Dr. Death

My original intention for my DAH MA was somewhat different, although not at all unrelated to, what I ended up becoming (re)interested in. And to such a degree that I’ve decided to pursue it as a PhD topic. Memory, identity, mediation of the self – these were my original interests. I was planning to consider them through photography and gesture (the image and the language of the body being two of my great loves). Instead, I will now consider them through the telescopic lens of death.

What started as a photography project in 2011 about graveyards is now continuing as academic research, the ambit of which is not truly clear to me yet. I intend to consider death, specifically the customs surrounding it in the digital age and how this digital age is changing how we think about and perform these rituals. Memory, obviously, and identity form an enormous part of these considerations.

There is an apocryphal story about Holy Island, in Clare, where feuding family members, unable to agree on how best to memorialize one of their number, erected two separate grave stones for one of their passed members. I have thus far been unable to establish if this is true or not, however, the mere possibility that it is, reminds us how important to individuals and society the process of memorializing the dead is. Funeral arrangements and how they are made and implemented have adapted and become more personalized and fluid. Predicated on the notion that Irish funerary customs differ from those in other cultures, I intend to investigate the digital expressions of these and analyze more closely how these are changing in in response to the availability of digital platforms, wider changes in culture, and new Irish communities such as those formed by immigrants from other European and African countries.

Changes in these practises enabled by the digital include, just for a start, online announcements, the use of QR Codes on gravestones , and of course, online memorialization – websites that allow mourners to create personalized web pages. The use of social networks to grieve was the subject of a study done by Brian Carroll and Katie Landry in 2010 in which they surveyed the use of MySpace and Facebook by 100 graduate students to investigate what they termed “these new rituals of mourning”. Among their conclusions was the position that “individuals’ online selves persist after their bodies have gone, and that these surviving digital selves are managed in important ways by others”.

What does the Facebook app “Ifidie” tell us about the management of the so-called digital self and who wants, or ought to want to, control this. The cheerful voice at the start of the short introductory video tells us: “Last words – we all hope we’ll have a chance to say them. But not knowing exactly when you’re going to die, makes this a bit tricky”. Well, here’s one way to be sure, and it’s to record yourself saying these words and leave the video ready to play in the event of your death. It’s known that Facebook is being adopted by an older user, and developing a simple add-on for this enormous platform is probably two days’ work for a design team, so it makes sense that FB might provide an in-house solution to a subject that its user base may be coming round to thinking about.

This is just one example, of course. The service offered, or which will be offered once it has been fully developed, by Eterni.me is in another galaxy altogether. “…what if you could be remembered forever?” asks the catch-line on the site. What if indeed. In its own words, the creators of this platform tell us that:

” Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.  Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends, even after you pass away.”

Big data for big ideas digging into the big past and the big present, to present a big future.

I started out by wondering (in my PhD proposal) if the omnipresence of digital portrayal / capture is so detailed that it somehow occludes the formation of the mythology – the crystallization of real lives into simple poetic narrative. By way of example, every family has its heroes, its bad boys, its black sheep, which are formed out of snippets of memories and narratives constructed partly through words, partly through photographs (perhaps) and partly through documents such as letters etc. that may have made their way into the family archive. The incompleteness of many of these stories is, arguably, the very thing which gives them their power. It is the incompleteness of, or the spaces left in the information, that allow our imaginations to fill the gaps (like water flowing between rocks?) and construct the family mythologies. At that stage I had not yet stumbled across Eterni.me. I can’t help but wonder if the use of and reliance on a far greater wealth of ‘data’ impoverishes our imaginations in some way. There are many other interesting side-effects on our increasingly mediated selves that bear consideration. Too many to explicate here, right now.

Anyway, I wrote my MA on this topic. And now, I am in the quite exciting position of being able to step back again somewhat and consider the landscape of this topic afresh. I will be doing most of the considerations publicly, for better or for worse, here. It is my site Status Code 301, named, kind of cleverly I thought, for a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code which means ” Moved Permanently. This and all future requests should be directed to the given URL”.

