Digital_Humanities, and design

I’m enjoying Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp (MIT Press, 2012). It has been very helpful in providing a thorough, comprehensive introduction to Digital Humanities, considering the diverse, patchwork nature of this emerging field. It elaborates on its histories, methodologies, giving us case studies, social life and a short guide. An Open Access edition is available for free download from the MIT Press website. Here’s a long but insightful excerpt from page 12-16 on its intersections with designers and technologists:

In the 21st century, we communicate in media significantly more varied, extensible, and multiplicative than linear text. From scalable databases to information visualizations, from video lectures to multiuser virtual platforms, serious content and rigorous argumentation take shape across multiple platforms and media. The best Digital Humanities pedagogy and research projects train students both in “reading” and “writing” these emergent rhetorics and in understanding how they reshape and remodel humanistic knowledge. This means developing critically informed literacies expansive enough to include graphic design, visual narrative, time-based media, and the development of interfaces (rather than the rote acceptance of them as off-the-shelf products). The second half of the 20th century saw the development of such literacies in fits and starts. They now move front and center inasmuch as the advent of Digital Humanities implies a reinterpretation of the humanities as a generative enterprise: one in which students and faculty alike are making things as they study and perform research, generating not just texts (in the form of analysis, commentary, narration, critique) but also images, interactions, cross-media corpora, software, and platforms.

Because Digital Humanities is a generative practice, it demands an additive pedagogy. Students still have to be trained in the persuasive use of language, to write effectively in long forms, but they also need to be able to craft what Roman rhetoricians called the multum in parvo—the aphorism, the short form, that which distills the long and the large into compact form. This is not only to address the (perhaps apocryphal) short length of the contemporary attention span—was there ever a golden age of rapt audiences with limitless patience? rhetorical treatises from classical antiquity suggest that there wasn’t—but also the realities of a wired  the thinking that informed their design goes unperceived. Though there is no “natural” way to interweave text, images, sound and moving images, there exists a range of available genre models from experiments unique to the digital realm to ones that draw upon prior moments in the history of print and cinematic conventions. Digital design expresses concepts by means of the multitude of ways in which it layers media, structures information, and articulates navigational strategies. Though not every project requires a custom approach or platform, attention to the design of arguments is a fundamental feature of Digital Humanities research.

Designing Digital Humanities

Like the word “writing,” the word “design” encompasses an array of activities from the everyday to the highly specialized. “Big D” design ranges from the business plans and systems of “design thinking” to the “design sciences,” which include engineering and human-computer interaction, to the cultural critique and speculative provocations of “critical design.” In between are myriad professional specializations and academic domains. Digital Humanities projects most closely involve communication/graphic/visual designers who are concerned with the symbolic representation of language, the graphical expression of concepts, and questions of style and identity. Interaction/user experience designers, with their focus on interface, behavior, and digital systems, and media designers who combine communication and interaction also bring expertise that is critical to the design of operations and environments that structure the ways in which ideas come into being.

In generative mode, these designers shape structural logics, rhetorical schemata, information hierarchies, experiential qualities, cultural positioning, and narrative strategies. When working analytically, their task is to visually interpret, remap or reframe, reveal patterns, deconstruct, reconstruct, situate, and critique. To design new structures of argumentation is an entirely different activity than to form argumentation within existing structures that have been codified and variously naturalized. All forms of design share a propositional orientation that is well-suited to the challenges that come with designing new structures, for design asks: “What if?” Each design iteration plays out an answer to the question: “What happens when…?” In a world with fluid contours, humanists, designers and technologists working together can move beyond considering what can be done with the tools at hand to ask: “What can we imagine doing that may not yet be possible?”

For digital humanists, design is a creative practice harnessing cultural, social, economic, and technological constraints in order to bring systems and objects into the world. Design in dialogue with research is simply a technique, but when used to pose and frame questions about knowledge, design becomes an intellectual method. In the hundred-plus years during which a self-conscious practice of design has existed, the field has successfully exploited technology for cultural production, either as useful design technologies in and of themselves, or by shaping the culture’s technological imaginary. As Digital Humanities both shapes and interprets this imaginary, its engagement with design as a method of thinking-through-practice is indispensable. Digital Humanities is a production-based endeavor in which theoretical issues get tested in the design of implementations, and implementations are loci of theoretical reflection and elaboration.

