A Critical Analysis of Digital Humanities as Two Separate Fields

In computer science, there’s not a designated class for a reflection of how computer science concepts are taught. At most, a class is required to talk about the ethics of computer science by following copyright laws and knowing the policies on intellectual property. There is no space to reflect on how programming is taught and to be critical of its traditional methods. On the other hand, humanities has had this framework of critiquing to better understand a work, whether it is literature, history, and anything in between. The next critical level would be to check our own biases in analysis of critiques done in the humanities. The discussion with Dr. So on Friday aimed to critically analyze the parts of digital humanities that make up strictly the digital and strictly the humanities to further the field of digital humanities and expand its impact on society.

By exploring the societal norms within the structure of programming practices and analyzing their effect on society, it will encourage a more critical look into the connections between society and traditional programming methods (McPherson , 2013; O’Neil, 2016). Three key features of programming practices are modularity, binary mindset, and black box theory. Each play an important part in the way programming is taught and relates back to societal norms. Modularity of code allows for a simple swap if a certain part of the code does not work with the rest of the program. McPherson explores parallels in racial segregation at the same time of the development of Unix (McPherson, 2013). A binary mindset refers to the background of programming in the way that computers work with 1s and 0s. This association with 1s and 0s lends itself to society and sorting individuals into good and bad, the best and the worst, with little room in between. An unfortunate programming practice in the digital community is the black box issue. There has always been a barrier between those that code and those that do not by excluding those from the process of coding. O’Neil explores both the binary mindset and the black box issue through the use of “weapons of math destruction”. But through this analysis and through a critical view of these things that are accepted parts of reality, it’s possible to change these parts of reality to shift towards better, more hopeful views of reality.

On the strand of humanities, there is some backlash when exploring topics in digital humanities. When exploring topics of cultural heritage, there is potential for erasure from different cultures, based on those that are working in digital humanities. When it comes to exploring race and gender within texts through a digital analysis, its possible to cross the line of stereotyping for the sake of finding patterns within the text.

From examples of societal norms leaking in to our perception of programming and analysis of humanities, its important to be conscious of the inherent biases that can saturate our day to day. In regards to programming and its effects on digital humanities, a program is only as good as its creator. In regards to digital humanities and societal practices that have become the norm, just because a practice is prevalent may be the poorest reason for continuing it. Being critical of traditional practices, either in technology or humanities, will effect the future of digital humanities as a field, for the better.

Works Consulted:

O’Neil, Cathy. (2016). “Introduction” in Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Great Britain: Allen Lane.

Gallon, Kim. (2016). “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. Lauren F. Klein and Matthew K. Gold (Eds.).

McPherson, Tara. (2013). “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.Debates in the Digital Humanities 2012. Matthew K. Gold (Ed.).


Race Within Digital Humanities​

The readings that the digital scholar’s group was asked to read in preparation for Dr. Richard Jean So’s visit this week, took on the topic of race within digital humanities. These reading challenged us to consider how race is constructed within data-driven spaces, as well as the role that race plays in computational history.

In “Making a case for Black Digital Humanities” Gallon seeks to “articulate a relationship between the digital humanities and Africana/African American/Black studies…so as to highlight how technology, employed in this underexamined context, can further expose humanity as a racialized social construction”. Gallon notes that discussions about the lineage of black studies within digital humanities are historically absent. In order to begin the work of tracing this lineage, scholars need to engage in “a discussion of the black digital humanities by drawing attention to the “technology of recovery” that undergirds black digital scholarship, showing how it fills the apertures between Black studies and digital humanities”.  Recovery, notes Gallon “rests at the heart of Black studies, as a scholarly tradition that seeks to restore the humanity of black people lost and stolen through systemic global racialization”.  This recovery within digital humanities seen to recover those who have been excluded, or whose histories have been remained hidden. “One of the essential features of the black digital humanities, then, is that it conceptualizes a relationship between blackness and the digital where black people’s humanity is not a given”. Ultimately, Gallon challenges those involved in digital humanities to shift our epistemology in order to generate new questions about the relationship between the racialization of humanity and the digital spaces.

Tara McPherson, in her article “Why are digital Humanities So White Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” argues that technological systems are inherently constructed for white audiences. Further, she argues“the difficulties we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of difference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code) are actually an effect of the very designs of our technological systems, designs that emerged in post–World War II computational culture”. Thus, part of the struggle that we face in trying to make digital spaces more inclusive is the actually coded design that underlies these spaces. McPherson notes that “First, we must better understand the machines and networks that continue to powerfully shape our lives in ways that we are often ill-equipped to deal with as media and humanities scholars. This necessarily involves more than simply studying our screens and the images that dance across them, moving beyond the study of representations and the rhetorics of visuality”. We need to move beyond visualization and on to construction. It is this that will help us to move beyond the boxes we create.