You may wish to have a look. I hope you will, because I do and will welcome opinions, ideas, and information of all types as I consider this wide-ranging topic in its early days.



Caroll, Brian, and Katie Landry. “Logging On and Letting Out: Using Social Networks to Grieve and Mourn.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society (2010): 341+  ibid., 348

The Body in Photography and Motion – Re-mediation & Notation


Image: “Ann Hutchinson Guest”


Some notes for intended research on the body, specifically movement / posture re-mediated through the ubiquity of photography.  I’ll be creating a dynamic photo-based website which will explore how movement and non-verbal communication (posture) has evolved since about the turn of the century.  To investigate this I will be comparing how people stand / sit / gesture (in other words, use their bodies) in photographs from 1910 to the present. The reason I’ve chosen this time frame is that there is far less photographic evidence to work with before roughly 1910. For instance, Eastman Kodak introduced their Brownie camera in 1900, and millions entered households between 1952 – 1967.

My theory is that, although there are a number of reasons for these changes (women’s emancipation, the development of certain fabrics which facilitate ease of motion, improvements in health, and so forth), at least one of the reasons for what I believe to be a big change is the re-mediation of the self through advances in and the ubiquity of photography.  As there was an increase in informal snapshots, there was a simultaneous increase in formal portraits, all allowing the subjects to see themselves represented as immobile forms and providing ample time to study themselves with artefact in hand.  I am not particularly interested in the so-called ‘Selfie’, although there is a great deal of scholarly work being done on this topic.  I haven’t fully worked out the reason I am not interested, but am continuing to consider this and will report once I understand why.

I am, however, very interested in dance and movement and am working out the the link between the above and the grapheme.  I’m exploring codes – computer code (about which I know just a little), mathematical symbols (which frighten me, to be honest), and the development of alphabets and notational systems.  Punctuation and notational systems are very interesting, because there are a number of different dance notation systems and none of them are suitable for all our needs.

I understand this to be because the human body and the many movements it is capable of in space and time are quite hard to capture symbolically.  Besides that, there is the fact that a simple movement may have a range of meanings depending on by whom, for whom, and why it is performed.  Add to that the stillness of a photograph and the possible (probable?) intention of the subject to have this particular movement framed, and we have, in my opinion, some interesting questions about:

a) how to show this in written / coded form

b) how to interpret the stilled movement (the posture)

c) what possible influences (personal and cultural) there may be to the ‘quality’ of that posture

As pointed out by Ann Hutchinson Guest in her thoroughly researched book Dance Notation, The Process of Recording Movement on Paper: “Abstract ideas may produce designs created by isolated changes in the situation of hands, head, shoulder, hip, leg, elbow, etc.”  The question is how any notation system can deal with such subtle differences and precision in the use of parts of the body, especially when we think of locating them spatially and temporally as well.

Nowadays, and for some time, we have video, of course, and almost everyone has access to some form of simple visual recording equipment and a way to archive and share this via various online platforms.  There are, however, questions about different formats and we are far from a long term solution to problems of archiving in particular.  In addition to that, we should consider the difference between the original or intended movement of a dance / movement piece and a copy / rendition / performance / interpretation of that work.

If a notated score or record of the use of the body in a particular way is useful, then at least part of its usefulness rests on the the quality of that record.  Poorly recorded video aside, we also rarely have access to visual information that shows the body in 360º, for instance, and arguably if we are trying to understand, learn, or repeat a movement this would be better than a single frontal view.  Notation can give far more complete information, much like a music score which is usually preferred to a recorded version.


