DH, Alterity, & Cybercrud

The “rules” of UNIX (and moreso in Richard Stallman’s open source stewardship of GNU in 1983) are the following: modularity, clarity, transparency, and simplicity all work to establish a unity in programming and a connectedness in work to come. There’s an inherent body of collaboration—maybe out of necessity and maybe out of spirit, depending on who is framing it—that runs through this UNIX narrative. Others will need to see, understand, and most importantly access this information later if the core of UNIX is going to segue into more usable programs in the future.

To extend Tara McPherson’s brilliant analogy of the UNIX timeline and the cultural movements of the ’60s, and please forgive the reductive nature of my poor generalization, I can’t help but focus on the zeitgeist of both branches of her timeline. As McPherson notes, the nature of UNIX’s establishment was both a response to the widening field of what programmers could work with and also an establishment of what they thought would soon be possible. There was a recognized kairos, and we see optimism and ingenuity emerge in response.

In 1972, Ted Nelson coined the phrase “cybercrud,” the veil of confusion, unnecessary jargon, and complex framing programmers purposefully use to keep computers as inaccessible to the ordinary user as possible, and fought against this kind of thought. We see in the genius of Nelson a foresight of optimism of how computers would shape the world and how that movement would look. The same often mythologized social movements of so-called “post war era” share this hope and eye towards the future. Compounded more so than anything else, we see both of these movements crescendo in the official narrative of Steve Jobs; counter-culture and computer work in capitalism to formulate a new kind of product that “thinks differently” and breaks free the chains of oppression.

If I can deviate slightly from McPherson’s analogy, I think this is also the moment where everything begins to fall apart for both tracings. We see the Western rise of neoliberalism and the proprietary computer arms race shatter the original zeitgeist of both these movements. It’s not so much a modularity mentality as it is a capitalistic one—whomever can gain financially within their given sphere will also use this to oppress the advancements of others. Apple, after borrowing heavily from UNIX and others quickly stymies anyone from borrowing from them. The post-war social movements lose traction and fall within the expanding globalization neoliberal powers. Collaboration no longer guides the digital, and marginalized voices remain, despite our better intentions, marginalized.

I make this overly-simplified metaphor only to highlight the importance of how some of these readings are working against both of these established frameworks. Sayers’s, McGrail’s, and Gil‘s essays in Minimal Computing all centralize open source and accessibility, expanding upon the nature of how things should work and what we can create when we function in collaboration (and please forgive me for lumping these three distinct works as one—each should really be examined on their own merits). The usefulness of re-tooling our tools with minimalist approaches in order to increase access works to correct the consumerist takeover that shaped the rise of the personal computer and bore the spine of neoliberalism, even in the almost ironic (but not really, you know?) framing of advancing technology by removing some of the superfluous tools of technology.

This is a purposeful scaleback that aims to work against established systems of power and recontextualize creative thought while still maintaining the core of what consists of the humanities. We see a reiteration of Nelson’s original concepts of an open learning and growing digital community of scholarship that allows access to anyone who wants to contribute.

In the transformative value of re-shaping our view(s) of the humanities through the lens of digital scholarship, we see the unique creativity and connectedness in these works. In more than just a cursory nod to alterity, we see real, applicable ways of inclusive and collaborative learning that openly works to stretch beyond the hegemonic and create open learning spaces. For those of us who occupy Composition and Rhetoric, the implications of this are especially exciting as our digital practices intersect in every way with the work of this presentation.

Some questions in advance of our meeting:

  1. There’s no dearth of innovation in the humanities, and this is especially so (at least I like to think) in the digital. Even with digital works, we see scholars and makers move around in the academic or digital world or shift focus to other projects. When we look at works like the GO:DH, Ed, and The Open Syllabus Project, what kind of sustainability can we see or hope to see once the initial excitement has dissipated a little? Once a project like this has moved beyond the stage of the original creators? How could these projects maintain or re-purpose their roles in order to generate more diversity?
  2. As we’ve seen within the humanities, alterity is a priority in scholarship but a lot of times not in reality within the actual voices of the scholars. Beyond collaboration, (re)introducing erased historical texts into the cannon, and increasing access of marginalize voices into places of conversation, how else do we counter the traditional-tradition thought of white hegemonic scholarship that still makes up the backbone of the humanities? As Gallon notes, even with a forefront of black issues in humanist conversation, there’s still a framework of “black voices vs the hegemonic” or black voices included as a footnote to the canon. [On second pass of this question: I know this is impossible to answer but I’d be interested on any insight at all]

Finally, this is amazing.


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