On Hayles (2010) “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine”
When I taught myself how to read at the age of four, I spent hours in front of my parent’s bookshelf, taking out books with interesting covers, opening them and trying to make sense of the words. I would run to my father with a book in my hands, asking him to explain how to pronounce this word or what that word means. I was not interested in children’s books, I wanted to be able to read the books that the adults were reading. It was probably one of the most exciting times of my life! Today, I think children are surrounded by things they can ‘read’ much more and there are many different media in which the text can be presented.
Most of the reading we do in our everyday lives is skimming short chunks of texts for important information. Ads on billboards and the internet, messages on social media, posts, news and emails. This reading is not for pleasure, it is for information or entertainment. I would like to add that I perceive a difference between reading for pleasure and reading for entertainment. Reading for pleasure means I engage with the text in that I let it influence my thoughts and stimulate my fantasy. I let the text take me into its world and I agree to leave everything else behind for a moment. Reading for entertainment means I read to be entertained, not necessarily to be intellectually stimulated. I read because I want to escape reality for a while, but I am not willing to commit to the text and dive into it completely. Reading posts on social media, tweets, and messages is reading for entertainment. Additionally, there is a third type of reading: reading for information, for example an email or a newspaper (physical or online). From my experience, I would say that reading for information and entertainment takes around 80% of my reading time. This is also because it can be done on the go, in between appointments, while on break at work. Reading for pleasure takes commitment and time. I need at least 30 minutes to be able to sit down and read my book and enjoy it.
A lot has changed in terms of what we read and how we read it. Twitter probably revolutionized our way of writing and reading by setting a character limit. This means I can scroll through my twitter feed quickly without getting stuck in one post, unless I click on a link provided in the tweet. It also changed the language used to express ourselves, which has an impact on the quality of the reading. Furthermore, reading is much more accessible as we can now read any book we wish anywhere. But with this also comes a lot more distraction through incoming messages, emails, and notifications. When I sit down to read my book, I have to set my phone on silent, otherwise, I will interrupt my reading to check if I got an important message.
Although some people predict that physical books are dying out and that they will be marginalized by their digital versions, I don’t think this will be the case. There are many book-lovers out there and the one thing they stress is that reading a book in its physical version is a very different experience from reading its digital version. Of course, kindle and Co. are very handy when you go on holidays with limited luggage capacity, but holding a book in your hands, turning the pages, maybe writing comments on the margins – no kindle will be able to replace that.
For academic reading, I like reading online to save paper and be able to access the texts anywhere, but when reading for pleasure, I only read physical copies of books – I also like to see them on my bookshelf and be reminded of how much I enjoyed reading them.
What we need to consider in new, digital, online environments is why people read and how they read. We should be mindful of how much/ how little information we want to give and how much time it will take to read what we wrote. Temporality is different online, the time people spend on a website is way less than what people would be willing to spend on a book, newspaper, or magazine, so the amount of information has to be adjusted accordingly. Another aspect of the new temporality is how long the text will be available online. If it is a post on social media, it will soon disappear in the endlessness of the newsfeed. If it is a website, the google search results might change over time, so it gets harder to find, or it might be taken off completely. We also need to consider the usage of images with text. As it is much easier to provide images to support a text online, we need to find the right balance so that the images are not overpowering. Furthermore, we need to be conscious that there might be misinformation, fake-news, and ideologically influenced and subjective content. We need to read online text carefully and assess them critically. Finally, I think it is important to make conscious decisions about what reading we want to invest time in. With an unlimited stream of texts available online, it is easy to get lost and waste time that could be spent on more productive/ stimulating/ interesting/ relevant reading. Do I really want to spend an hour scrolling through my Twitter feed, or do I prefer putting my phone on flight mode and sitting down with a good book and a cup of tea?
On “The Web we Want”
The “www” – we use it every day, but we hardly think about where it came from, or even what it really is. Furthermore, we often do not consider the implications of using it, feeding our data into it and selling ourselves to the big corporations for entertainment.
