Author Archives: Matt Smith

Does Data Dream of Human Queries?

While reading the articles for Tuesday’s class I am struck by two things: 1) I am overwhelmed by how complicated a simple search can be, and 2) searching is seemingly becoming sentient. As far as I can tell, the difference between syntactic and semantic search is that the latter has a sort of awareness of connotation, context, and meaning-as-use. This implicitly connects with John Searle’s notion of speech acts, and it explicitly connects with his thought experiment the ‘Chinese Room.’ So, it seems that a search is basically a form of a ‘perlocutionary act,’ wherein person one makes a statement and person two processes that statement as a request and performs the task. This is not as simple as a syntactic search function because oftentimes queries (human and digital) are made that require subtleties, such as connotation and context. If I was at class with a friend and said I would really enjoy reading a book that they happened to own, the clear contextual meaning is that I might want to borrow the book, but the meaning is not on the surface.

Similarly, this relates to the ‘Chinese Game,’ a thought experiment that attempted to show that Strong AI is a misnomer, and that—in fact—computers are incapable of real consciousness. This makes me reconsider what true consciousness is and what it means to interact between the lines. Computers have, for some time, been able to process commands, and Searle essentially argues that processing a command is the extent of their function, but the Quamen slides suggest a very different interaction. The semantic web “invents a language so that the meaning of pages is searchable,” and the database or search engine is able to process that meaning and interact with your query. It is startling to me that computers are becoming more adept at this process, and perhaps better at understanding human interaction and undertones than we are.

This, in conjunction with Linked Data, will generate still more interaction. It seems that the transition from syntactic to semantic parallels the transition from HTML to RDF. The article states that the results of this more complex, layered web of data will “make typed statements that link arbitrary things in the world…a web of things in the world, described by data on the web” (2). Data will begin assessing the world and generating producing statements about it, which makes me wonder when consciousness begins and ends. My computer can interact with other computers, it understands its surrounding and responds to it, and it understands by queries even if they’re slightly wrong or predicated on context. Do you think my computer judges me when I binge watch House of Cards?

Image vs. Print Culture

One of the fundamental issues concerning the disparity between print and image culture is the notion that “print culture foregrounds answers and pushes questions into the background.” I tend to balk when one thing is contrasted—at its very essence—to another thing, when lines are drawn and values are assessed. Personally, I found that books foregrounded information and pushed questions into the background until I began reading critically. So, is this a problem of the medium the information is delivered in or a problem of the consumer of that information? There are those that see images, a graph or a politically-charged image, and immediately assume it is indisputable information.

Information, whether image or data, will always be interpreted differently, but I think the important thing here is that the information is “as question-agnostic as they can be.” Print and image culture are capable of asking and answering the same questions. They merely perform the task in different ways. The idea that the scholar is able to “see emergent patterns in the chaos of data” is integral to new expanding new projects and facilitating current ones, but ultimately those emergent patterns will be read, analyzed, and processed by a skilled critical eye. The tools and languages we have learned about seem to facilitate and organize, but the print culture and the print critic are still necessary in order to make use of those tools and languages. I found the brief introduction to how databases actually work to be quite interesting and quite useful concerning how I go about to my own research. Of the many useful tidbits I’ve picked up, I find that digital humanists have an incredibly scientific approach to building a set of queries. I often forget the traditional inductive approach in favor of allowing my interest in a certain subject govern my research. Not only do they build hypotheses scientifically, but they also collect and organize that data in a necessarily logical pattern. I see the appeal of performing traditionally subjective research in a quantitative, scientific way. I grew up in the age that saw Dead Poets Society—jumping on chairs, reciting poetry in one’s whitey-tighties*, and chanting carpe diem—as the definition of English, so it is a nice breath of calculated air to entertain the prospect of rigor in research and eidetic certainty in our results.

*Don’t act like you didn’t have a pair.

Jet Skiing and the Benefits of Google Stupidity

Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” is not so much about the effects of Google upon us; rather, it is about how we assimilate into and subsume technological advances. I do not get the feelings that Carr bemoans Google or technological industry, but that he recognizes new ways of the collection, perception, and digestion of information have massive implications. Carr acknowledges Plato’s fear that writing condemned the memory to be an ancient predecessor to the fear we have of technology taking us over. Every generation has Luddites. John Ruskin believed that industry meant the demise of the soul, saying: “Let me not be thought to speak wildly or extravagantly. It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.”

This is essentially what Carr is gesturing towards: the notion that man and machine cannot work together without man fundamentally changing. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps that is good. Carr proposes roughly three possibilities: that we jet ski atop oceans of information rather than diving beneath them, that HAL begins his takeover with the help of Skynet, or that—like Nietzsche—we ‘just’ change. In the section about Nietzsche’s typewriter, I did not notice anything especially deleterious. The story was supposedly intended to elicit the notion that tools affect our production. Obviously. But I do not think we must allow that production to be changed for the worse, and I do not think Nietzsche’s change into aphoristic telegram-style is necessarily bad.

Daniel Levitin’s article, “Why the modern world is bad for your brain,” underlines multiple ways technology has limited or inhibited us. Much of the article deals with the overabundance of information, such as emails, which is similar to Carr’s concern that: “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” He states that “we risk turning into ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” Email is user-dependent. Turning into pancake people, or dilettantes, who only skim the surface is user-dependent. Plato presumably thought ancient Greeks would turn into pancake people if they relied on writing too much.

