Computing the Humanities

When I think of the humanities, I usually think about old, dusty books about religions, or big events, like the holocaust or the great migration. I never think about using technology to study humanities. however, that is exactly what I started doing when I got into the 340 English class, Digital Humanities.

In order for me to study the humanities, I would need information about past events. Now of course, I can go to a library and pull out whatever books I need to study, but that becomes a tedious task. I would have to sort through the library’s selection of thousands upon thousands of books just to find maybe three certain books that have to do with my topic. Even with a good organizational system, it could take hours to find the right books. This is where technology comes in to help. Nowadays, almost all libraries have all of their books mapped out through an online system. Finding a physical book can become as simple as searching certain keywords in their website and having the computer find it for you. This can make a process that usually take hours turn into only a few minutes. Now sometimes, you don’t get access to a library because maybe there’s none in your area, or maybe your library gets asbestos and closes down until 2024. Either way, that doesn’t mean that information isn’t available anymore. In fact, there’s so much information floating out in the world it becomes hard to keep track of physically. According to what James Gleick says in his book The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, “As the role of information grows beyond anyone’s reckoning, it grows to be too much.” With so much information out there, how do you keep it all under one library roof? Again, this is where technology comes in to help. The internet has unlimited storage, so infinite information can be stored there. Now, finding information to study the humanities is as simple as just looking up the keywords and clicking on whatever I need. That is only the beginning of digital humanities.

Another part of digital humanities doesn’t include past information of what people did or big events; a big part is the computers themselves. If you really think about it, the development of computers is a huge event for humanity. One day, when people study the humanities, they’ll be learning about the first computers, the first coders, and the super rapid advancement that all happened within a lifespan. Gleick’s book talks about the different ways people communicated. It goes through different methods like talking drums and even cuneiform. Not only are these considered languages, but it’s communication. With the introduction of computers, people can write to each other from across the world, in different languages, and the other person can read it immediately in whatever language they speak due to high speed internet and translation services. In order for technology to do this, somebody needs to code it into existence. Coding itself is a whole new language. It isn’t the language of people, but rather the language of technology. So far in this Digital Humanities class, we’ve began to learn html. html is one of the most basic computer languages, or at least it is easier than other computer languages like JavaScript or C++. So technology is obviously a large part of studying the humanities now. Not only does it include language and communication, but it also has almost all information that has ever been recorded, as long as somebody takes the time to upload it to the internet.

Universal Design for Literature

Tribes in Africa were calling each other way before the invention of any modern means of long-distance or instant communication were invented. However, their technological breakthrough was ignored because of racism and western-centrism. These tribes could have conversations with one another from miles apart in a language spoken by drums and their drummers. Before you could just pick up your phone to check the news or call a friend, these tribes were communicating news of arrivals, warnings, and even jokes with one another by using their drums. This kind of innovation closely resembles a principle that comes from architecture and education. What in the world does architecture have to do with education? They are both the most effective when using universal design. Universal design is when architects consider all types of abilities when they are creating a new building. This leads to fully functional and incorporated wheelchair ramps, elevators, and anything else that may help people who have disabilities navigate the space. You can tell a building hasn’t been built by anyone who’s heard of universal design when there is a rickety wheelchair ramp awkwardly slapped onto it. In education this is called universal design for learning. When writing a lesson plan a teacher can either write a lesson plan for the general population of the classroom and then modify it for students with special needs or write a lesson plan with all students in mind. Often the lesson plan that’s written with the individual students in mind is better for all students, not just those with special needs. 

What does this have to do with talking drums? Well universal design is only just picking up traction because people have a very difficult time thinking about people with disabilities if they don’t have one themself. Why would an architect who doesn’t use a wheelchair think to incorporate a ramp into the design of a building? Furthermore, people often don’t realize that making things accessible for people with disabilities can be useful for everyone. For example, no one expected texting to be popular. Texting was simply a late addition to phones so that people who are deaf could use phones to communicate. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, but I text constantly. I’m not deaf, but this addition to phones is something I use every single day. No one thought that it would be popular because it was originally thought of as something only people who are deaf would use. People who don’t have disabilities have an incredibly hard time realizing that things designed with all types of abilities in mind are usually more effective. Similarly, Europeans “described Africans as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’ (Gleick 16) which is why the drum system never caught on anywhere else. People couldn’t see past their racism much like today people have a difficult time seeing past their ableism. 