Race, Computation, and the Analysis of Culture

Friday, April 13, 12:00-1:15 pm
Innovation Hub Program Room (Shores, first floor – map)

Race, Computation, and the Analysis of Culture

For many humanists working in or across data-driven spaces, the understanding that “race” is a simultaneous implication in the history of computation and impetus for the further development of “big data” projects and mechanisms raises daunting questions about the ethics of their research. Indeed, humanists’ commitment to patterned (distant) reading methods stems from their critical and historiographic desires to diversify “condition[s] of knowledge” (Moretti, Distant Reading, 2013). At the same time, such methods may texturize certain historical facts at the expense of other cultural canons, or in ways that further encode racial bias (McPherson, 2013; Gallon, 2016).

This need not be the case. For our final session of the academic year, Digital Scholars hopes to work through this dilemma in videoconference with Dr. Richard  Jean So, Assistant Professor of English and Cultural Analytics at McGill University, and current Faculty Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center.  Author of Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network, and incoming Director of the McGill .TxTLab, Dr. So pursues scholarship that fulfills dual aims: seeking positive versions of DH methods that can be applied to questions of race/racial difference, while also furthering critiques of algorithmic reliances in the humanities that perpetuate colonizing orientations toward culture.

All are welcome at this culminating discussion, where there is no barrier to entry — ethnically, disciplinarily, methodologically, or otherwise. Participants are invited to read the following in advance:

We hope you can join us.

Identifying with the Crowd(s)

In his April 4th talk to the Digital Scholars group, Dr. Paul Marty brought to focus the shifting identities that museums and those in museum spaces, both those working within them as well as the visitors who come to them. Situating his discussion in a historical overview where he brought in work from Edward Elin, Dr. Marty noted how Elin argued for  museums to incorporate digital exhibits and how his vision led to the concept of the Museum Computer Network (a notion that has just recently turned 50 years old). Elin had actually put forward these notions in his 1969 work “Museums and the computer: An appraisal of new potentials,” and argued that the digital art museum could be a reality as early as 1980. This repositioning of our understanding of the intersection of museum history and digital technologies helped to situate our discussion about the shifting identities that are impacted by digital technologies and their crowdsourcing capacities.

From this historical understanding, the discussion shifted more to the roles that museums currently play, with Dr. Marty providing anecdotes of colleagues working at the Smithsonian and spending most of their time having to run down legalistic issues such as copyright, coordination of property rights, or multiple families arguing claim over one artifact, which impedes his colleague’s ability to pursue those things such as tracking down all of the warehouses full of collections and artifacts and being able to cross check the records and create a more navigable catalogue of their stores. Dr. Marty went on from there in his talk to discuss the social impacts on museums, how the perceptions of those outside of the field shape how and what it does and is able to do, and how, with all of these issues to contend with, dreams such as his colleagues or others to do work that is exciting and new are not necessarily technical issues that stop them, but rather social.

At this point, Dr. Marty’s talk shifted, with more of an emphasis on how the social implications of how patrons’ and museum workers’ perceptions of museums do and should operate shape the identity of the museum itself. These identities are socially constructed, with the values of each the visitor and the curator shaping how the other interacts with and views the material on display. Dr. Marty’s discussion seemed to be primarily situated within this space, with his emphasis being on how people utilize and interact with these materials, what they get out of that interaction, and how it works to shape the identities of both the user (patron/visitor) and the place that houses that information (museum), as well as the kinds of implications that has on more collective notions of identity (the overall narrative, the way people view these objects/cultures/spaces). When Dr. Marty brought in the example of the young African American child at the Florida History Museum stating that they did not “see themselves there,” that really drove home the tangible impacts that this system has on the everyday; it is not only an issue for those within the field, but it is an issue that impacts anyone who goes to a museum on a school trip, or during a vacation, or just pops in to see one or two exhibits but catches themselves wondering through others… it has impacts beyond just the scholarship written on a page on the subject.

