Digitizing Donald Ross

This project was centered on finding ways to apply previously completed scholarly work on Walden to the digital frame of our class. Donald Ross played a major role in analyzing the different versions of Walden, as well as tracing the inspiration for many of Thoreau’s messages. Ross was able to draw connections between Walden’s narrative to major ideas such as Biblical allusions, references to Eastern Philosophy, and so on. Our mission for the semester was to take Ross’ information and translate it into a form that we could use for the Fluid Text edition of Walden.

RossOur first obstacle was simply figuring out how to start; Ross’ materials stretched on for 72 pages of dense information, most of which we spent a good deal of time trying to decipher. We settled on using R to analyze Walden, using digital methods to parse out Walden the same way that Ross did by hand. By doing this we were able to test out the possibilities and limits of digitally analyzing a work of literature by comparing it to the analysis of the same work by a human scholar.

What we found was that R has a huge amount of potential in this field, though it will take some work to fully reach that potential. The way the analysis worked was by searching for “n-grams,” or a set of n number of words (in our case 5), looking for matches between Walden and other specified books. The n-grams were compiled into a spreadsheet which showed us the word matches along with the entire sentence of Walden and the entire sentence of the other work. The program found over 2,000 n-grams, most of which were coincidences driven by similar word-usage. We focused on the Biblical references Thoreau is notorious for, and so scrolled through the enormous spreadsheet searching for n-grams that held deeper meaning than simple coincidence.


The program written for the analysis performed by R was still in its early stages and yet was able to perform the analysis in a number of hours; surely record time in the field of literary analysis.

There is clearly a lot of future work that can be put into this project.  Sifting through the information example by example was a lengthy process, even with three people working simultaneously.  As a result, our group only managed to make a modest dent in the material.  We only focused on the Biblical allusions Ross found in Walden, passing up his lists of allusions to Eastern philosophers, verbal wit, and other categories.  We also only managed to sift through a fraction of what the R program additionally found.  Although most of these were coincidental, one of them seemed to be an honest Biblical allusion that Ross overlooked.  There could be many more that Ross didn’t find, but that we were simply unable to get to in the allotted time.

Overall we have looked at the program as a success. After sifting through the bibical references that Harding had already found and comparing them to what the computer found, the computer was able to pick up on one more reference that Ross had missed. While this may seem like a small victory compared to the thousands of invalid references that the computer had found, it must be considered that the references were found in a matter of hours and the program is still in its early stages. While it may have taken Ross months to be able to find these references, the computer was able to do it in just a few hours.  We believe this project has some real potential to affect the Digital Humanities, and there is a lot more work to be done.

Can social media engineer emotion?

It’s no secret that the current generation is the most technologically advanced that the human race has ever seen.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the ways in which technology has become integrated into our lives are far more varied and critical than ever before.  Even so, every once in a while we can still learn something knew about our digital world that manages to surprise us.

In one of the most recent episodes of Radiolab, an online radio show sponsored by NPR, the hosts tackle the rising conflict between our online social presence, and human emotion.  By looking at a series of social science studies conducted over the social media site Facebook, they try to answer the question of which is currently more important to us as a society:  true human contact, or the power of the web.

The episode, titled “The Trust Engineers,” reveals that there is a lot more to Facebook than chatting and getting news about your friends.  Over the past years, Facebook has grown not only to be one of the largest communities ever to exist on Earth, it has also become one of the leading centers for social science research.  One of its most commonly pursued topics of study is the way in which human beings use it to communicate.

A lot of people have mixed feelings about news like this.  There are plenty of pros and cons to consider when a social media site starts pulling on our strings in the name of science.  Starting with the pros, Facebook is massive.  According to the podcast, as of March 2014 there were about 1.3 billion active users on Facebook, making it one of the planet’s largest communities even if it is just online.  This gives researchers an immense population to pull from when conducting studies.  On top of its size, Facebook’s population is completely random as well.  It ignores borders of language, country and race, socioeconomic background, religion and sexual identity.  This all but eliminates bias in the research population.

And then there are the cons.  While Facebook is extremely effective as a population for research, it is also a threat to individual privacy.  While many people may assume that Facebook could be using their information to give to advertisers or even in studies such as these, not everyone knows the extent to which this occurs.  According to researchers, every single Facebook user has been used in one of their studies, and on average every active user’s information is being used in about ten different studies at any given moment.  Whether you were aware of it or not, or whether you agree with it or not, you are most likely participating in ten different social experiments right now.

One of Facebook’s most controversial studies came at the beginning of summer in 2014, when it was revealed that Facebook had conducted a wide study of human emotion on several thousands of its users.  Facebook wanted to see if it could manipulate the emotions of its users by showing them an increased number of either positive or negative posts, and measuring how their own posts changed as a result of this.  They wanted to see if they could digitally spread positivity or negativity by manipulating people’s news feeds.  While the results of this experiment were inconclusive, the backlash from users was immense.

Study results

Facebook is two things.  It is an amazing, immense population unlike anything else humans have ever created, capable of changing the way we study ourselves forever.  Unfortunately, it is also a great and threatening concentration of power and control over its users, most of whom are at least partially unaware of the extent to which Facebook is capable of affecting them.  All of this begs the question:  which is more important to us, having information about everything at our fingertips, or keeping information about ourselves away from everyone else?  Technology such as this can be a great aid in our understanding of how human emotion operates, but where do we draw the line between attempting to understand emotion and attempting to replace it?