Jaron Lanier spoke about the carelessness with which we sell our data on Sam Harris’ Waking up Podcast about Digital Humanism (Sam Harris 2018), and this rang very true for me. There are many things we do not want to pay a lot of money for, but we are paying with our personal data for a little bit of entertainment – the price for this might be too high.
Jaron Lanier is a great critic of social media and the way we use the internet, and I think it is very worth listening to him and having a look at his work. Studying Digital Arts and Humanities, which places a great emphasis on social networking and getting oneself out there, requires a critical stance towards the technologies we are using.
Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of a Magna Carta for the web (2014), which he proposed at the 25th anniversary of the world wide web back in 2014, is something worth considering – even more so: I think it is with great urgency that we should be more thoughtful. The internet and the web offer countless opportunities to earn money, for everyone. So, it is no wonder that the big players in this world try to take influence, politically and economically. For all its great opportunities, the web also opens up possibilities for bad actors to gain control, to make money illegally, to threaten, bully, censor, influence, and spread harmful ideologies. We are mostly aware of the danger posed by hackers, scammers, bad actors – but what about governments and companies? What about the people we are supposed to trust? We need to pay more attention to the way the web is being used by them, their interactions with it and their desire to make it work in their favour. In times of fake news and digital censorship, we have to be thoughtful of what kind of web we want and how we want it to be used.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is an inspiring personality in this respect. From the start, he had a vision of an egalitarian, free, open, and neutral space. He never tried to sell it, although he could have made a fortune, and he has been fighting for his vision for over 25 years now. Yet, not many people have heard of his “web we want” campaign or are even aware of it. It is an uncomfortable movement for many companies and governments, especially for the “gatekeepers” like Facebook and Google (Corbyn 2018). Berners-Lee’s idea of a Magna Carta would introduce official law texts and regulations of the web, which can be individually crafted by each country in line with their individual culture and regulations. This is a great idea; however, I think it would still leave room for totalitarian and anti-democratic countries to pursue their harmful goals.
Another idea is to introduce a De-centralized Web or DWeb (Corbyn 2018), which would function without centralized services and providers, who can interfere with the data that is being processed. Of course, this is strongly opposed by powerful people with vested interests and it would also be a huge financial, organizational, and technical challenge.
What I take from all this is that change is in sight and there are more and more people thinking about how much we are willing to pay for using the web. As a student of Digital Arts and Humanities, I follow this development with great interest and I want to play an active role in shaping the future of the web – and thus the future of our cultures.
Digital Imperialism and Lost Data
I have a colleague at work, who, when bored, will spend hours traveling the world with Google Maps. He opens the satellite mode, zooms out into space to see the entire planet earth, and then he decides on a place worth traveling to and uses the little yellow Pegman icon to teleport himself right into the setting with the help of street view. When I saw him doing that the first time, I was fascinated by how easily we can travel the world without even getting up from our seats. We can visit millions of places throughout the world and experience them through pictures, “driving” along streets and zooming in and out. I started spending some time with Google Maps and street view myself, and I realized that that there are some areas which are very well mapped, and some which are not represented at all.
For example, this screenshot of Google Maps shows that South Korea and Japan are mapped extremely well, with the blue parts representing possibilities to zoom into street view, whereas there is no coverage of North Korea at all, and only a few points are accessible in China:
Jason Farman elaborates on the ideological problems of cartography and the ways in which Google Earth allows for a “spatial debate of maps within maps, new levels of interactivity and user agency with maps and the ability for non-professionals to engage in these activities.”(Farman 2010, p.872).
While 2D maps used to be restricted to the limitations of the human eye and details were commonly falsified and distorted, Google Maps and Google Earth allow for a more comprehensive depiction of the world. However, there are problems surrounding the use of such GIS (geographic information system), which tend to be overlooked. Farman states that “[m]aps, instead of being an objective visualization of a territory, are instead unstable signifiers, heavily imbued with the cultural perspectives of the society that created them” (p.874). There is a danger in the expectation that maps represent objective reality, and this expectation is aggravated by the use of digital technologies. As Farman describes, the “problem with positioning GIS as software that simply gathers empirical data and presents it as fact is that such ‘scientific objectivity’ is typically situated and privileges those in power” (p.876).
