Hacking readymade components for Digital Humanities projects.
This year marks my twentieth anniversary as a higher education professional. When I entered my Master’s program, I also became a teaching assistant, responsible for two of my very own freshman composition courses — those poor students. I’ve had many experiences since starting my Master’s program in 1995. One of them directly affects me and my Digital Humanities colleagues to this day: the institution of higher education is very conservative.
I first heard this idea while working on my M.A. from a professor who taught feminist literary criticism. At the time, I found that I had a difficult time reconciling this idea to the other ideas I picked up from her, like the very notion of feminism that challenged patriarchal perspectives that created the lived reality of gender relations. Femininism’s challenge to this traditional rule by the father was one of the most revolutionary ideas that I had ever heard, and it still influences all of my thought today. I even asked her to clarify: “Professor, it wasn’t until I entered this institution that I truly became aware of alternative perspectives for viewing the world and living my life. How can this institution be ‘conservative’ as you suggest?” With hindsight, I realize just how naive that question was, yet she responded with patience: “The ideas we discuss might be revolutionary, but the system in which we operate — tenure, promotion, publication, hierarchy — is based on tradition that resists change and reform like a monarch behind his castle walls.” I might have gotten the basic idea at that point, but it wasn’t until I became tenure-track faculty that I really understood what she was talking about.
These are the political waters that Digital Humanities must still navigate. I’ve written about this higher-education mindset before in “Defining Digital Humanities.” While many in the Humanities want to embrace what Janet Murray calls the “essential properties of digital environments” in our teaching and especially our scholarship, the academy is often reluctant to see any value in work that’s not printed on dead trees — the traditional article in the peer-reviewed journal or the highest-of-the-highs, a monograph with a UP. Even in progressive institutions that want to consider digital scholarship, notes Patrik Svensson (and others), we often lack the history and experience by which to evaluate digital approaches.
Even those of us who are drawn to the digital find ourselves infected with a sort of technological conservatism. For example, take the case of Microsoft Word. It used to be that if you wanted to word process — the primary thing Humanists used to do with computers in the academy — you had to use Word on a Windows computer. It was viewed (I might debate the actual truth of this view) as the most powerful and compatible for a number of years — perhaps it is still. Look today and most journals and publishers want manuscripts submitted in Word format. This perception of the necessity of Word permeated the computer culture of the academy, so much so that it has become a standard install on all computers. Hell, there are even college classes devoted to teaching Word. Today, however, many more (free, elegant, and better) options abound for writing — so many more accessible alternatives that it boggles my mind when colleagues and students insist on using Word to compose the shortest of blog entries. Platforms like Medium, Ulysses, and Hemingway are beginning to show us that Word is overly complex and bulky for most of our writing needs. Word has become the de facto writing platform in higher education, not because it’s better, but because it’s what everyone has gotten used to.
Scholarship has been a part of a print paradigm for so long, the idea of “scholarship” might be so inextricably linked with “paper” that even we who practice it have difficulty challenging this dominant and traditional perception. If we as scholars can’t do it, good luck to our institutions of higher education.
That’s a long way to go to get to my point: maybe the way we consider and build DH projects is flawed, mired in how we traditionally approach scholarship.
Designing DH Projects
Michel de Certeau notes in The Practice of Everyday Life that inherent in the design of urban spaces is an imposed method of action — structures that attempt to control behaviors. Sidewalks provide sanctioned places for walking, benches for sitting, offices for working, houses for living. Yet, everyday life wears a dirt path through the grass between sidewalks and symbolizes a tactical rebellion by citizens. When given sanctioned ways of behaving, people often rebel by creating their own paths to walk regardless of the original intent.
“The street finds its own uses for things.” ~William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”
In the digital world, designers and systems architects often give us gadgets and platforms that attempt to direct how we work and play. Yet, unlike the concrete and glass of the urban landscape, the digital is much more malleable to the desires of the users. This is a faster mode of feedback. Designers of platforms and the users of their platforms have immediate ways of response and revision. There might even be a correlation between the success of a platform and how quickly they respond to user needs. In my experience, newer platforms are very interested in what users have to say, and they often show alacrity in implementing these suggestions. In the nascent days of Word, even Microsoft probably responded willingly to users’ needs, but as the program and company gained more market share, Word became bloated and less flexible, eventually growing to the lumbering behemoth it is today. By that point, we had a Pavlovian response: “Word” became a metonym for “word processing” or “writing.”
Once a platform reaches the stage of metonym, it changes us, rather than us changing it. Think Google, Apple, Facebook — with Instagram and Twitter on the rise. Even when Facebook makes an improvement to its platform, many users become frustrated because they had gotten used to the older functionality.
This idea has made me rethink my approach to building DH projects. Why build from the ground up when pre-made platforms will likely do the work we need?
In a 2008 study that evaluates several DH projects, Claire Warwick, et al., notes that users are influenced by “switching costs” and will resist learning a new interface even if it’s an improvement (389). They observe that the most well used DH projects are also the most long-lived. There might be several reasons for this, but it may also have to do with the Word-affect: since little option was available at the time, users learned an unfamiliar interface so they could access the information within. This way of working becomes comfortable to the users, so even when something better comes along, the costs of switching to the new way of working is perceived as too high. In other words: users will stick with systems they are used to even if something better comes along. For new projects, Warwick recommends a “simple, uncomplicated interface [over] resources that required significant effort to learn how to use” (390).
