The End of the Line

For the final week of my “Readings in Digital Humanities” class (for which this blog was created), we looked at a series of texts that posit what we need to do now in order to successfully move the digital humanities forward. Needless to say, the opinions on how to achieve this varied, and, overall, seemed rather vague and abstract.

When reading the articles for this week, I ran into the same problem that I’ve been running into the whole semester: I agree with everything I’m reading, even when the things I’m reading seem to offer differing opinions. On the one hand, I can’t help but agree with Douglas Rushkoff’s energetic claim in Program or be Programmed:

 We are aware of the many problems engendered by the digital era. What is called for now is a human response to the evolution of these technologies all around us…we need to codify the changes we are undergoing, and develop a new ethical, behavioral, and business template through which to guide us.

I admit, there is an element of Rushkoff’’s writing that is dangerously reductive; his idea that we can either “program or be programmed” creates a polarizing binary. However, I don’t think that Rushkoff is actually being reductive, well, he is, but I think it’s for the sake of being provocative. As a rhetorical device I found his tendency to be provocative affective, not off-putting. Rushkoff’s work very much reminded me of “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” that we read at the beginning of the semester: it too was intentionally provocative at the risk of being reductive.

I couldn’t help but find Rushkoff’s enthusiasm infectious; I agree with his main point, that as humanities scholars we need to take control of the tools we are using. We need to take responsibility for the technologies that are driving and shaping society. I wonder though, how practical his grand vision is. Rushkoff says that “We are creating a Blueprint together—a design for our collective future.” True, but I’m not sure that having all of the humanities scholars go out and learn to program results in this rosy, collective future. (Further, it seems like a term such as “program” is not as self-explanatory as Rushkoff seems to assume that it is.) Even if humanities scholars go out and learn to make these tools, what happens to the systems and tools that are already in place? What makes Rushkoff think that a humanities centered approach to our “collective future” would be accepted and adopted? Wouldn’t it be in competition with the systems already in place? There are of course, other logistical issues as well; even though Rushkoff has gotten me pretty psyched, what exactly am I supposed to go out and do? I struggle as it is learning basic technical tools that already exist. The idea of learning technical skills to the extent that I could actually rethink them from the ground up is overwhelming. This isn’t to say that “too difficult” is a reason not to do something, but I am questioning how we could actually go about achieving Rushkoff’s vision.

Perhaps the most valid critique of Ruschkoff comes in the form of Johanna Drucker’s comments in “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In talking about the data visualizations now used in DH work, Drucker argues:

Positivistic, strictly quantitative, mechanistic, reductive and literal, these visualization and processing techniques preclude humanistic methods from their operations because of the very assumptions on which they are designed: that objects of knowledge can be understood as self-identical, self-evident, ahistorical, and autonomous.

For Drucker, technical tools are at their very core based on principles antithetical to humanities values. Again, I find myself agreeing: appropriating tools simply isn’t enough. If Rushkoff is arguing that we need to rush off because we are running out of time, Drucker seems to be arguing that we need to pause and take a moment. For her, we can’t afford not to.  I agree that we need to assess what is going on here, before we start building more tools. If we go out and learn to code, in Drucker’s view it seems like we would be dragging digital mud all over the carpet of the humanities.  Though Ruschkoff puts emphasis on programming while Drucker emphasizes theorizing, both do seem to agree on one key point: we, as humanists, need to find a foothold in the changing technological climate that is infiltrating our society and our discipline. Again, I couldn’t agree more, I just wonder, how exactly are we supposed to do that?

So much for a neat wrap-up of all the DH related problems this blog has entertained over the semester so far… But, neat wrap-ups (as I so often find myself telling my students) are overrated, usually they are a bad thing; forced and contrived they seek to shelve the endless complexities that continue to exist regardless of whether or not we acknowledge them.  

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