Coming back to our map of North Korea and China, this shows that the technology gathering those images is situated in the West, which has limited access and connections to, as well as possibly limited interest in, the geographical mapping of South-East Asia. This leads to an under-representation of certain areas, which supports a world view centred around the Western world.
The question that the Digital Art and Humanities have to ask when using this and other online data is not what information is given, but rather what information is not given. As Miriam Posner states in her blog, in order to visually represent data, it is often flattened and simplified, and this can have ideological implications (2015). To store and represent data, it has to be categorized and put into boxes, but this means that important connections and contexts get lost in the process. Especially with data about identity and concepts like race and gender, simplifications lead to an immense distortion of people’s realities. Posner wants the Digital Humanities “to stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning, and understand that these structures themselves constitute data” (2015), which I consider a crucial role of DH, that separates it from the hard sciences.
When using digital tools, which were conceived for other disciplines (as there are almost no tools explicitly for Digital Humanities), we need to be mindful about how the data we feed into them is being rendered and compressed and how we can achieve a more transparent and holistic representation (Farman 2010). What Galloway calls the “Zuhandenheit problem”, using digital tools unconsciously and with a lack of critical reflection (Berry and Galloway 2016, Porras 2017) has to be taken very seriously, especially by the Digital Humanities.
Bringing science and the human element together is a niche DH occupies, and I think it is a very important one. While the computer sciences are all about data, the Digital Humanities are all about …humans. The humans behind the data and their individual experiences and identities. The data lost in space might not be important for the overall representation of the research, but it might be crucial for the representation of the people who are behind this data.
Open Science and Independent Digital Humanities
The international call for and expectation of Open Science poses a big challenge for the EU and the individual governments, for legislators and for the research community. Open Science means openly accessible, shared and reusable scientific research as opposed to institutionalized, privately owned data with restricted access.
The EU responds to the new expectation for Open Science by stimulating discussion and providing a platform for stakeholders and interested citizen to inform themselves and participate in the creation of an Open Science Cloud. According to its website, the EOSC pilot project has as its mission
- Facilitating access of researchers across all scientific disciplines to data
- Establishing a governance and business model that sets the rules for the use of EOSC
- Creating a cross-border and multi-disciplinary open innovation environment for research data, knowledge and services
- Establishing global standards for interoperability for scientific data
The pilot project holds forums, discussions and surveys in order to create Open Science policies and bring Europe together to face the challenges of an Open Science Cloud. Some of these challenges are technical skills, infrastructure, appropriate policies, operational structures, security, and funding. EOSC works with educators in order to train people to help them contribute to the project and create the skills that are needed.
The research community responds by establishing policies, research data management plans and code of ethics to be prepared for Open Science and be able to contribute and regulate the contribution accordingly. The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) states that ‘’Data Management Plans (DMPs) help demonstrate transparency and openness and return on public investment by validating that data as an output of publicly funded research are discoverable, accessible and reusable’’ (Digital Repository of Ireland). The research community and research organizations put structures in place that enable them to make their research data public and reusable in the spirit of Open Science.
Organizations like the Research Data Alliance (RDA) focus on building research networks, technically and socially, to enable the sharing and re-use of data. As is stated on the RDA’s website, ‘’The RDA vision is for researchers and innovators to openly sharing data across technologies, disciplines, and countries to address the grand challenges of society’’ (Research Data Alliance)
To summarize the challenges for Europe and for the research community, in order to make Open Science possible, we need professional, cross-disciplinary networks, technical excellence and expertise, and policies and data management plans that allow international standards to be established.
So, how is Open Science relevant specifically to the Digital Humanities? In his Seven Reasons Why We Need an Independent Digital Humanities, Gregory Crane brings together the need for Open Science and the fundamental problems and challenges of the Humanities. He proposes seven cognitive challenges for the Humanities, which can be addressed by means of independent Digital Humanities and Open Science (Crane 2015).
The first challenge is the assumption that research looks like what we would like to do ourselves, because we assume that new technologies are only useful if the product looks like what we are used to from old research. An example of this would be the assumption that text on-line is just in different medium than on paper, ignoring hypertext and changing reading patterns.
