The Invisible Interface

At our meeting on December 1, our group met with Rob Duarte, who — as an artist — offers a unique perspective on how objects can be used as a critique of culture and culture’s tacit political ideologies. What makes these critiques powerful is also what makes them scary.  The “work” may not always be seen as a product of its original intent.  A satirical critique about consumer culture may also be seen through a lens of real needs or wants.  A simplified realization may require an understanding that is unrelated or contrary to the artist’s beginning desires. Duarte’s machine that inserts razor blades into apples, for example, capitalizes on commodified fears in recent cultural memory. It may well be this element of danger that engages the mind for critique and inspires a potential deeper realization: If there were no danger, would there be no need for critique?

One comment that surfaced during discussion was a statement about Millennial Culture: We may realize what is happening upon consumption, but accept the message for its convenience. Similarly, artistic critiques may incite concern that we will one day stop questioning our involvements and simply accept a dystopian society of our own making — we might accept the interface as something invisible.  On the one hand, although invisibility of any interface can make things easier, on the other hand the interface’s invisibility limits creative potential. (For example, the digital camera that adjusts your blurry picture, even if blurring was the intent.)  An invisible interface obscures options that the user can’t see and may not think about.  As more features become embedded in our tools and as interface becomes a more integrated component of human activity, how will this affect our critical making?

Finally, extending Duarte’s theme to questions of alterity: Who makes these interfaces?  As these interfaces become more invisible and embedded, they may subtly alter our personal frameworks — they may begin to alter how we view the world.  As Duarte states, artists mean to create work that provides a frame for others to see the world differently.  Programmers and marketers provide frameworks for access, and the frameworks in turn become embedded cultural practices, wherein users inherit their biases. If consumer culture continues to be built on a principle of invisible interact, then the frames of a select few could conceivably dictate the experiences of whole communities.  An alterity lens might require expanding these constructive frameworks to include more viewpoints.  It might also mean looking at the technologies we use every day, recognizing the biases that went into making them, and finding ways to counter these biases in our daily lives.

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Complicate

There is a paradox.  DH wants to be accessible, but DH wants to address complex and underlying issues in society.   DH wants to “unmask racialized systems of power,” yet DH is based in technology that “developed out of a racialized system (Gallon).” DH wants to create a grassroots recovery, yet DH starts not from the community, but from academia.  DH states it wants to “move ‘beyond normative ideas of who is a digital humanities scholar (Terman),’” yet DH is almost completely based in higher education. Where do we start to address these contradictions?

Are we, as digital humanists, exclusionist in the language we use to describe the systemic issues that exclude people?  Yet, while discussing topics of race and gender, simplifying an issue can create misinformation and misunderstanding.  We all have complex and rich histories, we just need a starting place to begin exploring them.   These histories are all about perspective, meaning we need more people with diverse backgrounds to engage in these topics and allow for their voices to be heard.  If we reached more people, would this help DH reach the goal of impacting complex, underlying issues?

My basic question is where is the entry point to DH?  Earhart and Taylor base their paper on the idea of creating a grassroots recovery of lost humanity.  Yet, I question how they view the terms grassroots.  For them, it means starting with entry level technologies and broad partners. Here the DH point of entry is only simplified in their technology choices.  However, Gallon suggests this is not a good thing. Digital Humanists should not compromise the technology they use, as this is the basis for their work.  Gallon references Johana Drucker’s statement that we should “use and build digital infrastructure and tools steeped in humanistic theory so that they function in ways that reflect the core values of the humanities (Gallon).”  While using technologies steeped in humanistic theory for humanities research is more theoretically sound, these technologies tend to have a higher technological entry point.  Therefore, there is a tension in choosing what technology to use.  Should professors use a simple, easy tool that can be used by many, or use a tool that recognizes the nuanced way the humanities work as a discipline?  The use of entry level technologies may be a good starting point to bringing more undergraduates into digital humanities, but it simplifies and perhaps undermines identification of, “racial dynamics in digital spaces (Terman).”

Is it beneficial for digital humanists to create an entry point for those interested in developing and sharing their knowledge?  A simplified entry point might not be the right answer, as simplifying has its own problems, but where do we start teaching more people about DH?  Is it more important to bring in more people with more perspectives, or first clean the issue DH has in itself?  Finally, would opening DH to reach more people create a dialogue that would bring richer complexity and depth?

 

Works Consulted:

 

Accessibility

In each article preceding the discussion of DH, Race, and Alterity, I found one major theme peeping through:  Accessibility.  Not just accessibility of reading content, but accessibility in understanding and creating content.  If DH is going to be universal and accomplish the goals of delivering high quality resources to all, DH needs to give more than just access to viewing content.