Image: “Ann Hutchinson Guest”

A quick search through You Tube, as one example of the use of a social media platform for engaging with movement, will show hundreds of thousands (millions ?) of videos on the topics of dance and movement.  These have been uploaded by everyone from young people practising or devising moves in their bedrooms to dance academies exploring, teaching, and showcasing choreographies.  Clearly, the video is a useful and popular format for investigating the body in motion.  There have also been significant developments in motion capture technology, which deserves a whole section to itself. Just briefly, it is used a lot in video games, for special effects in film, in virtual reality for training simulations, and for medical / clinical work such as gait analysis.  Despite this, Labanotation (also known as Kinetography Laban) and Benesh Movement Notation continue to be the two most popular forms of dance notation in use.

But we’re not just talking about dance or even just dance notation; this is simply a jumping off point for me.  I’m interested in how we can represent movement graphically, through the use of symbols on a page, virtual or physical –  and why we continue to need or want to do this and what the implications for and connections to the written word are.  My presupposition is that the body and the movement it is capable of is very important, because it is itself a language. Perhaps I should have said this at the outset, or I did, in a way, but I’m saying it again, for my own benefit.

Notation is Code

I have been reading about early forms of writing; the Phoenician Alphabet, for instance, had no vowel sounds and replaced the (reign of terror ?) of complex symbols with beautiful clean sounds that could be composited to make many concepts out of individual words. Right now I’m thinking of it as early coding, but I need to discuss that with a philosophical coder I know to work out if the analogy has any kind of proper relationship to reality.

Notation is a visual language.  Computer code is a language that makes a computer “do” something; there is a difference between source code and machine code, one is readable by humans and the other readable and executable by machines.  This “maps well to the imperative mood in natural language”, said a helpful friend via sms when I asked what the notion of the “executable” meant in other languages and if the distinction only needed to be made when we speak of computer language.  Apparently “programming is sometimes compared to baking or cooking, and programs behave like recipes.”  I did not know of this useful little analogy.


Image: Screengrab, “Graphic Notation Project”


Image: Screengrab, “Graphic Notation Project”


Image: Screengrab, “Graphic Notation Project”

Here is a very interesting presentation on how we “refer a visual object, an object which has been made with ink on paper”, the Graphic Notation Project.



I’ll be back as soon as this stage is on firmer ground. What I want to look at, more specifically, are the following:

i) the requirements we have of a notational systems

ii) the differences between a music score and a dance score

iii) developments in dance notation software

Any information or tips readers may like to share with me, please feel free to leave me a comment.


Hutchinson Guest, Ann.  Dance Notation, The Process of Recording Movement on Paper. London, Dance Books Ltd, 1984



Fantasizing the Gaze

Screen shot 2014-04-03 at 14.28.54In 2003 Abercrombie & Fitch, the American clothing label, produced a catalogue called ‘The Sex Ed Issue’ and asked the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek to contribute text.  Žižek riffed on some of his familiar themes, inspired by the highly stylised and sexualised imagery with which A & F were, at the time, experimenting.

Is the catalogue an example of fruitful cross – polination or mongrelisation? Either way, it gave rise to Žižek’s text above.

As a friend said, “Happy are the couple who do not need that gaze“.

Oh dear neglected blog,

I am sorry I may have given you reason to doubt my commitment to you.  I understand completely if you’ve all but given up on me and decided that I just don’t care enough and am lousy to be in a relationship with.  I have been unfaithful to you, I admit, and have spent a good bit of time over here.  I couldn’t help but be excited to curate, yes curate, so many interesting reflections and responses to my questions about collaboration and authorship and copyright.  I think you’ll understand if you have a look and won’t be as disappointed in me as you might be right now.

The other thing is, I, we, are preparing for the Day of DH 2014 series of seminars to be hosted at UCC next Tuesday.  It’s a day long symposium during which the entire class will present on their research interests, their chosen format for dissertation presentation, a summary of learning outcomes, a situating of ourselves within the broader area of digital humanities.  And more.  It’s a day to review and gather strength ( ideas, suggestions?) for the next phase of our studies.

