The Impact of Information

I think the most interesting thing I have learned this semester is about how information is organized and spread. Due to the internet, there is a whole world of knowledge at my immediate disposal, but I never understood how this knowledge came to be organized and processed so that it could be accessed by a very large number of people. Learning about metadata and organization schemas like the Dublin Core has made me think about this. English 340 has also taught me about the impact that digital accessibility to information has on society, and about the idea of developing a “free culture,” in which this digital information is accessible to all.

I realized that there is so much information I take for granted, including even the word “information.” Information only becomes “informative” after it has been processed from data, which comes from metadata. And while people commonly define “metadata” as “data about data,” this definition is too simple, as one must ask what exactly data is (Pomerantz 19). Data is potential information, so metadata describes a “potentially informative object” (Pomerantz 26). I now understand that computing and access to information requires an immense amount of work and organization of metadata, as resources must be organized in a way that enable people to find what they are looking for. Central to organizing resources is the storage of data within them, for without this, finding information would be very chaotic. This point was very well demonstrated by one of my classmates last week, who said that “a room full of books is not a library,” as a library is organized using metadata so that there are easy ways to find books. Without metadata, information would simply be data: having the potential to inform people but unable to do so without organization. This leads me to a section of the book Metadata, that got me thinking about a different class I am taking this semester (Philosophy 207: Modern Philosophy). Pomerantz asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it generate information” (21). In Philosophy 207, I learned about George Berkeley, who asked a very similar question in the eighteenth century: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Berkeley believed that the answer is no: as an idealist, he thought that objects and events only exist in the consciousness of the perceiver, and to exist is to be an object of actual perception. Therefore, if a tree falls and there is no sensory perception of it, it does not make a sound. One could make a similar argument in terms of organization of data: if data is not organized, and cannot be perceived, it cannot generate information. To move from the conceptual aspects of this to the technical, I practiced organizing data by metadata when I made an account at and uploaded items that related to me. I then categorized them according to elements of the Dublin Core, a metadata schema. For example, I uploaded my resume and under title wrote, “Lizzie Gellman’s resume,” under subject wrote “Lizzie Gellman,” and under description put the date that the resume was made.

Thinking about how information is organized leads me to another interesting thing I learned this semester about the spread of information and increased regulation of creativity in society. I learned that information sharing is being limited by copyright laws that do more to protect certain industries against competition than to make sure artists are compensated for their work. I learned about the idea of cultivating a “free culture,” which says that the public should be able to benefit from past creativity instead of having work that is limited to certain audiences. These limited audiences include wealthy people, and those who attend a college or university (which is often people with money). This means that information distribution is limited, as many scholarly works are only available on digital libraries in which readers must pay for a lot of the content, such as JSTOR. As a result, the wealthy and educated have much more access to digital information than others do. After reading excerpts from Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, I realized that copyright laws often benefit the rich and powerful, especially those who make the copyright laws (making more money from them than the creators of copyrighted content), and result in underprivileged people being deprived of access to information. This reminds me of reading about the information gap in my Communication 160 class, which says that there is a growing disparity in amounts and types of information available to people because technology is more accessible to some than others—and the majority of these “some” are the wealthy.

These are just some concepts that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this semester that I had previously never considered. Digital humanities have expanded my understanding of what it means to be a humanities student. I have often been asked “what I am going to do with an English major,” a question that has always frustrated me because I see so many benefits from my major. I explain that I learn skills, such as thinking critically, which are useful and important to anyone. However, this course has given me an additional answer: English 340 has given me a way of linking those skills to the digital world, and has allowed me to make interdisciplinary connections that increase my understanding of different subjects. Connecting English studies to the digital world has not only made information accessible to those on the Internet, but also has allowed me to use this information to make connections in other subjects and use skills I learn in my major to explore technology and expand my knowledge of many subject areas.

Using Computers to Join the Conversation

As a young adult in our technology-driven society who is constantly within reach of my phone and or laptop, and is able to easily use both to accomplish my daily needs, I came into this course thinking that I was highly proficient in the use of computers and technology. After the past few weeks, I have come to realize that I was wrong: there is a lot that I do not know about computers. While I had previously only used my computer to type documents for school such as papers and notes, along with using Google Chrome and occasionally Excel, English 340 has opened me up to an entire world of computing that I did not know existed. At first, using applications like Atom and Virtual Box was a daunting task to me, but working with both applications has gradually increased my comfort with these types of computational tools. I now realize that there is so much I have to learn about computers, and I’m excited to see the difference in my skills from now to the end of the semester.

Going beyond my relationship with my computer to examine the relationship between computers and humanities, I’d like to first define humanities. Humanities are the study of human culture and society, and in academic disciples include the study of languages, literature, philosophy, the arts, and other subjects that examine the human race. Coming into the course, when I thought about humanities and computers, the first thing that came to my mind was the use of computers in conducting research about literature. When I read the title of the class, “Literature Study in a Digital Age,” I assumed the digital part of the course would be doing research on computers about the texts we read. I thought we would mostly be writing research papers and pictured myself using search browsers such as Jstor and Google Scholar. I thought (and still do think) that computers are very useful in the field of humanities because they give people the ability to spread information on a very large scale: if I search a database like Jstor, I can find literature and scholarly articles from all over the world, as well as from many years ago. In this way, technology has a power to connect people from different places and times. Although places such as libraries gave people access to research before computers were widespread, online databases give people access to much more information than a library can hold. Digital humanities also provides a platform for less established writers, researchers, and scholars to share thoughts, ideas, and scholarly work. Instead of having to publish work in a traditional manner, platforms like blogging sites (including WordPress, the one I am using now), allow writers and thinkers to discuss humanities on a less formal basis. This leads me to a point that has been at the center of my academic career at Geneseo: having a “conversation” in English and the humanities. In high school, I wrote papers in which I summarized ideas I read in literature or in scholarly articles. Once I got to college, I was introduced to the idea of joining a conversation in literature, or the “they say, I say,” format, in which I was taught to summarize an argument I read about in a text in order to set up my own unique argument or ideas. Computers and technology give people like me a platform to share our “I say,” and join the conversation about humanities. While if computers did not exist, I could still write about texts and distribute it to others, my work would not reach nearly as large of an audience as it can through online platforms such as blogs.

These are some preexisting ideas I had about the relationship between computers and humanities, but after the first month of English 340 I have realized that there is so much more for me to learn. Before entering the class, I had never heard of coding, markdown, or plain text files. I’m excited to continue to learn how to use this knowledge in my study of the humanities. In our last class, we used Python to examine word choice in texts. Using a tool to see how many “z’s” or “e’s” were in Thoreau’s Walden was not something I could have previously imagined being able to do. I’m ready to continue to learn new ways to analyze text using digital resources and new computer tools to strengthen my ability to use technology to understand literature.