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A Liu-cidal Massacre of the Digital Humanities!

In “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique,” Alan Liu discusses the advances made in overcoming the past short comings of the digital humanities, but despite these progressive developments Liu argues the field (not yet a discipline in Liu’s eyes) still posses major inadequacies that drastically reduces its potentiality — its inherent capacity for growth, development and expansion into a future representation of the Humanities.

In juxtaposition to Liu’s claim, however, some digital humanists contend the digital humanities will never represent the Humanities, but will in fact be an entirely separate discipline, or semi-separate discipline as Willard McCarthy proposes. McCarthy says:

But let me offer a different criterion for success: simply to be accepted as one of the community, to sit at the table among equals and talk, then to go back home to a department of the digital humanities, with its students, programmes, seminars and so on, and get on with educating and being educated.” (McCarthy 2009)

Akin to Liu, Patrik Svensson disagrees with the view that the future path of digital humanities will diverge from the Humanities. Svensson states, “it seems quite unlikely that the digital humanities would ever become a fully separate field” (para. 18). Similarly, Katherine N. Hayles warns that it would be “a tragic mistake” if a “radical divergence” occurred. In relation to the assimilation-distinction agenda of the digital humanities, Hayles states:

The kinds of articulation that emerge have strong implications for the future: will the Digital Humanities become a separate field whose interests are increasingly remote from the Traditional Humanities, or will it on the contrary become so deeply entwined with questions of hermeneutic interpretation that no self- respecting Traditional scholar could remain ignorant of its results? If the Digital Humanities were to spin off into an entirely separate field, the future trajectory of the Traditional Humanities would be affected as well. Obviously, this is a political as well as an intellectual issue. In the case of radical divergence (which I think would be a tragic mistake), one might expect turf battles, competition for funding, changing disciplinary boundaries, and shifting academic prestige (qtd. in Svensson para. 17).

Having said that, however, Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s preoccupation with the digital humanities’ disciplinary assimilation or distinction negates the total point and purpose of digital humanities scholarship. The essential nature of digital humanities is its ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and facilitate interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research. Digital humanities achieve this through the utilization of computational tools and methodologies, which establish an open-access virtual platform where information is not located or designated by disciplinary boundaries because these knowledge walls become soluble when submersed in a digital solution. It is for this reason that attempting to predict whether the digital humanities of the future will represent the Humanities or become its own discipline could be viewed as a futile endeavor, which appears to be fueled by a subconscious, technophobic fear of rapid change and development, and nostalgia for the simpler time when print culture was dominant in society. Knowledge unification and dissemination, however, is the intrinsic nature of digital humanities research, which is irrelevant to Liu, Hayles and Svensson’s fears of an inter- or intra-disciplinary divide with digital humanities and the Humanities on the basis of a print-digital binary. Even though it is attached with the prefix of ‘digital,’ the digital humanities is still in many respects ‘humanities,’ albeit in an alternative form. Therefore, the focus of concern should be on what digital humanities can do to compliment, advance or transform the Humanities, regardless of whether it has a symbiotic or aposymbiotic relationship status with the Humanities.

Moving away from this debate and returning to Liu’s article, the following will be a summary of some major points Liu mentions.

(1): Scale

Considering the sheer size of Liu’s article, it is rather ironic that he highlights ‘scale’ as one of the shortcomings of digital humanities. Liu criticises early digital humanities websites and projects, such as the William Blake Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive because of their difficulties with scalability (18). Liu compares early digital humanities projects to the “Tardis in the BBC Doctor Who television series” because “they were larger on the inside than they seemed on the outside” (18). However, due to the large scale of digital projects being developed at present, Liu argues, “that scale itself has snapped into focus as one of the field’s constitutive concepts”(18). Subsequently, “scale is a new horizon of intellectual inquiry,” but scale will always remain a mountain where the fruits of intellectual inquiry flourish at the summit (21). For large-scale projects such as the Linguistic Atlas Project, the fruits of intellectual inquiry are perpetually unattainable and out of reach of the plucking fingers of curious scholars involved. As William A. Kretschmar, Jr. states in relation to the (American Linguistic Atlas Project):

We cannot come to an end of the work because we are witnesses and archivists of how Americans talk, and they keep talking differently across time and space. Neither do I think that our humanities-computing representation of our research is capable of being finally perfected, of achieving some perfect state, because technology keeps changing and the demands placed upon our research keep changing. If we view the entirety of the Linguistic Atlas Project as a “large-scale humanities computing project,” the word “finish” is just not part of the deal. And we are not alone. While the creation of, say, a variorum edition may seem like a project that can be finished in both senses, actually we need to make new editions all the time, since our idea of how to make the best edition changes as trends in scholarship change, especially now in the digital age when new technical possibilities keep emerging.