Our class meeting falls on the international Day of DH, “an open community publication project that will bring together scholars interested in the digital humanities from around the world to document what they do on one day”.  This kind of project is in keeping with the constant process of self-questioning and digital terraforming of those that see themselves as digital humanists.  The desire to share what it is we do is underpinned by a desire to understand more clearly what impact this may be having.  The impact is felt on academic work at the university and other educational institutions, on the actions and mechanisms of learning and disseminating knowledge, and on the consideration of what exactly constitutes knowledge in the first place.  Who has access to this knowledge, the information, the data?  How is this access structured?  Who has control over it?  Who can play in the digital data stream?  What do they need to have and to know before they can play?  And crucially, we ask ourselves often, how is this different to before?  What has The Digital changed and how has it changed it?

Our class have created a site that will ‘serve as a hub for the day’, as Shawn Day has put it.  We will be hosting ‘Interventions. Day of DH 2014’ in the university and on this site.

We will each be presenting our thesis proposals and looking for overlapping themes in research interests, discussing the chosen format for our dissertations, and the larger questions these engage with in our thinking about and understanding of digital humanities scholarship.

The questions we consider in our individual projects link to the wider issues in the digital humanities; interactivity, the use of digital tools and their influence on research and the creation of ‘product’ / artefact, the necessarily collaborative nature of the work, and its influence on our understanding of and engagement with others and the work itself.  Archiving, histories (oral and written), methodologies, creative practice – all are influenced and loop back into a consideration of methods and how they may influence the research; the gathering and dissemination of information, the nature of ‘information’ itself, and how this creates a different landscape for academic and other work.

It is in this spirit that we will be questioning what kinds of ‘Interventions’ The Digital constitutes for humanities research and concerns, what kinds of interventions we create with our approaches, and the uses we make of what our rampant digitality offers us.  Finally, it is part of a larger project to think carefully and deeply about what all this means to our understanding, our thinking, our learning, and indeed, how we live in the world today.

Our Right To Remember ~ Our Right to Know

Information Archiving TimelineDigital text, like any other digital artefact, is associated with a number of fundamentally problematic issues: impermanence, intellectual property, integrity, and access.  While these issues are interlinked, those surrounding impermanence are a good place to begin.

Between 1949 -1989 the Stasi in East Germany “generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages” (Funder, Anna, Stasiland, 2003).  The so-called Firm kept paper files on its citizens logging everything from the most mundane activities to those involving potentially threatening connections with the West. When the Berlin Wall fell, agents shredded either by machine or by hand, the vast majority of these files, in a frenzied attempt to annul, or at least sterilize, the paranoid 40-year history of this state. The shredded files, index cards, photographs, and unwound tapes, were bound in sacks, approximately 15,000 of them, and are the focus of a reconstruction effort that has been ongoing for 18 years.

15000 Sacks of DocumentsThe files contain histories of interest to both historians and the approximately 16 million one-time citizens of the state.  Citizens seek to understand their own lives under the regime; why a life took on a particular shape; why someone may have “lost their place at the university, or what happened to an uncle who disappeared” .  A small group of people, once referred to as “The Puzzle Women”, although not all are women, have been meticulously matching and patching together the millions of scraps of paper since 1995.  It is a recognition of the value placed on this material as well as on what it represents – the manifestation of memories – that in 2007 the German government commissioned the Berliner Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology to develop a computer system, the “e-Puzzler”, to help by digitizing the process.  Eventually, it is hoped, the files will not only be reconstructed, but also available online. While this development will vastly speed up the work of reconstruction, there is currently no clear estimate on how many more years will be required.

While most of us have an idea of what dangers are faced by traditional archives, opinions on internet archiving move between two extremes; either it is held that once something is online it remains there for eternity, or else that the impermanence of the digital medium makes the internet a dangerous space in which to store information.  In addition, the average person has only a vague idea of how surprisingly physical the storage of digital media is.  Aside from the personal data storage devices we use, we tend to rely on  “the cloud”.  The cloud, however, requires servers generally housed in data centres, which need a power supply, cooling systems, as well as protection from physical damage and hacking or other forms of tampering.  The longevity of the digital artefact is further jeopardized by data errors, deterioration of the digital format, loss of passwords, and the need for specific hardware, operating systems, and software. And finally, domains and servers need to remain active and be paid for.