These issues coalesce within Dr. Marty’s notion of the sociotechnical tensions within museum infomatics, which he defined for us as “the study of the sociotechnical interactions that occur between people, info, and tech in museum and other cultural heritage organizations.” Marty argued that, in order for these issues to be remedied,  both internal issues and external expectations need to be remedied and consolidated. Crowdsourcing might be a way to accomplish that, although we spent much of our discussion also talking through potential issues that crowdsourcing also introduces to the systems. Dr. Marty brought in the example of a web cartoon that showed a person at a Braille Museum being yelled at to “not touch the exhibits,” and we used the absurdity of the notion to discuss the ways that people are actively or passively excluded from museum spaces and from actually interacting with and identifying with the history they have come to learn about. With crowdsourcing enterprises, people can interact more thoroughly and personally with different facets of history. We went through several different crowdsourcing ventures, such as the Galaxy Zoo, where users could interact with and learn about and catalogue galaxies that were photographed, as well as several transcription crowdsourcing ventures such as the Shakespeare’s World project that allows users to transcribe contemporary writings. These projects allow people to directly interact with these texts and artifacts, and to feel like they are contributing to the knowledge around them in a tangible way. While we also discussed limitations to these kinds of ventures (some programs feels more like a game than actually interacting with the tangible artifacts, some of the infrastructure on some programs make you question what is being done with the information you’ve contributed or whether you might have made a negative contribution and ruined the previous work done with your own inexpertise and the imprecise UI, etc), but we also discussed how pivotal it is for these kinds of projects to reach out to people, to say this material, this history, this work is for everyone, for you; we can all contribute to future of humanity in this way.

It helps to answer the all-important question of “Do you see yourself here?” and to incorporate the material and the resources into everyone’s lives, which gives meaning to the work being done. Because if the average person cannot see themselves represented, cannot see themselves interacting … then what is the point of the museum at all?

Museum Informatics

On April 4th, the Digital Scholars Group had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Paul Marty, Professor in the School of Information at Florida State University, to help us critically consider the current shifts within museum identity. During his talk, Dr. Marty talked about the current shift in museum identify from an object centered identity to a knowledge about objects centered identity. As part of his talk, Dr. Marty introduced the group to collections of various crowdsourcing projects and the role that these project play in shifting museum identity. The objective of many of the projects that Dr. Marty introduced the group to was to get individuals more involved in museum culture and object knowledge. One such project, Citizen Archivist lets people view and transcribe material contained in the National Archives.

Through talking about these different projects, Marty introduced us to the idea of Sociotechnical Tensions; which he defined as “Study of the sociotechnical interactions that occur between people, information, and technology in museums and the other cultural heritage organizations”. In order to illustrate this concept, Dr. Marty talked with us about a boy who went to a museum that highlighted the history of Florida. The boy after walking through the museum remarked: “I don’t see myself here”. Often when histories are told there are voices that are excluded from the narrative. In order to open up spaces such as museums to these historically excluded, crowdsourcing platforms allow for the opportunity for all visitors to become active participants in the creation of historical knowledge. The idea being that the museum belongs to everyone and all should have a voice.

To conclude Dr. Marty left us with a few questions to consider:

How do we build applications that people want to use?

How do we learn from amateur engagement?

How do we connect the people with the right task?

What does it mean to crowdsource in a successful way?

Pushing the Envelope

Digital Humanities centers around redefining concepts, ideas, and structures that are already out there, like stretching what it means to be digital while also conforming to some variety of humanities. On the same branch, museum informatics is redefining the museum experience by entangling technology with a traditional museum setting. Digital humanities and museum informatics stretch their own definitions within a societal context. Crowdsourcing is something I’ve only known as a resource for financial support. By using crowdsourcing as a research resource, it allows for a deeper connection between research and the general public. However, relying on the community, to any extent, changes the typical methodology of research. The main focus now is the community and it will affect additional research variables, such as time, quality control, and even initial research questions. Because crowdsourcing pushes the envelope of who can be involved and to what extent, methodology is scrutinized to determine what worked, what didn’t, and if crowdsourcing is worth utilizing as a research resource.

Incorporation of Crowd Sourcing

The use of crowd sourcing can take on many forms. Mia Ridge refers to the crowdsourcing model of Bonney et al, quantified by the amount of community involvement in a research project are anywhere between “contributory”, where the public only contributes data, to “co-creative”, where the public helps design the project (Ridge 7-8). Regardless of the level of involvement, the methodology will always incorporate a tool for interaction between the research and the public. The level of involvement, then determines the design of the tool, to establish mutual trust and respect with the volunteers.

Shift of Focus

The creation of the tool, to be used in collaboration with the community, will not be perfect from the start. Through trial and error and feedback from the users, the tool has to be modified to fit the needs of the community to be successful in crowd sourcing projects. For each individual project, the amount of modification will vary as well as the participation of the community. While the most important part of crowdsourcing is the mutual respect and appreciation of the community to maintain long lasting connections to the research.

Scrutinize the Methodology

So what worked, what didn’t, and is crowdsourcing a sustainable research resource? These depend on a measurement of success. For most, research using crowdsourcing isn’t instant success, it’s a tool for the long game. As with all research, trial and error is an necessary evil. But for crowdsourcing, it requires a constant maintenance both for the connection to the public and quality control (for output and tool usage). Crowdsourcing can be used as a research resource, however, has it’s challenges.