This affects the world of literature, and especially digital literature, much more than anyone might realize. A huge question people in humanities have today is, where do the humanities fit in this ever-growing technological world? People wonder what’s lost when a book is no longer ink on paper, but they never question what’s gained. With computers, books are more accessible to everyone. Audio books help people who are visually impaired or have a reading disability such as dyslexia access the world of literature easily. Not only are audio books more accessible than something such as braille, people who don’t have a visual impairment or reading disability also enjoy audio books. The ease of access to audio books and furthermore eBooks has sparked a revival of reading. More people can read or listen to books right on their phone. While academics wonder what we’re losing by converting our reading from paper to computer, they don’t realize that this opens the world of literature to a whole group of people who previously weren’t able to access books this easily. Instead of following the lead of the Europeans when faced with the talking drums, humanities academics should take the transfer of books from physical to digital seriously as it invites more people into the conversation. Ignoring what can be gained from literature’s collision with technology would be as foolish as waiting years and years for Morse Code when the talking drums exist as a means of instant communication. Letting racism blind them from all of the technology and culture of Africa was a major mistake made by the world. The same mistake shouldn’t be made when it comes to adapting universal design to literature. Just because texting was made for people who are deaf, doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t benefit from it. Similarly, just because audio books benefit people who have visual impairments or reading disabilities doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t also benefit from them.

Switching to universal design in literature may seem like going “directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages” (Gleick 27), but it’s not as far fetched of an idea as it may seem. Just like how the talking drums are not that different from the mobile phone in their goal or level of complexity (while the drums didn’t require the invention of the computer, you don’t have to learn an entirely new language that involves no alphabet to use your cell phone), the traditional form of literature is not that different from a universal design of literature that’s built to include all types of people within its community.

The Evolution of Writing

When people hear the word “technology,” they often think of computers and smartphones. In James Gleick’s book The Information, he discusses Walter J. Ong and his ideas. In chapter two “The Persistence of the Word,” Gleick quotes Ong:

“the expression “to look something up” is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might “call” them back- “recall” them.” But there is nowhere to “look” for them. They have no focus and no trace.”

It is here where us as reader’s understand that writing should be considered a technology because without it, words would have no meaning. Writing should be considered a technology because it was one of the first ways we were able to retain and store information. We are able to look back in history and know what happened because of writing. Gleick states, “Writing comes into being to retain across time and across space.”

Through the use of computers, we are able to write in many new and refreshing ways. Take for example our work on VSCode. We are able to italicize words, bold words, etc. We have tools such as spell check that tell us when we are spelling something wrong. As we look to keep writing, we should use these tools like computers to help us better write about our society and culture.

Not only should we use technology to write about our society and culture, but we could also use it to better understand it as well. We could use certain applications to better enhance our writing in ways that would have been impossible before computers. We could also use online resources to gain a better level of understanding of a topic, and therefore enhance our writing of that topic. Let’s say you want to write about the idea of social classes. In a matter of seconds you can look up articles about it. As an english major, I couldn’t agree more with this point. For example, in my Big Books class, we are reading a book called Underworld by Don DeLillo. There are some areas of the book that I did not fully understand. However, through the use of online resources, I was able to see what DeLillo was trying to say through certain key scenes. So when it came time to write a reading response, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

Based on Gleick’s writings on my personal experiences, writing alone should be considered a technology. However, when you use other forms of technology, it greatly impacts and enhances one’s writing.

Reality is water-soluble

In ENGL 340, our main aim will be to explore how digital tools are transforming the work humanists have always done: preserving and interpreting the cultural record toward the end of understanding the domain of “the human.”

We’ll be less focused on a different kind of transformation: digital technology’s transformation of culture and society itself, including our collective understanding of what it means to be human in the first place.

But if this second kind of transformation is secondary for us, we don’t want to lose sight of it. The two are in some sense inextricable. The new ways of working with and thinking about the cultural record — especially, in literature, the written textual record — that we’ll explore this semester are, you might say, just one example of the larger transformation culture and society are currently undergoing as a result of digital technology’s explosive development.

This blog can be a place for us to share stories and resources we come across that connect one kind of transformation with the other. To start us off, let me point you to a recent episode of the podcast Recode Decode, hosted by technology writer (New York Times, Vox) Kara Swisher.

In the podcast, which you can find on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app, Swisher interviews novelist Jeanette Winterson about her recent novel Frankisstein: A Love Story. The web blurb for Winterson’s novel sets the scene:

Lake Geneva, 1816. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI and carrying out some experiments of his own in a vast underground network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his mom again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet?

After listening to the podcast, I immediately bought (the digital version of) Winterson’s novel. It opens this way:

Lake Geneva, 1816.

Reality is water-soluble.

I’m excited to be reading a tale that will help me connect what digital technology has shown me about texts — that they are fundamentally fluid — with what it might reveal about other kinds of fluidity, including, perhaps, the fluidity of reality itself.

And I’m looking forward to comparing how Winterson explores fluidity in this story-on-a-lake to how Henry David Thoreau explores it his story-on-a-pond, Walden.