Cohen and Rosenzweig in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, And Presenting the Past on the Web (2005), present a sobering overview of some of the dangers faced by our new archiving tools.  The biggest cost of archiving digitally is storage space and environmental control.  Also required is a reliable and specialized Information Technology.  The necessity for understanding the technology involved in archiving is emphasized as the authors address the historians at whom this book is aimed: “they should make sure that their website’s underlying code is easy to maintain through the use of documentation and technical conventions, and that it does not rely too heavily on specific technologies to run properly.”  Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book is filled with practical information to assist in creating an archive that will survive the many risks faced by digital information and as such draws attention to how fragile the medium is.

Archivists are recommended to create and save several back-up versions of their data; on external hard drives in more than one location, and on other removable media such as CD-ROMs.  Financing as a challenge to archiving is not to be easily dismissed.  Cohen and Rosenzweig’s provide the example of a genealogy website created and managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which having reaching the end of their funding period, had no choice but to remove hundreds of submitted materials from the internet.  It was only possible to archive a small number of submissions due to the specific build of the site.  The authors pointed out that electronic data is “far more unstable than such paper records,” and then quoted Margaret Hedstrom of The University of Michigan, who reported that: “No acceptable methods exist today to preserve complex digital objects that contain combinations of text, data, images, audio, and video and that require specific software applications for reuse.”  There were, at the time of this book’s publication in 2005, few guarantees that digitized or born-digital materials could be safely archived permanently. It is worth noting that digital objects can be migrated across infrastructure upgrades, and copied infinitely without loss of quality.  This is not the case with film, paper, or even stone tablets.

Sumerian Cuneiform ScriptIn considering the impulse to archive and make accessible digital material we tend to forget that the internet is just over 20 years old.  Yet in that time, immense amounts of material have been produced and stored digitally.  Decisions need to be made about what can be legally archived, by whom, where, how often, and to whom this material will be made accessible.  There is a lag between our prolific digital output and the technical ability, funding, societal recognition of the value of digital artefacts, and political will required to successfully save what the digital medium produces.

Already there are projects under way which show our curiosity about and desire to recover and chronicle our recent digital history.  The fascinating Digital Archeology project has spawned Digital Revolution, an exhibition to be hosted in London’s Barbican Centre in the summer of 2014, which aims to be an overview and celebration of the effect of digital technology on the arts.  A fine example of the growing appreciation of the born-digital, the collection will “bring together a range of artists, filmmakers, architects, designers, musicians and game developers that have pushed back digital boundaries”.  This is connected to “Game On” a touring exhibition, which is constantly being updated, of game developments since 1962.  The First Website aims to create “a destination that reflects the story of the beginnings of the web for the benefit of future generations.”

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 14.24.15There are large number of digital archives online, with various degrees of accessibility, ranging from the general public to subscribed members. These are created, maintained, and usually stored in a number of different facilities, by universities, museums, media organizations, guilds, and special interest groups, among others. Electronic journals, news, scholarly content, literature from various periods, music and dance, and collections of photographs and film, as well as other products of popular culture, are being stored and made accessible.  Significant work is being done by libraries such as the British Library in the UK, and the Library of Congress in the US, and in fact, in wealthy countries most national libraries run some form of digital archiving programme.