The second challenge is the assumption that we do not have to learn new methods to use results and that new methods must be treated as subordinate technical skills and presented in a format easy to understand by experts of traditional skills. This is often the case regarding text processing and formatting.
The third challenge is the focus on quality instead of processes, which leads to the digital world being treated as a debate rather than a reality. Crane compares Digital Culture with climate change in this respect.
The fourth challenge is that we forget that we have to continue adapting to the digital space and it’s change because we think that by using all these technologies already and submitting papers online, we arrived in the digital world and forget that it means constant development.
The fifth challenge is that not only interdisciplinarity but also contacts to new fields are necessary as there is still ‘’insularity between related disciplines and departments’’ (p.15).
The sixth challenge is that we lack a culture or openness and collaboration, and we need a “synthesis of action and reflection” (p.15). To make research available in a meaningful way, humanists need to think about past present and future alike.
The final challenge is that a few specialists and not the whole community decide what is important. Professors are dependent on their students to make their work meaningful and relevant and scholasticism is a danger that threatens to stop innovation and openness. Crane postulates that humanists need to be able to ”explain what they do and why it matters” (p.21).
Together with these challenges come three fundamental constraints or barriers that limit our ability to serve the intellectual life of society: The first is the distribution problem, which can be solved by open access because ”openness and transparency are the foundations of any healthy scientific discourse” (p.26).
The second is the library problem, which relates to how publications should be documented, as they need to be read against their primary and secondary sources. Authors have to ensure that the readers understand the links between texts and that they know how to find the information that is referred to. For this, we need different digital editions to understand reliability of the evidence. Furthermore, by handing their work to commercial entities, scholars ensure that only a special audience will get access, but a solution to this problem is being hindered by the need for prestige that many institutions strive for.
The third problem is the comprehension problem, which asks how sources of humanities can be made intellectually accessible. Open access to academic publications is important, but it can only be beneficial if they are written in a language that can be understood, otherwise the knowledge is lost.
Concluding, Crane states that Digital Humanities are insurgent and disruptive. Insurgent, because they ”provide a new space where students of the human record are free to explore within a digital space anything that they can argue advances our ability to think about the past” (p.39). Disruptive, because ”they redefine who understands what and how we think about the past” (40).
What Crane explains is that unless we have an agenda of independent (i.e. open) Digital Humanities, the challenges that the traditional humanities are facing cannot be solved, and in order to contribute to public good, the barriers and constraints identified by him have to be addressed.
I find this article very important as it constitutes a guide for (digital) humanists to work on making their academic fields compatible with modern online culture and thus keeping their disciplines alive and healthy. As a scholar of Greek and Latin, Crane addresses the fundamental problems that the humanities have had for the last decades, and which, although becoming more and more evident, have not been addressed in a solution-oriented way.
The humanities are the fundamentals of human society and culture. Without the ancient philosophers and scholars, humanity would not have been able to become what it is today. Nevertheless, we tend to forget how important the soft sciences are – the sciences that are concerned with human behaviour and culture. Their importance tends to be overlooked in an increasingly technical, digital, networked environment in which the hard sciences are in demand. I argue, that exactly because of the rapid technological environment do we need humanities more than ever, in order to understand what it means to be human in a digital world.
Although there is a discrimination of the humanities by funding bodies, institutions and industries, which prefer STEM subjects and hard sciences, the responsibility to change this lies with the humanities themselves, which have been resisting change and innovation for too long. There is a strong emphasis on academic traditions and norms in the humanities, which makes it almost impossible to keep up with technological progress and the necessity for a softening of rigid disciplinary and departmental boundaries.
In order to embrace new digital media and make them work in favour of and in harmony with the humanities, we need to “reestablish the social contracts upon which we always must depend for our existence” (Crane 2015, p.2), and this is an important task of the Digital Humanities.
When thinking about Open Science, we have to think about humanities’ research as well and it is necessary to address the challenges that such an approach brings to an academic field, that is still rooted very much in the past. The Digital Humanities provide a bridge between traditional humanities’ thinking about the past and an Open Science approach directed towards the future.
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