Saturday, 5 January 2013

Keeping corridors clear of dragons (on agency and digital humanities tools)

A while ago I posted 'Reflections on teaching Neatline', which was really about growing pains in the digital humanities. I closed by asking 'how do you balance the need for fast-moving innovative work-in-progress to be a bit hacky and untidy around the edges with the desires of a wider group of digital humanities-curious scholars [for stable, easy-to-use software]? Is it ok to say 'here be dragons, enter at your own risk'?' Looking back, I started thinking about this in terms of museum technologists (in Museum technologists redux: it's not about us) but there I was largely thinking of audiences, and slightly less of colleagues within museums or academia.  I'm still not sure if this is a blog post or just an extended comment on those post, but either way, this is an instance of posting-as-thinking.

Bethany Nowviskie has problematised and contextualised some of these issues in the digital humanities far more elegantly for an invited talk at the MLA 2013 conference. You should go read the whole thing at resistance in the materials, but I want to quickly highlight some of her points here.

She quotes William Morris: '...you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value. And it seems to me, too, that with a machine, one’s mind would be apt to be taken off the work at whiles by the machine sticking or what not' and discusses her realisation that:
"Morris’s final, throwaway complaint is not about that positive, inherent resistance—the friction that makes art—which we happily seek within the humanities material we practice upon. It’s about resistance unhealthily and inaccessibly located in a toolset. ... precisely this kind of disenfranchising resistance is the one most felt by scholars and students new to the digital humanities. Evidence of friction in the means, rather than the materials, of digital humanities inquiry is everywhere evident."
And she includes an important call to action for digital humanities technologists: "we diminish our responsibility to address this frustration by naming it the inevitable “learning curve” of the digital humanities. Instead, we might confess that among the chief barriers to entry are poorly engineered and ineptly designed research tools and social systems". Her paper is also a call for a more nuanced understanding and greater empathy from tool-builders toward those who are disenfranchised by tools they didn't create and can't hack to fit their needs. It's too easy to forget that an application or toolset that looks like something I can happily pick up and play with to make it my own may well look as unfathomable and un-interrogable as the case of a mobile phone to someone else.

Digital humanities is no longer a cosy clubhouse, which can be uncomfortable for people who'd finally found an academic space where they felt at home. But DH is also causing discomfort for other scholars as it encroaches on the wider humanities, whether it's as a funding buzzword, as a generator of tools and theory, or as a mode of dialogue. This discomfort can only be exacerbated by the speed of change, but I suspect that fear of the unknown demands of DH methods or anxiety about the mental capabilities required are even more powerful*. (And some of it is no doubt a reaction to the looming sense of yet another thing to somehow find time to figure out.) As Sharon Leon points out in 'Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?', digital historians are generally 'at home with the sense of uncomfortableness and risk of learning new methods and approaches' and can cope with 'a feeling of being at sea while figuring out something completely new', while conversely 'this kind of discomfort is simply to overwhelming for historians who are defined by being the expert in their field, being the most knowledgable, being the person who critiques the shortfalls of the work of others'.

In reflecting on March 2012's Digital Humanities Australasia and the events and conversations I've been part of over the last year, it seems that we need ways of characterising the difference between scholars using digital methods and materials to increase their productivity (swapping card catalogues for online libraries, or type-writers for Word) without fundamentally interrogating their new working practices, and those who charge ahead, inventing tools and methods to meet their needs.  It should go without saying that any characterisations should not unfairly or pejoratively label either group (and those in-between).

Going beyond the tricky 'on-boarding' moments I talked about in 'Reflections on teaching Neatline', digital humanities must consider the effect of personal agency in relation to technology, issues in wider society that affect access to 'hack' skills and what should be done to make the tools, or the means, of DH scholarship more accessible and transparent. Growing pains are one thing, and we can probably all sympathise with an awkward teenage phase, but as digital humanities matures as a field, it's time to accept our responsibility for the environment we're creating for other scholars. Dragons are fine in the far reaches of the map where the adventurous are expecting them, but they shouldn't be encountered in the office corridor by someone who only wanted to get some work done.

* Since posting this, I've read Stephen Ramsey's 'The Hot Thing', which expresses more anxieties about DH than I've glanced at here: 'Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. ... So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?'.  But even here, do technologists and the like have an advantage? I'm used to (if not reconciled to) the idea that every few years I'll have to learn another programming language and new design paradigms just to keep up; but even I'm glad I don't have to keep up with the number of frameworks that front-end web developers have to, so perhaps not?

No comments:

Post a Comment