Archive | April 2014

Book Review: Bridging the Digital and the Humanities


Since I started this blog, I’ve focused on specific things like preservation, visualization, mapping and networking. Now that I’ve gotten a good knowledge base, I thought I’d take a step back and look at the entirety of the Digital Humanities field. Fortunately, there is a lot of good scholarship already on the topic. With such descriptions as “landmark publication” and “perfect summation” of the digital revolution in the humanities, the 2012 book Digital_Humanities immediately caught my eye. Turns out, such plaudits are not hyperbole.

The work provides a thorough account of the field with diverse perspectives, as five people from a variety of backgrounds co-wrote, -edited and -published the book. Of these five, two teach media design, one is an Information Studies professor, one is a Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature professor, and the fifth contributor teaches Romance Languages. Despite teaching at vastly different schools (UCLA, Art Center College of Design and Harvard) and in different fields, all five are heavily active in digital projects. The Authors chose to write from one voice, instead of each having a separate essay or chapter, since “the Digital Humanities remains at its core a profoundly collaborative enterprise” (ix). This collaboration, as we’ll see, is the key to Digital_Humanities.

Not surprisingly, the Authors are very much believers in the power and potential of the field of Digital Humanities (and yes they believe it’s a field and not just a method). According to the Authors, we’re currently at an exciting time in history, where the rise of the internet has allowed the humanities to take on a “vastly expanded creative role in public life” since Digital Humanities “is a global, trans-historical, and transmedia approach to knowledge and meaning-making.” Specifically, the model of digital humanities outlined in the book “moves design—information design, graphics, typography, formal and rhetorical patterning—to the center of the research questions that it poses” (8).  Thus, they conclude that “Digital Humanities has the potential to make a genuine difference” (131).

The concise book has four main chapters. The first chapter, “Humanities to Digital Humanities,” charts the recent history of the humanities, both immediately prior to, and now during, the digital revolution. The Authors argue that while the humanities have been thought to lack modern relevance, digital technologies have the ability to give new meaning. Specifically “with the migration of cultural materials into networked environments,” digital humanistic scholarship is “conspicuously collaborative.” This focus on cooperation “changes the culture of humanities work” by allowing different approaches to old topics, revitalizing the discipline (3). In fact, the Authors’ central thesis to Digital_Humanities is explicitly in the title: it’s the underscore connecting “digital” and “humanities.” For the Authors, the underscore serves as a “vital yoke and shifting signifier, one that presents the two concepts in a productive tension, without either becoming absorbed into the other” (ix).

The second chapter, “Emerging Methods and Genres” serves as a field map to the 15 different practices and methods within the field of the Digital Humanities. These range from Visualizations, to Cultural Analytics, to Large Scale projects, to Mapping to Code Studies and everything in between. Each is described quickly and efficient, yet completely.

The third “The Social Life of the Digital Humanities” discusses how these practices are effecting society. Though the other chapters, especially chapter 2, are more helpful illustrating what the Digital Humanities is, chapter 3 discusses why and how the Digital Humanities is significant. Yet again, this ties back to the collaboration of digital scholarship. Since networks are inherently “social technologies,” Digital Humanities has much different social roles than traditional scholarship. “New modes of knowledge formation in the digital humanities are dynamically linked to communities vastly larger and more diverse than those” of traditional approaches (75), the Authors argue. This ability to completely integrate scholarship with the wider world is what makes the “Digital_Humanities” (yoked together) so powerful.

Lastly, the fourth chapter, “Provocations” speculates on the future of the digital humanities. Specifically, it seeks to answer the basic question: If digital approaches are quickly becoming normal scholarly practices, will there be a point where “Digital Humanities” as a field no longer exists? In other words, will the underscore no longer matter in Digital_Humanities? To this, the Authors respond that the Digital Humanities must critically experiment going forward, and not remain in stasis. “Understood as a critical experimental practice, carried out in the public laboratory of a cultural commons, Digital Humanities is itself a work-in-progress as much as a future promise.” Furthermore, “the future course of the humanities will hinge upon informed and imaginative engagement with the historical forces that are shaping our times, our communities, and ourselves” (120). It goes without saying that digital methods will be the best chance to pursue that engagement.