The computational tools and research inquires of digital humanities scholarship is inconstant — continuously evolving and changing with time — which fuels project-scale growth. Therefore, scale is an irreducible, inevitable and (for the most part) and unavoidable constituent of digital humanities research.

(2): Form

Liu argues, “the field has so far largely lacked a considered focus on new media forms, whether in terms of genre, rhetoric, or style.” (24) According to Liu, digital humanists are “theoretically inattentive to the formal […] differences between the “static page” and “template-driven websites,” and “‘born-digital forms’” and “digitized-print forms” (24). Therefore, Liu contends, “digital humanists tend to understand new-media forms as residually print-centric” (24). To say that, however, digital humanists perceive the likes of Google Books as merely books and Wikipedia as only an encyclopaedia is a gross misconception and misinterpretation of the adoption and incorporation of print related terminology to describe new media technology.

For example, is an eBook a book? Not all, or even the majority of digital humanists, would answer ‘yes’ to this question. Although it is called a ‘book,’ an eBook is only a digital ghost or manifestation of a particular work. The most prominent distinction between an eBook and a book is the fact that an eBook is not inseparably attached or connected to the physical medium of representation. A physical copy is required for one to read a book, while an eBook requires downloading, a physical carrier and a physical reading device with the necessary software for the work to be represented for the reader so he/she can read it. Even though an eBook is viewed by many, without a great depth of consideration, as simply a book in digital disguise, the physical limitations of the print medium are not translated to its digital counterpart. Therefore, this raises the question: Should we be calling an eBook a book if the limitations that define a book are absent from an eBook?

(3): Data Aesthetics

According to Liu, “Data aesthetics” are missing from the text-oriented side of the digital humanities (27). The list, line or bar graphs and tag clouds reflect “the near-total imaginative poverty of the field in crafting an aesthetics of data” (27). Liu claims there is more focus on metadata than “the look-and-feel of data” (27).
Therefore, “the secret formula” for Katherine N. Hayles embodied experience of information, as Liu suggests, is the collapsing of “the phenomenological divide between metadata and data” (28).

With that in mind, one must ask: What about D3.js? Is D3 not ‘aesthetic’ enough for Liu? Although I agree that list, line or bar graphs are rather mundane ways of visualising data, one must ask oneself: what is more important the formal qualities of data visualisation or the meaning of the data the visual form is expressing?

Perhaps Liu is correct in saying that digital humanities is not yet prepared to represent the Humanities. Digital humanities may never be ready, but is it the goal of digital humanities to be a representation of the Humanities, a replacement for it or a self-defined discipline? This is a difficult question to answer, but if I had to choose what I believe to be the most probable outcome I would pick the latter outcome. As I said early, digital humanities is, in many respects, Humanities in an alternative form, but this “alternative form” is continuously evolving and changing with the rapid advancements in technology, along with the reconceptualization of intellectual inquiry as a result of these advancements. As Heraclitus claims, the only constant is change and if the digital humanities is in a state of perpetual inconstancy then we might not be witnessing the end of Humanities, but only the end of Humanities as we know it.

Kretzschmar, William A. “Large-Scale Humanities Computing Projects: Snakes Eating Tails, or Every End is a New Beginning.”

Liu, Alan. “The State of the digital humanities: a report and a critique.”

Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities”

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Extra Extra! Read all about it: Internet killed the Newspaper star!

My presentation is on journalism and the web. (Follow the link to see Powerpoint Presentation.) I want to focus specifically on the endangered species of the newspaper and its poacher “new media”. 

Press Baron Rupert Murdoch once described his wealthy income from his newspaper business as “rivers of gold” (The Economist unpaginated). However, in 2005 Murdoch said “sometimes rivers dry up” (The Economist). At present, the newspaper industry is experiencing what Eddie Hobbs would call a cyclical trough; the lowest point in an economic cycle. Paid circulation rates of newspapers have declined. As a result, numerous newspaper companies, particularly in the U.S., have filed for bankruptcy. Although it may appear that this crisis is only due to the economic downturn, competition from internet media is a large casual factor.

When newspapers dominated the media landscape, they were seen as living texts capable of documenting history as it occurred. However, since then the newspaper as a medium has changed very little. Despite its apparent visual differences from its predecessors, the newspaper has failed to maintain pace with a rapidly advancing society. Waiting for the newspaper to arrive to get ones daily gossip fix is a thing of the past. In an age where we can now receive instant up-to-minute updates from the internet, the newspaper has fallen so far behind that some readers see it as yesterday’s news.

Funnily enough, there is a sense of irony in the dilemma facing the newspaper industry. This crisis is happening at a time when the demand for news is actually very high, but people are simply not willing to pay for it. I suppose in a way it is comparable to the music industry.

 Consumers of Journalism are turning towards the free news content on the web. Readers’ habits are changing because of the internet’s search functionality. Without the hassle of getting newsprint on your fingers, the internet can provide a few hundred thousand hits in less than a second.