Works Consulted:

Battles, Matthew and Michael Maizels. “Collections and/of Data: Art History and the Art Museum in the DH Mode.” Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016 edition) http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/78

Ridge, M. (2014). Introduction to Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage. In Ridge, M. (2014). Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage (pp. 1-16). London: Taylor & Francis, Inc. FSU Access = https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/lib/fsu/reader.action?docID=1774187

Tim Causer, Justin Tonra, Valerie Wallace; Transcription maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Volume 27, Issue 2, 1 June 2012, Pages 119–137, FSU Access = https://doi-org.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/10.1093/llc/fqs004

Voss, J., Wolfenstein, G. and Young, K. (2015). From Crowdsourcing to Knowledge Communities: Creating Meaningful Scholarship through Digital Collaboration. In Proctor, N. & Cherry, R. (Eds). Museums and the Web 2015. Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. http://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/from-crowdsourcing-to-knowledge-communities-creating-meaningful-scholarship-through-digital-collaboration/

Crowdsourcing and Meaning

Does changing structure change meaning?   If knowledge is produced in an unconventional way, does that change the validity of the information?  These are questions that the readings for the upcoming Digital Scholars Group grappled with.  Crowdsourcing changes the method of gaining information and can change the message that is produced.

In Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, Mia Ridge references Jeff Howe’s definition of Crowdsourcing:  “Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call (Ridge 5).”  She specifies that Crowdsourcing is often spoken about as ‘outsourcing’ and often loses ethos by defining it in this way. She also show’s Howe’s “’soundbyte’ definition of crowdsourcing – the ‘application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software (Ridge 5).’” Within these two definitions, one can see the major tensions latent in crowdsourcing. It helps get work done in a quick and efficient way while being more open and transparent to the public; however, scholars must lose partial control over the intellectual property.  This open source nature is something Digital Humanists praise, while also wanting to hang onto their intellectual needs.

Ridge speaks about how crowdsourcing can engage audiences.  Specifically, if the mission of an organization is to educate or engage the community, crowdsourcing seems an obvious choice.  However, the underlying problem is still the same.  Engaging the community requires archivists to decide what level the crowd should have in their project.  Should they just contribute, be collaborative, or co-creative?  Each level both gives and takes something away from the project.

In Transcription maximized; expense minimized? Causer et al. deals with some of the same problems Ridge spoke about.  In their crowdsourcing project of transcribing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham they used a process where volunteers would transcribe Jeremy Bentham’s work and a staff member would check the transcriptions for accuracy.  This process seemed to fit most closely to Ridge’s contributing crowdsourcing.  Volunteers are almost students in this method of crowdsourcing, where their work has to be checked by a professional.  The professional scholar then gives feedback to the volunteer.  This method was not cost effective, though Causer et al. believes it would have become effective over time if allowed to continue.  Yet, does this type of overhead revision defeat the overall purpose of crowdsourcing?  Are there other ways to make sure crowdsourcing is effective and cost-effective?

Voss et al. brings a new light to crowdsourcing by approaching the concept through partnerships.  They seek to primarily engage the community in knowledge sharing activities.  Voss et al. specifically chooses the communities they work with based on the knowledge they possess.  The team slowly builds a relationship with these knowledge communities over time, and this develops a sense of trust and respect. Voss et al. finds projects by using strategic partnerships to fit “the needs of the communities with the aims of the project (Voss 4.2.2).”  Not only is knowledge gained through these projects, but community is built.

Art is an experience, and changes in experience can change the meaning derived from art.  Battles and Maizels look at how differences in portraying artwork across different digital mediums change user interaction and experience.  Have scholars created a flattened version of art by placing it into a new medium?  Will scholars lose something by bringing crowdsourced material to the public in this new possibly unintended medium?


Works Consulted:

Battles, M. and Maizels, M. (2016). Collections and/of Data: Art History and the Art Museum in the DH Mode. Debates in the Digital Humanities(open-access edition) [http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/78]

Causer, T., Tonra, J., & Wallace, V. (2012). Transcription maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and Editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Volume 27, Issue 2, 1 pp. 119-37 [https://doi-org.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/10.1093/llc/fqs004FSU access

Ridge, M. (2014). Introduction to Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage. In Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage (pp. 1-16). London: Taylor & Francis, Inc. [https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/lib/fsu/reader.action?docID=1774187FSU access

Voss, J., Wolfenstein, G. & Young, K. (2015). From Crowdsourcing to Knowledge Communities: Creating Meaningful Scholarship through Digital Collaboration. In Proctor, N. & Cherry, R. (Eds). Museums and the Web 2015. Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web [http://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/from-crowdsourcing-to-knowledge-communities-creating-meaningful-scholarship-through-digital-collaboration/]