Two other sections make the book more than just an abstract look at the field. The Authors discuss several fictional case studies of the various practices of Digital Humanities as described in Chapter 2. These case studies–made up so as not to pick “favorites” among current digital scholarship–are written like grant applications. There’s a short summary of the goals, more background on the project, a list of work plan areas, and finally dissemination and assessment of materials produced. These projects range from using mapping and text analysis to locate specific interactions between Europeans and Natives in the New World, to creating a virtual Afghan refugee camp. In addition, in perhaps the most useful seciton for students and professors alike, the Authors sum up the other chapters with a “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities” that has a FAQ and a list of specific areas where Digital Humanities is making an impact.

Overall, the book is instrumental in describing the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities. Though perhaps not quite geared to the general public, it does provide an excellent, in-depth analysis for those particularly interested in learning the ins and outs of Digital Humanities. In fact, I wish I had read it earlier since it is a great complement to my newly acquired knowledge.

Mobilizing Through History

When we hear the phrase “New media” we usually think of recent technology like smartphones, or Twitter, or even just the internet at large. However, as the essay collection New Media, 1740-1915 argues, there has always been “new media” that changed how humans interacted with the world. The original “dumb” telephone is an obvious example, but there are also now obsolete ones like the physiognotrace and the zograscope that were considered transformative in their time. So while the modern new media revolution is more likely to have a lasting impact than those old-timey devices, it’s important to keep historical perspective in mind when discussing current digital media. (For more on the essay collection, see my classmate Joanna Capps’ review.)

Take for example mobile applications in museums. Though thoroughly robust mobile applications were uncommon prior to the rise of smartphones a decade ago, museums have long used hand-held technology to support its exhibits. Some examples are extremely low-tech, such as maps. But audio tour devices date back over 60 years. For example, check out this video clip of Dutch museum patrons going on an audio tour in 1952 (for a translation of the narration, see the first comment here).

The woman introducing that video is Nancy Proctor, former head of the Smithsonian Institute’s mobile division, who gave this talk at the 2009 MCN conference. Proctor used that clip to illustrate her main argument about mobile applications in museums: “It’s NOT about the technology, it’s about the content.” For example, the Dutch audio tour was obviously technology limited. Yet, everyone is doing the same thing at the same time only because the content is instructing them to do it that way, not because the audio must be played that way. If instead, as Proctor suggests, the audio tour had asked the patrons to choose a favorite painting then discuss its traits with the group at large, that might  provide a more meaningful experience than passively listening to a description of the painting. Thus, Proctor believes museums should “think about content and experience design” first and foremost. Specifically, the content should be tied to the site’s mission, as well as the intended audience.

Of course, it’s still important to consider what the appropriate technology is in order to deliver the content. Designers need to understand what platforms visitors are comfortable using, especially in a museum setting. In fact, citing an earlier study, Proctor noted that museum patrons have become “trained” not to use modern technology while visiting exhibits, even if they use that technology all the time outside of museums.

Visitors are more likely to use "old" technology like brochures and wall interpretation than "new" media like audio tours or websites.

Visitors are more likely to use “old” technology like brochures and wall text than “new” technology like audio tours or exhibit websites.

To be fair, since this 2008 study, those bar graphs are probably much more even. Smartphone mobile applications truly have penetrated everyday life, becoming extremely ubiquitous. This has spilled over to museums as well. In fact, the Smithsonian alone has 30 mobile applications related to its various museums. Yet these apps all have content that serves a specific purpose, and certainly attracts diverse audiences and reactions. So Proctor’s vision that content should dictate mobile designs is now more important, as potential technological barriers have been diminished due to a proliferation of technology.

Put another way, think of your favorite application (museum or otherwise). Is the technological or design aspects what makes you appreciate and use it? Or is the content more important?


Social Network at the Museum

Sometimes it’s hard to remember a pre-Social Media internet. After all, Facebook launched 10 years ago. But prior to the emergence of “Web 2.0” circa 2004, there still was online interaction. The main difference, however, was that back then those interactions–such as message boards, chat rooms and blog comments–were usually done anonymously. Today, major social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ rely on people using their actual names and profile pictures.