Not only that, the internet also provides RSS Feeds. RSS stands for: Really Simple Syndication or sometimes Rich Site Summary. These are a category of web feed formats used for publishing frequently updated works like news headlines and blog entries. Once you have obtained a Feed reader from such services as iGoogle, My Yahoo or Msn, you can subscribe to your favourite sites that display the RSS Feed logo. As a result, the internet becomes like a constant breaking news ticker that will provide you with instant updates, instead of having to search for them yourself. With technology like this it is understandable why internet killed the newspaper star. (Follow the link for a video explanation of RSS Feeds).

 However, the newspaper industry isn’t going down without a fight. Having remained loyal to Gutenberg for years, they finally followed their consumer market to cyberspace with the distribution of online newspapers. Some examples of the most popular web-based newspaper sites are The Washington Post and The New York Times. The advantage of an online version is its ability to reach more readers in less time and thus generating more debate and discussion on a global scale. Unfortunately, HTML does not spell salvation. There is a problem and that is how do you get readers to pay for news they can get elsewhere for free? (Follow the links for on-line newspaper sites: New York Times ; Washington Post ; Irish Times.)

The New York Times introduced a subscription-based service know as TimesSelect which lasted two years before being scrapped for a subscription free, public domain site. As can be seen, walled gardens are not very popular. If consumers of journalism are not getting their news from print or digital newspapers, where are they getting it online?

The answer is news aggregation websites. A news aggregation website is a website that contains collected headlines. Such websites include Yahoo! News, Google News, Drudge Report, The Huffington Post and  breitbart.com. For example, Google Fast Flip which is an online news aggregator attempts to incorporate print publication into the digital realm. Its goal is to mimic the experience of flicking through a newspaper and it is also available on iPhone. However, critics condemn it for being anachronistic because it maintains the failure of print media by lacking multimedia features such as links to other sites. (Follow link to Google Fast Flip).

Also, we live in a time of, what Journalist David Shenk calls, “Data Smog” (Shenk 1). Data smog is information overload which you’re probably experiencing a bit from this presentation. But, it is one of the biggest flaws of news aggregation websites. The sheer volume of news articles available can be extremely overwhelming and difficult to navigate through. Critics argue that 80% of the content from these sites are sourced from newspapers which means that the newspaper industry is being ripped off big time.

With that in mind, we also have serious issues with authority and reliability. The battle is between the internet and newspapers, but who can we trust? Can blogs and twitter compete with pure journalism? Or, will the death of the news paper mark the death of daily reliable news? Accountability is being substituted by a cornucopia of unreliable bloggers with zero credentials. Anyone with a half decent keyboard and an internet connection can become a citizen journalist in a matter of minutes.

However, citizen journalism may not be all that bad. Yahoo! Buzz and Digg are community based news article websites which permit users to publish their personal news stories under editorial control and free of charge. I think citizens working in conjunction with journalists would better the future of journalism and so it is a smart move on their behalf. (Links to Yahoo! Buzz and Digg).

So what does the future have in store for the newspaper industry? Meyers predicts “the last daily reader will disappear in September 2043” (Crosbie unpaginated), but other analysts believe the end is much closer. It is obvious that URLs are here to stay. So in order for the newspaper to survive, it must embrace new media.  Nick Bilton, a technologist for the Times, said “Paper is dying but it’s just a device. Replacing it with pixels is a better experience.” (Singel unpaginated).

However, the newspaper of the future may not necessarily have to discard its print roots. It may assume a hybrid form consisting of part-print and part-internet. This can be already seen from AnnArbor which is an online newspaper with limited printed editions. Not only does it provide news, it acts also as a point of social interaction where users can chat, share videos and photos.

Alternatively, the newspaper’s future could be seen, not as a death, but as a rebirth. Their relocation online cannot be done by a simple copy-and-paste manoeuvre, especially when the most popular choice of access is mobile devices. Therefore, the newspaper will have to adapt to a new form that will have the interactive multimedia functionality of the web, but also the attractive layout of print. Consequently, the high-tech, futuristic e-newspaper of the 2054 world of Minority Report may not be that far away after all. (Follow the link to see futuristic newspaper.)

Other sources of interest

For a glimpse at one seriously cool, futuristic e-newspaper.

Some more info. about the death of the newspaper on newspaper deathwatch.

The future of journalism

Professor of Journalism, Stanford University

Works Cited

Crosbie, Vin. “What Newspapers and Their Web Sites Must Do to Survive” OJR: The Online Journalism Review.

Single, Ryan.“Times Techie Envisions the Future of News”. Wired.

 
Shenk, David. Data Smog: Surviving the information Glut. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

The Economist. “Who killed the newspaper?”

Womack, David.“Reading the newspaper with Khoi Vinh” . Adobe.