Growing… COVID-19, Technological Difficulties, and Becoming a Digital Humanist

This year has been a year of immense growth for me. I challenged myself with new extracurriculars, a heavier course load, and more difficult classes. I am proud to say that I have learned something new every day- whether I realized it or not. One of the classes that helped me grow the most was English 340. Before taking this class, I thought that every English class was discussion-based- that was the only experience I had- and did not realize the individuality of each three hundred level class. In 2019, I was unaware of the depth beyond the surface of my laptop. Little did I know regarding the effort and hard work that went into creating one of the most integral pieces in my Geneseo career. Overall, I am not a tech-savvy person, but after taking English 340 at SUNY Geneseo, I truly have felt more confident in my technological abilities. I am a sophomore childhood education major with a concentration in English, so I am used to group work, presentations, papers, and circle discussions. Because of my background, I was absolutely shocked at what I had signed up for. Last semester, I took a class that had the final project of creating a physical artist book and having a technological aspect and blog post. I struggled to create a technological piece for my book, which is located in the Wadsworth library and felt helpless when attempting to create an advanced piece of digital content. If someone were to tell me that I would be looking at the inside of my computer, navigating Anaconda, exploring terminal and my GUI, I would have said they were crazy. I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge regarding technology at the beginning of the semester, and now I am proud to say that I have taken an untraditional computer-based English class where I have grown into a digital humanist. 

My growth did not happen overnight. With every class, I struggled. I felt that I was always one (or ten) steps behind. Part of my progression into becoming more technologically savvy and growing as a human being was learning that it is okay to feel confused and that asking for help is not something to be embarrassed about. As the semester went on, I stopped saying “I’m sorry to bother you again…” and started saying “Thank you so much for helping me.” This was just one way my thoughts and perceptions changed throughout the semester. I also started to look at difficult tasks in a more positive light. Instead of seeing them with aggravation and confusion, I saw them as new challenges and ideas I would learn. 

This year has been a year of patience and pushing limits. I feel that I am not alone when I say that adjusting to online learning has been difficult, to say the least. After saying goodbye to my suitemates and friends, I had to pack up all of my things or have my parents drive back another seven hours to collect the rest of my belongings. This was an extremely stressful situation and I wish I had more time to cope with all of the madness around me. However, I have focused on the positives of quarantine and have used this time to my advantage. I am reading more, going on walks, painting, and even showing my mom my newfound technological skills thanks to English 340. I am extremely proud of my growth this year given the current situation we are in and encourage everyone to take time to learn new skills and do something to benefit themselves and others. 

Talking Drums and Senseless Societies

Caroline Crimmins

James Gleick’s national bestseller, The Information has increased my knowledge of past, present, and predictions for future knowledge and its effects. Similarly to Tom Standage’s The World in Six Glasses, Gleick addresses different technological innovations and how they have, and still are possibly, impacting the world and how we think and live. Standage’s novel addressed the most influential and popular six drinks that have shaped the society that we live in today. These drinks include beer, wine, coffee, tea, Coca Cola, and spirits. Each of these drinks, like the innovations and inventors Gleick writes about, changed the society that people knew. Coca Cola, like iPhones, printing presses and more, took the world by storm. Gleick’s book and Standage’s book have similar formats in that they both address important influences on societies in distinct chapters. Both books prove how important inventions can be in societies and the whole world. 

The invention I was most impressed by was the creation of the talking drums in sub-Saharan Africa, which could communicate poetic messages using the tonal differences over long distances. The passage I picked talks about Carrington’s realization when he finally discovered the important inflections in the drum tones. Gleick writes, “In solving the enigma of the drums, Carrington found the key in a central fact about the relevant African languages. They are tonal languages, in which meaning is determined as much by rising or falling pitch contours as by distinctions between consonants or vowels. This feature is missing from most Indo-European languages, including English, which uses tone only in limited syntactical ways: for example to distinguish questions from declarations. But for other languages, including, most famously, Mandarin and Cantonese, the tone has primary significance in distinguishing words. So it does in most African languages. Even when Europeans learned to communicate in these languages, they generally failed to grasp the importance of tonality, because they had no experience with it. When they transliterated the words they heard into the Latin alphabet, they disregarded pitch altogether. In effect, they were color-blind” (Gleick 23). At this moment, I realized not only how egocentric cultures could be, but also blind to cultures which at the time they considered “below them.” 

A multitude of people had passed through those African countries and civilizations, privileged to hear the beautiful beats and tones, blessing their ears. They, like most people in their culture, were practically tone-deaf. Although the messages communicated through the drums were quite lengthy- “about eight times as long as their spoken equivalents” (Gleick 27)- the poetic aspect added a cultural beauty that can be quickly overlooked, as it was. Because the culture of the visitors did not utilize the variations of tone, except in punctuation, they paid little to no attention to the technical aspects of a unique language happening before their eyes and ears. Although tonal differences are used minimally in English, they are quite popular in languages like Mandarin, as seen in Gleick’s quote on page twenty-three, or written above. 

Today in society, we are absolutely obsessed with technology- phones, laptops, tablets, practically anything we can get our hands-on. Like flies, we swarm towards the light, unaware of all the magic happening behind the scenes. In this respect, I believe that English 340 is one of the most beneficial classes I have taken so far at SUNY Geneseo. There are so many technical aspects that are glazed over for our convenience as technology users. Before this class, I had never heard of markdown (or markup), CSS, or how to find out what is behind my GUI. If someone had told me I would be learning the things I am now, I would have said that was impossible. Society today is truly “color-blind” (Gleick 23) to the technology at our fingertips. Gleick solidifies the connection between computing and the humanities by giving the reader the example of the talking drums. Something that was right in front of their eyes was unknown, just like the many mysteries in the devices we are glued to.

Gleick’s best-seller allows us to reflect on our origins in technology as a world. Without the technology we invented back then, we would have nowhere near what we have now. Every step is progress, but it is important to be in tune with all cultures and inventions. Something as small as an inflection at the end of a sound can change certain meanings drastically. By learning about the past, we are more inclined to learn about the present and the future of technology. The more we know, the more aware we will be of language, technology, and the connections between computing and the humanities.