the visiting postcolonial candidate spoke about in his talk on Monday: Tides by Isidore Okpewho. The author has a Wikipedia entry (a scant four sentences long), but the novel does not, although it is on Google Books. It seems that if Wikipedia is to include informative entries for all “notable” topics, it needs more postcolonial material.

DHPoco appears to ask about Wikipedia a form of one of Paul Barrett’s questions: “Is digital humanities a form of American hegemony masquerading as transnationalism?” The scholars at DHPoco seem to contend, particularly through some of their comics, that DH might be, and that Wikipedia certainly is. They cite the Wikimedia Wikipedia Editor’s Survey of 2011 and conclude that “knowledge produced on Wikipedia is primarily conservative…The majority of Wikipedia editors are white, male, and middle-class. Correspondingly, Wikipedia reflects the worldview of this social demographic, which is economically and socially privileged, as well as US/Eurocentric.” One activity that might help to address this problem, aside from adding entries, is tackling entries on controversial topics to make sure that they are balanced and include the perspectives of underrepresented groups. Given the seemingly incomplete RWP outcomes page for the Global Women Wikipedia Write-in, it does not look like the DHPoco rewriters have done this yet.

The national aspect of the Wikipedia worldview dilemma must be in part due to language barriers. There are different Wikipedias for different languages; it makes sense that the English one has a US/Eurocentric bias, just as the Japanese language Wikipedia, which I can assume is primarily written by people from Japan, has a Japan-centric bias. So although the DHPoco community is right to want to increase the number of articles relating to other countries and peoples, the American and Eurocentric bias will be inevitable. Whether this is inevitable among the community of digital humanities scholars is another question, one posed by Paul Barrett: “In what ways does this scholarly turn to the digital pave over local cultures and insist upon the English language as a requirement for membership in digital humanities?” In his phrasing of the question, he assumes that DH does, in fact, insist upon English. I wonder if this “digital” problem is significantly different from the problem of first-world academia paving over local cultures and insisting on English, or at least on a limited number of languages in which scholars can publish. Talking about Wikipedia seems to be, even regarding this language issue, a means of exploring benefits and problems of DH, even if we break with DHPoco and choose not to consider it DH.

DH By the People, For the People

The prospect that the Digital Humanities Manifestos present of DH projects created by and for people inside and outside the academy is both exciting and potentially problematic.  One, I think, positive effect of the manifesto’s aim of creating a “mass audience” is that DH “gladly flirts with the scandal of entertainment as scholarship, scholarship as entertainment” (“Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” 5).  While scholarship should never aim to be “just” entertaining, resources that are fun (!) to interact with and academic writing that is pleasurable to read engage both academics and other interested learners more effectively than static black-on-white Times New Roman websites and painfully unclear writing.  If creators and curators of DH projects can successfully drive traffic to their websites, DH may offer an opportunity for literary critics and other scholars who want to effect social change to put their ideas in front of readers outside the academy.  If they are strategic and lucky enough for their work to go viral or start a trending hashtag (though given the sorts of things that usually go viral, this seems unlikely), they might be able to have a tangible impact on society, or at least educate more people about an important issue or idea.  This might be one step toward Moulthrop’s proposition of “reinventing literacy for a world beset by ignorance” (qtd. in Porsdam 37).

While a larger audience seems to be a good change for the humanities, a wider field of project creators has the potential to undermine the accuracy and reliability of DH resources.  The authors of the DH Manifesto 2.0 laud Wikipedia as the epitome of collaborative authorship, and while Wikipedia’s inclusion of all authors sounds warm and fuzzy, the obvious flaw is that it cannot be a reliable source using this model.  I wonder how inclusive the Manifesto authors would like DH projects to be.  Can anyone who wants to participate become a collaborative author?  Surely this undermines the project’s credibility.  If not, how would the project creators determine who can be an author?  Must he or she be an academic affiliated with a university?  If so, is this exclusionary, and does it work against the Wikipedia ideal?  According to the authors, DH calls for “a dedefinition of the roles of…expert and non-expert,” but I don’t want to cite a non-expert in my own work or rely on their research any more than I rely on Wikipedia (“Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” 7).  If that non-expert’s work was reviewed by an expert or was a result of collaboration with an expert, I would trust it.  This non-labeling of expertise is one of the deconstructed boundaries of DH that makes me uncomfortable, despite how enthused I am about most aspects of DH and types of DH projects discussed in this week’s readings, particularly, as Cordell puts it, “an open-ended, universally-accessible scholarly edition!!!!