Is DH making its material accessible to as many people as possible, and if so, how is this being done? In The User, the Learner, and the Machines We Make Alex Gil forwards the idea that minimal computing is a way towards accessibility.  Citing Google’s search box, which is quite minimal until one looks at the massive amounts of code used to run this one box.  Yet, is minimal computing a good starting off place for accessibility?  More precisely, is everyone speaking the same minimal computing, as Seyers’s article expands the minimal computing definition. McGrail’s Open Source in Open Access Environments touches on this question of overcomplication in community college settings.  Is minimal computing helping community college students or developing a difficult entry point to DH?  How can DH ideas reach more people and truly be accessible without collapsing the integrity of the work studied?

Central to this issue of accessibility are race, gender, and international DH work.  In The (Digital) Library of Babel Alex Gil states, “a humanities gone digital brings not the future, but a new past.”  Digital Humanities can create new understandings by bringing together populations from culturally and socially disparate backgrounds to create new and interesting discussions about the world.  Yet Alex Gil states we need to take care of our own tents first.  The United States has its own struggles representing both gender and race equally within Digital Humanities.  Focusing on how to support our local tent is necessary to developing DH both at home and internationally.  Perhaps this local approach can be developed within collegiate frameworks of DH.  Yet still to be answered is the question:  How do we make DH accessible to all?

Houston Symphony Orchestra has a massive mission statement:  In 2025, the Houston Symphony will be America’s most relevant and accessible top-ten orchestra.  Yet when Mark Hanson became executive director of the symphony in 2010, he noticed that the majority of the symphony audience was white.  In Houston, which is 33% Anglo, 41% Hispanic, 18% African American, and 8% Asian, not engaging with multiple cultures means not being relevant or accessible.  In The Houston Symphony Diversity and Inclusion Case Study Mark Hanson states, “The Symphony can be as welcoming and as open as humanly possible but without intentional and deliberate strategies that address this feeling experienced by many from the African-American community, our organization and more importantly our art form will continue to remain unintentionally exclusive.” To become more inclusive they went straight to the source and developed three leadership councils filled with people from the communities they were trying to reach. The Houston Symphony Orchestra has since developed bilingual concerts, an African American chorus to perform for orchestra concerts, a Spanish composer series, free community tango concerts, and more to engage with their community.  Though it is solely a musical organization, the Houston Symphony Orchestra is dealing with the same issues as Digital Humanities.  The Houston Symphony Orchestra believes searching for answers at a community level will help them succeed in becoming one of the top 10 nationally recognized orchestras, but for DH, which is often thought of as a more national/international endeavor, would a local focus be acceptable?  Since the potential for DH is so expansive, should inclusivity in DH begin at a local or meta level?

Censorship or Editing

This blog post is in response to the discussion led by Dr. Michael Neal about the FSU Card Archive. The FSU Card Archive boasts over 4,000 collected postcards and hundreds of student made exhibits. Card images range from national parks, federal buildings, art, tourism postcards, and more. The FSU Card Archive teaches students how to organize often disparate ideas within one place. The following blog tries to make distinctions between professional archives, student sites, censorship, and editing based on the FSU Card Archive discussion.

Should an editor fix the broken links and correct misinformation in the archive or exhibits? The crux of this issue seems to be, is the site a student project site or a professional site? The answer to this question guides how the site will be maintained. As a professional archive, the broken links and misinformation would need to be corrected. The Smithsonian would not purposely publish an exhibit with misinformation, as the public would think the information was true. I hope it is our goal as scholars promote access to accurate information. Misinformation portrayed as fact can be misleading and possibly harmful to the average internet user. If this is a professional site, misinformation should be corrected.

Two questions of censorship and preservation emerged from the digital scholars discussion in relation to student project exhibits. I believe there is a succinct difference between censoring and editing, in a professional collection an editor should check each exhibit entry for misinformation before making it live and edit any broken links that occur when the creator has moved on. Yet, these issues become a philosophy question when the mission of the site is based around student learning. A portion of the digital scholars group believed that the student should be able to post views supported by misinformation within their personal exhibit posted on the FSU Card Archive. Again, I believe the final answer to this question must be decided by the mission of the site. If this is a site where students post their individual views, editing misinformation could easily be seen as censorship. However, if the mission of the site is to inform and educate others about the past through postcards, misinformation could harm the mission of the site.

The FSU Card Archive seems to be a cross between a professional archive and a student site. I think to bring the FSU Card Archive to the next level, it must choose to be one or the other. Moving towards a professional archive would include editing each archive entry and exhibit before making it public. If choosing to be a student oriented site, the front page of the FSU Card Archive might mention that the site is run by students and the views represented in the exhibits are student views. It could also be helpful to the average user to put the mission statement on the front page of the FSU Card Archive. This would inform the user automatically of what lens to view the archive.