The Internet Archive, perhaps the most widely known of the digital archives, was formed in 1996.  Brewster Kahle is the archivist behind it.  “The best way to preserve things is to make them accessible,” he says in Jonathan Minard’s documentary The Internet Archive.  Information stored in a dark archive, a more traditional archive the purpose of which is to save the material from damage and as such is generally inaccessible, goes against the principle of “keeping things in use, active, part of the mindshare,” so that “a poor kid in Kenya or a poor kid in Kansas can have access to the great works all the time, no matter where they are.”  It is the mission of the Internet Archive to “give things away in a perpetual way” and the successful storage of and accessibility of this material is the key.

It is precisely this motivation to make available the various creative and developmental flowerings of humanity, in whatever medium they were produced, which landed Aaron Swartz in well known difficulty.  His Open Access Manifesto, against “the privatization of knowledge” makes for exhilarating reading.  While this young man’s story ended tragically in his death just over a year ago, following federal prosecutors charges against copyright violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, there is a constantly increasing awareness of the need to address questions of ownership of information.  Groups such as the Open Planets Foundation work on “making tools available under an open source licence where and when possible”.  The European Commission focuses on the legal labyrinth of copyright law in the digital age.  The Fix Copyright campaign aims to both educate citizens on the need for understanding of copyright issues regarding digital materials, and to gather input from the same citizens on what they “believe should be done to make copyright fit for purpose in the digital age.”  Copyright law exists since the early 1700s and has gone through many amendments and adaptations to keep pace with the changes in technology since then.

The problems of long term storage using a digital medium are of a technical nature and new creative solutions are constantly being developed.  The questions of access are a thornier topic; access is fraught with obstacles. In the main, these are in the form of the behemoths of copyright and economics.  Access for the purposes of capture and archiving in the first place, and then access to the stored information, are dogged by legislation, business interests, political interests, and the economic capacities of individuals and nations.  Activists like Aaron Swartz and Lawrence Lessig, among many others, have made meaningful contributions to the debate.  It bears remembering, however, that the idea that “sharing isn’t immoral – it’s a moral imperative.” IS a profoundly radical idea to which opposition abounds more than at any time in history.

403 or 404?

The impermanence of digital text is just one of the worrying issues about it, sitting alongside concerns about intellectual property, the integrity of the text, and access. What happens to something you’ve written once you’ve released it into the digital ether? What if someone paraphrases you incorrectly, or misattributes what they’ve read, or takes your carefully crafted words and plagiarises them? What’s worse, getting a 403 error or a 404 error – being forbidden access or being told that there’s nothing there, especially if you knew there ought to be or was before.

The Guardian recently reported that the Conservative government in the UK removed the entire digitised record of its speeches made from 2000-2010. Not only that, but it has also blocked access via an internet archive – a library of internet pages called Wayback Machine, a non-profit founded in 1996. In effect, this means that unless you have access to a hard copy of any of the speeches, happened to have been present to record them, or they have been recorded and made available via a news channel (and there are many forms of this online), you have no means of knowing what was said in an official capacity by agents of this government. We are back to the old days of relying on the printed word in the form of paper, if such a record exists, or of relying on memory and oral transmission of this information. [Hello Winston Churchill, the Ministry of Truth, and the pen!] The intermediate archiving stage of microfiche is hardly used today; the advantages of digital storage (indexing information, being able to use any computer to read and share the files) outweighing the disadvantages (the instability of the CD as data carrier – easily dealt with by backing up the data on different hard drives and the cloud).


The Wayback Machine states the following as its mission: “Most societies place importance on preserving artifacts of their culture and heritage. Without such artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures. Our culture now produces more and more artifacts in digital form. The Archive’s mission is to help preserve those artifacts and create an Internet library for researchers, historians, and scholars.” These are the traditional aims of an archive but it’s the material and the method that is new. The process and the result of preserving digital history is not beyond destruction with a few key strokes. There are other dangers too, such as damage to any physical material or equipment. (And no, the irony of this being the same company – Wayback Machine, is not lost on me) However, removal or tampering is a more likely source of danger both for archives and current information. The situation Wikileaks found itself in three years ago when its domain provider withdrew its hosting service, after pressure from governments, is a case in point. The internet itself is a giant archive, and so long as the information is not removed and domains and servers remain active, that information is not going anywhere but will continue to exist and leave ghostly trails of itself potentially forever.

