Archive | February 2013

Humanities by any other name

On Monday night, I attended the latest in a series of thought-provoking events taking place within the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU. As part of their Annual Research Programme, Dr David M. Berry (currently based at the University of Swansea and author of several books on digital cultures, software and code) had been invited to give a talk on the fundamental nature of Digital Humanities scholarship. Given the current changes taking place within MMU and many other universities as a result of educational technologies arriving on campus, a naturally large audience was secured.

Berry took a rather critical approach in his lecture, raising a number of issues and problems around Digital Humanities as both an academic discipline, and as a brand. Given how enthusiastic he is about DH his criticism is highly informed and cannot be said to be of the reactionary sort. And really that was his whole point: as academics we must continue to raise difficult, challenging questions about the subject areas within which we are embedded. It was refreshing to have the all-too tangible tensions between scholarly and business imperatives recognised in relation to DH. In terms of my own research, such debates are vital to understanding how academics in different fields relate to, understand, and use digital and new media.

Enriching and challenging tradition

Key philosophical questions about the nature(s) of digital environments and techniques are often overlooked by proponents of  DH (although not, it must be said, by Cultural and Media theorists). Many nascent Digital Humanists are unsure what the term means – or what the core epistemic assumptions and problematics underlying their discipline are. Partly this is because Digital Humanities is an emerging and multi-disciplinary field, without clear historical traditions or organisational roots. Partly also it is because, for many Universities, “Digital Humanities” is something of a buzzword, with a surface level appeal considered enough in itself to attract new students and academics.

The danger is that Digital Humanists will become lost in computational formalisms, technologically-determinist methodologies, and the quantitative structural logic of engineers. They may lose sight of both the wider and more detailed perspectives brought about by traditional methods for illuminating truths about discourse and humanity. There is also the risk – in a target focused managerial culture – of being dazzled to the point of critical amnesia by the large public audiences that digital projects can garner when compared with audiences available for “gold standard” outputs like monographs.

Yet so long as we are careful not to sell or neglect our fundamental principles, Digital Humanities have much to offer. The Understanding Shakespeare project that Dr Berry showed to us during his afternoon workshop was one such example. Multiple German translations of Shakespeare have been scanned, OCRd and marked up, ready to be represented and queried digitally and visually. Analysing text and metadata computationally can reveal known and previously unknown correspondences and differences between editions, whether in terms of structure or content. As with many other semantic-web based tools (e.g. Gephi, Google Ngram and IBM’s Many Eyes), parameters can be set by researchers in a few easy steps and huge corpora can be explored – something almost impossible to do manually.

For me, the take home message was that the Digital Humanities – regardless of specific instantiations within individual institutions – must “extend their critique to include society, politics, the economic and the cultural.” Many researchers are already doing this and I certainly aim to do so in my own work. At the same time, Humanities scholars must not forget the “traditional” core concerns of their fields – i.e. the human subject, speculative knowledge, interpretation, and the value of focused, close readings – even as they rearticulate those concerns in exciting ways via computational methods.

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A Serpentine Spring

Emerging, before even the turn of last century, from a handful of immigrant families and some traditional money-making laundrettes, Manchester’s Chinatown has grown to become the third largest in Europe. A half square-mile filled primarily with restaurants, supermarkets, herbalists and accountants, its growth was driven by a population explosion that began in 1984. In 1987, the erection of a beautiful Ming Dynasty Chinese arch (or Paifang) marked the fact that Chinatown and its community were most proudly and definitely here to stay.

Sometime every February then (the exact date changes according to the moon and the sun), various surrounding roads are closed off, everything becomes a great deal more colourful, and celebrations marking the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year begin. Food stalls, traditional music, a Dragon and Lion dance, and a 12 minute firework display were among this year’s festivities. The weather wasn’t exactly friendly, meaning that the crowds were a little smaller than hoped – but everybody who made it seemed to be having a great time, particularly the children buying paper dragons and sweets and waving long streamers around in the cold air while the stall holders gleefully shouted out half price promotions or cooked up delicious smelling food.

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According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the year of the Snake, the meaning of which varies by gender. According to Mary Bai at CITS:

People born in the year of the Snake often have a good temper and a skill at communicating but say little. They possess gracious morality and great wisdom. They are usually financially secure and do not have to worry about money. They are determined to accomplish their goals [and] hate to fail. Although they look calm on the surface, they are intense and passionate. They have a rich source of inspiration and understand themselves well. They are people of great perception. Women under the sign of the snake do well in housework but are irritable.

Liquidity Crisis

For anyone using Gmail (and that means a lot of us these days), mutated “personalised” ads are something of a constant which often you just can’t help but notice. Considering how easy it usually is to visually filter out website ads or turn them off altogether with plugins like AdBlock, getting us to linger over them at all is in itself something of an achievement. Sure, most of us have figured out how to access the “Ad Preferences Manager” and “opt out” of these sort of ads…but this is to some extent misleading. Despite confirming that I have opted out, Gmail still happily states that many of the ads I see are “based on the email that you are viewing.”

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In control? Hmm.

I assume they mean “based on” in the same way that Django Unchained is “based on” historical events, because many bizarrely off-kilter ads rear up daily to distract me from the important and time-critical business of procrastination email correspondence. Is this really what they have in mind when they talk about Advertainment?

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A coment on my typos?

Many attempts are clearly generic “catch alls” – cheap holidays, bank loans, ancestry searches etc. Many others reveal the problem with using only a simple keyword extraction approach to determining from my mails what might interest me. If I am already undertaking a PhD at a University – something made clear from my email signature – then how likely am I really to want to start another one in Cardiff, Leeds or exotic Manchester? Others are less explicable – Learn Acting in Australia! Hawaii Beach Weddings! Plus Size Swimwear. Really? Believe it or not, these do not relate to my Google searches either. I can only assume this is where their demographic profiling shows off its flawless powers of deduction.

Never until today had an ad that might actually, truly be relevant presented itself. Best of all, it was wonderfully, knowingly ironic and self-referential. This – yes, I clicked the hyperlinked ad words! Deliberately! – was where I landed:

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Often out of focus

It pains me to admit that I am actually now thinking of buying this book. Did they finally find a way to trap me? I, so immune from the sinister world of both mass and personalised marketing? Doubtless, Google and Amazon are already working together to track whether or not I make the purchase.  The hoped for path from my inbox to my letterbox, once complete, will light up their control panel in waves of ecstatic green. Ticker tape will fall from the sky. And they will add me, quietly, to their tally of “converts”. Borrowed from the now-defunct Christians, convert (in new marketing speak) means “when someone clicks on your ad and performs a behavior on your website that you recognize as valuable, such as calling your business from a mobile phone or making a purchase on your website.” Surely Zygmunt Bauman would be proud of me for NOT buying the book? His bank manager, possibly less so.