Writing diminished our memory but gave us more in return. Maybe our ability to focus or to read for long sessions will be diminished, but we may gain intellectual advantages. One way, obviously, is to read as much as possible in print, or don’t answer the phone, or don’t multi-task. I think the concern here is that we have no control over how technology advances. Plato, Ruskin, Levitin, and Carr seem to leave out our agency to a degree, they picture a helpless human at the mercy of a Skynet or HAL, but in this age of PoCo digital humanities, one would think we would include machines like Iron Giant or Johnny 5.

Avoiding the Pixel Dust of the Manifesto

At the risk of beating an already sufficiently dead horse, I compared this piece to the Manifesto(s), and I came away with the impression that—if condensed to a single apothegm—the latter’s would be “practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright,” while the former’s would be “to make sure humanities scholarship thrives, it is crucial that we cut through the fog of pixel dust–induced illusion to the practical realities of what digital technology offers to scholarship.” I liked how this piece formulated a more concrete plan for their call to action, and their call to action was to cut through the umbra that the Manifesto(s) seemed to lurk in.

While Drucker does not go into exhaustive detail, she does clarify certain points: “costs of ongoing maintenance,” paying for “highly skilled labor,” “servers, licenses.” She makes the point that books are cheaper than digital projects, a point that only adds to the gap between public and academic discourse. Drucker elaborates and clarifies on technical and fiscal concerns, but the issue that seems most salient to the PoCo and Capitalism D.H. is an awareness that “because much of the knowledge is currently being produced is at risk of being locked into silos and kept behind firewalls” and “large publicly supported projects need to succeed to keep intellectual life and public discourse vital.” The crossroads between public and academic discourse and capitalist and PoCo models is something the earlier texts skirted altogether, but Drucker’s seems to acknowledge the benefits that D.H. offers while not being hypnotized by their novelty.

She adds that “the much-touted “nonlinear” approach to composition is a choose-your-own-adventure model for grown-ups” and that “all manner of fantasies about crowdsourced, participatory knowledge generation that would essentially de-professionalize knowledge production.” This is a concern that was touched upon earlier: a hesitation to sacrifice expertise for the sake of open-access. How can D.H. be truly PoCo without some shift on that spectrum though? It seems that current standards are leaning too heavily on the capitalist side, but can that be prevented in a capitalist society? in a capitalist business like the academy? The age of D.H. obviously allows for the subaltern or the Other to speak, but is that voice drowned out in sea of other under-represented voices? Is that divide the new sea of PoCo, the great Atlantic that allows older white males to control discourse, commerce, and allows for a colonialism of the mind?

A Response to: “A Digital Humanities Manifesto(s)”

I want to acknowledge the reinvigorating nature of the manifestos and that their apparent excitement and sense of purpose is much needed. However, the tone and intent of the piece is self-defeating. It is redolent of Zizek’s defense of radicals. He argues that Mao and Robespierre’s revolutions and the killings associated with them were not only necessary but morally justifiable. Not only is there a pervasively combative tone to the piece, but it proliferates the age-old tendency of (to borrow Presner and Schnapp’s term) ‘Balkanizing’ in literary criticism.

From Plato’s assumption that poetry is dangerous to Samuel Johnson’s assertion that all literature must be mimetic, entertaining, and didactic; the authors of the manifesto are guilty of the same destruction wrought by the “great diminishers” who “reduce anything in digital humanities and preface our work with ‘just.’” Although they are wise to point out that departments are too insular and they are right to support interdepartmental and transdisciplinary discourse, they posit that “the Humanities are contingent formations that have become stabilized and made culturally redundant at the university.” They ask the reader to “imagine different constellations,” a “dedefinition of the contours of the research community once enclosed by university walls,” and  a “dedefinition of the roles of professor and student, expert and non-expert.”  These calls to change appear innocuous (though disturbingly vague), but when they also appeal to the audience to “practice digital anarchy by creatively undermining copyright” and that “there is something utopian at the core of digital humanities…the  no place,” the tone sounds less like Zizek and more like Jim Jones.
The manifesto is correct in asserting that every new genre “looks backwards as it moves forward,” it responds to, reacts to, and often contradicts previous conceptions of criticism, but it is (typically) a purification rather than a purgation. While most new forms of criticism offer new modes or techniques for evaluating or conceiving of literature, it appears as if the manifesto attempts to build an entirely new system from the rubble of previous systems, rather than using existing frameworks. When Cordell, in “On Ignoring Encoding,” says “textual encoding has never been as sexy as text analysis,” it is evident that the manifesto is a response and attempt to make digital sexy and tap into the booming market of trendy scholars with a dash of counter-cultural disillusionment and a heaping tablespoon of social awareness. It is as if the manifesto attempts to annihilate previous estimations of literary research in order to lay fallow the ground of defining the humanities anew, which is an unnecessary bifurcation of methodologies. Porsdam reminds us that, while digital humanities is redefining the field from the top-down and from the inside-out, “we don’t forget the humanities part of DH, don’t get carried away with the digital part and all its possibilities to such an extent that we forget the core strengths of the humanities.”

The old humanities and the new can, and ought, to work simultaneously and in cooperation in order to achieve their similar ends. The manifesto demarcates rather than unifies, it divides in an effort to conquer previous conniptions of academia. The restructuring, rethinking, and un-reification of academia are necessary for its existence in the 21st century, but not at the cost of throwing the ‘old white man’ out with the bath water.