So what about archiving, and specifically archiving of digital data, – how is it decided what to archive in the first place. Everything? Is that even possible? Actually it is because cyberspace is theoretically limitless, bound only by storage space provided by companies and bandwidth. The real question then becomes: how do we find what we’re looking for and how do we tell if it’s true. Metaphysical questions of truth aside, we do need to ask about the identity of the information collectors, their methods of getting the information, and any affiliations to groups that may influence the type of data that is being archived. This is the basis of any sound journalistic practice; checking the facts and sources. Even a sound journalistic approach, however, does not mean that the information is 100% reliable. Katherine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, wrote this excellent piece considering this topic from many angles, including the idea that traditional journalism can accommodate the less professional [read: thorough] method and even stands to gain by it.

The concern over the trustworthiness of the many sources of information we now have access to, thanks to the internet (or more specifically Web 2.0 – the interactive net that allows anyone with a computer and internet connection a digital soapbox), is not new. It has been debated and considered for some years. And still, we are subject to many hoaxes, much non-sense, and far from reliable information.  It’s true that any nutter with a laptop can now spread his or her nuttiness much further afield than before. It must also be true that for every byte of misinformation online, there is at least a byte of accurate information. The internet generally relies on the so-called wisdom of the crowds. Looking at Wikipedia as an example, a 2006 article reports that while 13% of articles contain mistakes, the general accuracy of this site is high. Another study, unfortunately stuck behind a paywall, states that the accuracy of Wikipedia comes close to that of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The ‘more than 700 volunteers’ working collaboratively on an OpenStreetMap of the areas in the Philippines affected by the recent typhoon, will correct each other’s mistakes as quickly as they may be made.

So where does this leave us? It leaves me considering access, impermanence, and verification as some of the issues surrounding the digital artefact. It bears stating, that these issues have always surrounded artefacts. In the ‘olden’ days, they may not have been behind an online paywall, but they might have been inside a pyramid intended only for the dead, or a cave, or a monastery, or a museum. None of these were accessible to all, some were more permanent than others, and many were highly dubious as records of any kind of truth.

The difference may be something more to do with the explicitness of the 403 or 404 error. Anyone with internet access can try their luck; they may be stopped and told to go away (and then perhaps followed suspiciously) or they may be told that ‘no, there’s nothing here, there never was, your memory is faulty’.

But the fact that they can try, and be told clearly why the attempt is failing is a powerful position to be in. From that position change can happen.

Asking the Question ‘What is DH’ again and again and again

The question for me is really how well we need to define a thing before we do it. In the case of Digital Humanities, we are ‘doing it’ with vastly different degrees of awareness. Awareness, in general, is seen as good thing. So while most people would not argue against critical awareness of any activity, there is an understandable impatience with the question as well. Some like to ‘do’ and some like to think about what is being done and how and why. Digital Humanities, as a discipline, can seem impenetrable in some ways, which is ironic considering how entangled we are in technology’s web and how much both excitement and fear there is around our entanglement.

Obviously, there’s a balance to be reached between the theorizing of the practice(s) and the practising of the practice(s). This is exactly what makes DH different – it attempts to do this very thing; bring the two together. It is by nature inclusive, collaborative, and disruptive to hierarchies and chains of command; all of which make it a possible force for good. Almost any question, regardless how naive, will have been addressed and debated at some point. And the questions come from many disciplines and many practitioners working at different levels; education, social science, art, history, literature, business – to name a few.

As Alan Liu points out, the digital humanities are both functional and symbolic. DH exists as a discipline to foreground our engagement with technology and to ask questions of how this engagement proceeds, how we use it in our lives, and how it can be made to serve us. A critical perspective on these issues is at the heart of DH.