As a result of this transparency, people develop substantive online relationships. Deadspin writer Drew Magary recently discussed this phenomena in one of his “funbag” columns. A reader asked “Has the rise of social media fundamentally changed the six degrees of separation (or Kevin Bacon) theory?” Magary’s response: “In the 21st century, you can know people quite intimately without ever meeting them…I don’t think that’s some form of virtual self-delusion either. It’s real friendship! CYBERFRIENDSHIP!”

“Cyberfriendship” created through social media also allows for important community building by museums. For example, museums can host tweet-ups, where social media followers visit the museum to share a common experience. In her blog post “Presidential Hair is a Twitter Winner,” * National Museum of American History specialist Erin Blasco discusses how social media interactions, such as tweet-ups, transform faceless online participants into a real audience.

Perhaps the most powerful impact of interacting in-person with the museum’s social media folks is that these individuals are no longer just followers or acquaintances—they are friends and advocates, ready to share their feedback when we need it, spread our messages generously with their own contacts, and partner with us as we increase understanding of the American experience.

Cultivating a strong social media presence serves as a powerful communication tool. Last week I talked about how open communication is crucial when designing websites. Museums’ community building is also dependent on proper communication. As Dana Allen-Greil and Matthew MacArthur wrote in their 2010 paper on online museum communities “while museums are generally highly valued by their communities, their impact could be heightened through true dialogue and mutual understanding with those whom they claim to serve.” In the 21st century, social media is the best way for museums to establish this transparency. As Allen-Greil and MacArthur argue, “introducing a greater degree of institutional openness” via social media creates a “whole museum” approach that “encourages visitors to relate to the museum in less formal, hierarchical, or transitory ways.” Thus, by social networking with the museum, visitors can become true friends of the site.


*Speaking of Presidential Hair, check out this graphic from the New York Times on Presidential hairstyles throughout history. How many can you immediately recognize (ignoring the fact that they’re in chronological order)?

Franklin Pierce was such a badass.

Presidential hair throughout history. That Franklin Pierce was so dreamy. (Graphic from New York Times)

Communication Breakdown

Last week I received a group email from a friend. The subject line was simply “fb” and the original message was quite clear: “What the hell. Stop changing.” That was followed up by a dozen responses, some in agreement (“Argh”), some pragmatic (“What the hell else are their engineers going to do but change things?”), and some positive (“change is good”). To the shock of no one, a Facebook design change received strong reactions. As probably the best comment in the thread put it: “Yeah – put it back to the way we complained about when it changed last time! We LOVE that way!”

Why do we always complain when a site like Facebook, or Google or AV Club makes these changes? Websites rarely seek input from the users, and often they don’t explain why they’re making the changes until after the switch. In addition, new sites might be shiny and fancy looking, but they lose some key functionality. This lack of two-way communication and lack of understanding what previously worked leads to disgruntled users. As Dan M. Brown — not that Dan Brown — writes in his book Communicating Design, “if we can’t communicate an idea effectively, how can we hope to create a website around it?”

From personal experience, I can’t agree more. A few years ago my old organization redesigned its website.* Though we hired a website developer to do the actual coding, one of my colleagues was in charge of developing the vision for the new site. She created the wireframes, content inventories and other “deliverables” that Brown discusses in detail. But unfortunately the project took longer than initially anticipated, and she quit in the middle for maternity leave. That left me to take over some of the responsibilities until we hired a replacement. Unfortunately, there was not a good trail of communication between the developer and my colleague. Items that were in one draft of the wireframe weren’t ‘t in the next and vice versa. The developer had also promised several features to my colleague orally — and yes they were worth the paper they were written on. That led to games of he said she said. Eventually, it got to the point where I was constantly singing this song in my head.

Awesome Led Zeppelin riffs aside, it was not the most pleasant project. Eventually we figured it out and the website worked, albeit without some of the initial functionality we had envisioned. No one person was to blame, but it still was frustrating. As Brown argues, “Communicating design is about combining words and pictures into a story that elaborates on a vision.” Sadly, our vision was not achieved thanks to a communication breakdown.

What about you? Do you hate it when sites like Facebook redesign features you’ve grown accustomed to? Do you wish websites better communicated their website redesigns? On a scale of 1-10 how angry would you be if I completely changed my WordPress theme tomorrow?

*I’m not going to link to the website, partially so that I don’t draw attention to my old company, but also because it’s already been updated.

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