Or, perhaps, we should just use the platforms that we’re already familiar with to avoid needless switching costs. What could be more simple than interfaces that are already part of our everyday lives, or those that take uncomplicated and elegant approaches to use?
Rethink One Size
Wayfinder is a new software platform aimed at curation. In their manifesto, they use the public library to represent their design motivation:
We need a new kind of public library – where linked knowledge is easily accessible not just to us, but to the next generation of knowledge-based applications.
Perhaps instead of conceiving and building DH projects from the ground up as single platforms, multiple platforms might provide the best approach for varying functionality and user needs. This is curation done Vannevar Bush-style. If DH is about building knowledge — if those of us who practice it are building new canons for the digital world — then conceiving of DH as a memex-style endeavor (think: curation instead of creation) might be a better approach for several reasons.
Developing a platform from scratch requires significant institutional support to fund expenses for equipment, infrastructure, and personnel. These costs increase with the scope of the project and the time for development. Projects range between “lowercase” and “Big” (Burdick, et al. 124).
Unlike traditional projects in the Humanities that are undertaken by single experts, DH projects usually require an interdisciplinary team. Expert personnel must come from departments like operational IT, computer science, at least one discipline in the liberal arts, and perhaps external members in the community or other institutions. Organizing professionals and students to help build a project might require someone from the School of Business.
No matter their size, DH projects must be supported and upgraded to remain usable by the community. Equipment must be replaced, software upgraded, information added; sustainability must be considered in undertaking any digitally supported project.
To me, this is the key. I understand that we still have lingering issues from a system of intellectual property leftover from a paper paradigm, but most scholarly research endeavors make little to no financial compensation for its writers. Therefore, why all the paywalls in academia? And why create another with the development of a proprietary platform when many free and open tools exist that will more than suffice for supporting unique research, building a community around that research, and keeping that work accessible to all the people who have an interest in it?
When I say “open,” I do not necessarily mean free or non-proprietary. I mean accessible, like social media is accessible: open to all and convenient for everyday use. Places for pathmaking.
There’s a growing Indie Web movement that advocates a similar approach. They argue that content users post to the web should remain the property of the poster and not fall under some dubious end-user agreement where corporations have the right to use it for their financial gain without the creator’s knowledge or actual consent. Advocates suggest users build their own web sites to keep their content out of the hands of “ephemeral startups” and “content silos.” This is the approach that I have taken for years, and that many DH projects feel they need to use in order to maintain control of their content. Back to rolling your own and problems and headaches that come with that. I’m just not convinced that even purchasing your little corner of the Internet will even make you safe from the practices of a remix culture.
However, what I’m talking about with DH is the central tenant of the Indie Web. According to Dan Gillmor, proponents “hack together tools aimed at liberating us, to the extent possible, from centralized control.” Where I differ from the Indie Web movement is that I think some platforms that they call “silos” could be very useful for hosting components of DH projects, like Medium and Wayfinder. They, too, distribute content across the Interwebs and are increasingly used to login to startup content hosts, like Medium and Celly.
Wordpress provides a good example. A mature platform now, Wordpress has expanded to be much more than just an open-source, DYI blogging medium. With the right theme, plugins, and content, sites built on Wordpress can rival the best Web 2.0 sites. It’s Wordpress’ ability to bring components together and the users’ ability to tweak parts of the code that make Wordpress an excellent tool for rolling your own website and building a multitude of DH project and components.
Silos like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are good for building community and collaboration. They are increasingly used as tools for disseminating information, but also as nexuses for building online communities.
Community and Collaboration
Few roll-your-own platforms beat the silos when it comes to building community. These silo builders are the experts. We academics should use their expertise to our advantage, instead of trying to do everything ourselves. The latter thinking is a remnant of a print paradigm. Collaboration should be our new model. Whereas platform never needed to be considered — we wrote books and essays — now choosing platform(s) must serve the need of the community that it’s meant to serve. This decision needs to be part of the building process.
If the silos offer the best platform, then shouldn’t we let the experts do their thing? As long as their end-user agreement isn’t a draconian document that takes all content rights from its creators, then surely users could give up some of their IP control in order to use excellent media for their content. Some silos might be too old-school to work with — Facebook? — but others like Medium allow users to keep control of their own content and even provide ways of removing it from the platform if they desire.
Only by embracing the digital will we move ourselves and the academy into more progressive and inclusive areas of teaching and learning. For those of us involved in DH, by using platforms that our more traditional colleagues use everyday might encouarge them to adopt digital approaches for their scholarship and pedagogy. They might be more amenable and even enthusiastic in participating in collaborative scholarly projects, too. Finally, using readymade platforms could also allow the expert amateurs to also share their insights and skills in building projects that resonate with more than just a handful of experts.
Next, read about distributed DH in practice for Project Mailer.