In addition to modeling the platforms, tools, databases, and other information structures on which digital projects are built, designers understand the possibilities and limitations of each of the specific media forms employed in such projects. Digital humanists have much to learn from communication and media design about how to juxtapose and integrate words and images, create hierarchies of reading, forge pathways of understanding, deploy grids and templates to best effect, and develop navigational schemata that guide and produce meaningful interactions. Not every digital humanist will become a designer, but every good digital humanist has to be able to “read” and appreciate that which design has to offer, to build the shared vocabulary and mutual respect that can lead to fruitful collaborations. Understanding the rhetoric of design, its persuasive force and central role in the shaping of arguments, is a critical tool for digital work in all disciplines. But rhetoric is a distinctly humanist skill, one that ventures out into new directions in a digital environment that the humanist of the 21st century is called upon to master.

Recommended media:

(Note: I’ve modified slightly this section from the book by turning them into a list. I’ve read/watched all the media listed except for Morris’, and I think they should be required reading/viewing for 21st century humanities students. Let’s see if we can host a session to analyse this media within humanities framework at C2O…)

  • Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage is arguably seen as a precursor to contemporary Digital Humanities work, both for the form of its argument and for its collaborative production, orchestrated by producer Jerome Agel.
  • John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is meant to be both viewed and read in what could be considered a prototypical transmedia project: The book was originally a BBC television series.
  • Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a noteworthy graphic nonfiction essay: it enacts an analysis of the interplay between text and image in spatialized sequential narratives through the use of text and image in a spatialized sequential narrative.
  • Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil
  • Errol Morris’ Fast Cheap & Out of Control
  • Charles & Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten

Each of these projects brought new forms of argumentation to the static page. But the screen culture of Digital Humanities is often dynamic and timebased, drawing on a multitude of traditions of media practice. Here, the aesthetics and technics of film and video are particularly relevant. Being able to block out sequences and actions, light and frame shots, edit for sense and rhythm, and compose and produce music and sound—this and more comprise the fundamentals of moving image production. Techniques for editing shots to create scenes, narratives, or emotional effects, mixing in sound, virtual simulations, and other special effects to create a cohesive whole are the essence of what is referred to as “post-production.”

The field of Digital Humanities may see the emergence of polymaths who can “do it all”: who can research, write, shoot, edit, code, model, design, network, and dialogue with users. But there is also ample room for specialization and, particularly, for collaboration. The generation now cursed with the label “digital natives” will surely develop the capacity to become comprehensive digital humanists. The fact that digital projects of any substantial scale benefit from and, indeed, often require team-based approaches troubles traditional concepts of authorship in the humanities, which are still fixated, by and large, on single-authored achievements. The academic world has developed sophisticated (though hardly perfect) modes in the sciences to credit multiple authors, but colleges and universities now need to develop ways of acknowledging intellectual contributions in team environments for digital humanists, a micro-credit and a macro-credit system for intellectual labor that functions as a viable form of capital in a reputation economy as well as in a scholarly world. Technical imagination and expertise partner with discipline-specific forms of knowledge in Digital Humanities projects: projects in which each contributor plays a vital role in setting the research agenda, and in which contributors build big mosaics out of tesserae consisting of specialized skills and expert knowledge.

One caveat is worth noting. The positive demand for expanded skill-sets could have profoundly negative effects on scholarship if it becomes the academic equivalent of a neo-liberal speedup in which ever more quantitative metrics are used to push “education workers” into acquiring technological skills without commensurate pay, skills which they are then held accountable for, both within and outside of tenure tracks. Likewise, the continuing resistance within post-secondary educational institutions to recognize Digital Humanities work as equivalent to long-established forms of scholarship could translate into an expectation that certain disciplines devoted to the study of the contemporary, such as media and visual studies, become Digital Humanities departments, irrespective of whether the most promising research questions within the field are well-suited to such a framing. The fact of the matter is that Digital Humanities bears no privileged relation to modern or contemporary cultural corpora; on the contrary, it is indifferent as to whether its objects of study are performance videos from the 1960s or pottery shards from a Mycenaean archaeological site from the 2nd millennium bce. Digital Humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them. Its distinctive contributions do not obliterate the insights of the past, but add and supplement the humanities’ long-standing commitment to scholarly interpretation, informed research, structured argument, and dialogue within communities of practice.

In this rapidly changing research environment, it is necessary to acknowledge the new shapes that knowledge production is assuming, to set reasonable and flexible expectations regarding experimentation and innovation, and to devise a reward structure for team-based collaboration that includes recognition of the value and skills of participants in accord with the significance of their contributions. Older “service-based” models of staff conceived in contrast to scholars qua auteurs are being challenged and rightly so. The cultural politics of academic institutions are shifting, indeed, but we must be attentive to inadvertent consequences. Projects that are dependent on deliverables as their only measure of success are likely to be at odds with a research mission that supports innovation and imaginative, risk-taking work. Intellectual challenges, not technical ones or metrics based on the mere on-time delivery of products, have always driven and will continue to drive the development of the Digital Humanities.


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