Clearly, those valuing humanity are not just those engaged in scholarly study of one of the areas which traditionally belong to ‘The Humanities’. Its home in the university does have a purpose, however, and again paraphrasing Alan Liu, that purpose has something to do with rescuing the use of technology as a means of communication from the grasping claws of business. Before we all click ‘monetize’ on our YouTube channels, let’s stop to consider in whose service this action is and what world of compromise we are entering. Who was it that said: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”? I think we can see where this argument is going.

If we ‘follow the money’, we can see levels of funding for the Humanities in universities decreasing steadily. [I know, citation needed, how about this ?] It has been said that DH will help to keep the Humanities in universities alive – meaning adequately funded and, importantly, perceived to be relevant in a culture that increasingly places value on technical training and business skills with a high and fast return. It argues for an education that is both liberal and practical and as a discipline it engages thoughtfully with hot topics – such as big data, which troubles many of us. DH attempts to add an appreciation for the variety of human activity to the skills sets of graduates who have technological savvy and business sense. It also recognizes that technological savvy is an important component of the knowledge and working methodologies of those involved in the humanities, whether as scholars or individuals working in any of the variety of fields.

But the definitions are many and varied, as – and this has been pointed out ad nauseum, Digital Humanities is an emerging discipline, and as such one of its objectives is to define itself. By the way, I have impulsively decided, completely off my own bat and without anyone’s say-so, to distinguish ‘Digital Humanities’ as that area which has been terriorialised by the university from the lower case ‘digital humanities’ as that area which is simply full of the great variety of people engaging in it either in practice or theory but not as a specifically scholarly activity. This distinction arises out of some strongly worded feedback provided on an earlier draft of this post {EO’B] and a subsequent conversation with a fellow student {MCS}.

To wrap up: here’s a nice project of quotes which represent the diversity of the opinions on what digital humanities is. I am not sure how many views are buried on this site but each refresh of the page generates a new one, and I can say with authority that 20 minutes of clicking produces a trance-like effect and doesn’t reach the end of the definitions. Through this I stumbled upon GitHub which makes available all the quotes in a csv file that is free to download and use to make new work by anyone. GitHub is a good example of the type of collaborative effort and the sharing of skills and information that is among the defining characteristics of the digital humanities.

Word Up

Slide1As part of the Conceptual Introduction to Digital Humanities course, I would like to host a series of blog posts, here on my own blog, on the subject of Collaborative Writing. Working titles are “Changing Notions of Authorship” or “Is the Power in the Text or the Author?”. I would be interested to see contributions on the topic from people writing in diverse fields; journalism, acadaemia, education, film, and others.

This comes directly out of my own initial resistance to the idea of writing collaboratively and the esteem, I realise now, in which I hold ‘the word’. Music, dance, performance, film, and even the making of still images lends itself far more easily and productively to collaboration with others, but for me, words are sacrosanct and the product of one mind. What this leaves out, of course, are the many influences a single mind is subject to – this is, in this view, dealt with by proper and honest attribution of ideas / sources. The issue of copyright and the legal minefield this quickly becomes, particularly in the digital age, mingles with ideas of creative and collaborative authorship rather like an overbearing guest at a party.

Rather than a straightforward editorial process of herding the different views / voices into one corral, I would like to try to approach it more synchronously and see what happens. We may create an artefact, that is both a solid explication and interesting example of itself. I’d like to throw the doors open and am hereby officially welcoming any text / images / films / other which explore this idea.

Film Projectors as Microscopes: Microanalysis of Interaction (1955-1975). – Visual Anthropology Review

Film Projectors as Microscopes: Ray L. Birdwhistell & Microanalysis of Interaction (1955-1975). – Davis – 2008 – Visual Anthropology Review 


Power, Privacy and the Internet

A one day conference organised be The New York Review of Books to “look at the role of the internet both as a vehicle of political and cultural dissent and, in the hands of the state, as a weapon of repression and control”