Perhaps I am writing this due to the face that I am siting in a coffee shop, eating a croissant, and listening to Quebecois artists Arcade Fire, reminding me of the past several years I spent in Montreal. During this time there was heavy unrest between the schools, students and educators resulting with over 185,000 students “striking” over rising education costs as well as the bureaucracy and lack of proper infrastructure present in the Canadian higher education system. But perhaps it’s also because throughout all the articles, this sense of uneasiness permeated. Many that associate with digital humanities are dissatisfied with the institutional structure; however their approaches are problematized by their very compliance to exist within the university system itself. As Matthew Kirschenbaum so succinctly states scholars within the digital humanities or “”DHers are themselves solutionists, pretenders who arrive to fix the ills of the present-day academy with tools, apps, and the rhetorical equivalent of TED talks, all driven by a naïve (and duplicitous) agenda that has its roots if not (yet) in an IPO then in the academic currency of jobs, funding, and tenure” (8). Within the student movement in Quebec it was reported as an issue with tuition that had students unified. As someone who was “on the ground” I can tell you it was much more complex than that. There was a sense of frustration with university administrators who spent more money on a Lexus car directly from the university budget than on an entire department’s funding. But students still wanted to learn, and classes were unofficially held in bars and coffee shops providing alternative means to education. Furthermore the strike resulted from months of tension and ultimately students realized that they could not fix their problems within the university. Does DH suffer the same fate? Can it exist within the university and still be resistant? Secondly, are we hypocrites for using DH within the university?
As illuminated in the previous paragraph, the tension between inside and outside, between corporation and freedom is something that troubles all of this week’s authors. Ramsay describes the complexities associated with using technology for subversive means that originates from corporations, such as infrastructure stemming from Google or Apple (“Why I’m In It”). In Emerson’s book, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, she describes the controlling mechanisms of the Apple app store and the limitations it places on subversive art projects. Some projects do “push back” against the means of production, such as Jorg Piringer’s abcdefghijklmopqrstuwxyz which allows the user to “flick any or all letters of the alphabet onto a simulated white canvas” (Emerson). This subverts the reader’s typical expectations of poetry and sound/visual experience of language on an iPad; however it still functions within Apple’s sanctions. Many other projects have had to find homes outside of the institutional boundaries due to strict regulations. This type of desire to be accessible through highly visible technology, such as iPad, yet deeply rooted issues with the commodification of aesthetics and labour that it encourages is emergent in the trends of DH’s social media. Kirschenbaum too addresses this, as well as the associated problem of access: while DH claims or wants to be accessible though using publically visible sites such as Twitter, only through following the right scholars and threads is access to the discussion available (6).
What to do?
Svensson argues for an infrastructure that serves both the needs of research and education; he also calls for a global and local initiative (345). As Ramsay states a DIY type of initative is needed, embodied in the statement: “Frustrated with business-as-usual in university press publishing? Let’s create new ways to do it” (“Why I’m In It”). But building from nothing is a tall order, and while requiring some material form of infrastructure, Svensson notes the tendency to adopt existing structures from engineering and sciences; for example, infrastructures that support big data (346). However, Ramsay would argue (and I would agree) that we should make our own tools, databases and infrastructure that is uniquely attuned to the needs of the project or humanities field. Svensson suggests using the “humanistiscope” to think of how this type of infrastructure could be created, ultimately designing infrastructures for humanities needs and challenges (349).
The HUMlab is a creative space at Umeå University that encourages artistic investigation as well as scholarly research in “fields such as interactive architecture, religious rituals in online environments, 3D modelling, the study of movement and flow in physical and digital spaces through using game technology, geographical information systems, and making cultural heritage accessible through interpretative tool sets” (“About”). In looking through the current and completed projects page, the space acts through enabling these different projects by providing technology, infrastructure and physical space to display as well as research funding and opportunities. An example I found that addressed the call for DH to produce its own infrastructure was in the “Digital Rock Carvings” project, which digitized rock carvings and other archaeological data from Nämforsen and created an accessible database tailored to the needs of the archaeological findings (“Digital Rock Carvings”). This database isn’t organized by chronological development but rather uses the characteristics of the digital, in particular the medium of web based platforms, to create an adaptable model for interaction. For example, in order to find a specific carving users can search by subject matter (what), location (where), print type (how) and even slope direction as well as combinations of these factors (“Rock Carvings at Nämforsen”). Rather than using a preset database that organizes images by date and time, as is used by many library and engineering factions, building infrastructure for the specific needs of the digital humanities allows for a more interactive and ultimately pedagogically grounded approach.
Part of this approach derives from the lab’s thoughts on digital humanities as the webpage states that the “digital humanities is what is between humanities and the digital. The digital is a tool, study object and medium” (“Frequently Asked Questions”). By engaging with the digital humanities as a tool through web based platforms as new development and study object, i.e. understanding how the digitization of the rock carving are affecting the viewers as well as addressing the restrictions and potential of the medium this approach utilizing and perhaps confronts the tensions aforementioned.
HUMlab hosts a research project on the Virgin Mary, as Svensson mentions in his article, as well as “building new infrastructure by using “Facetted Browsing”, for example. This is a platform for complex research data, such as environmental archaeological data and demographic data, developed at the lab” (“Research at HUMlab”). The HUMlab is also home to another important project that questions technology and infrastructure, the Media Spaces project, which looks at screens and the spaces of interactions between the physical and digital. Som questions asked of the section on screens are: “ How can screens be used as construction materials? How do they affect human communication? How do people interact with screens? How can we understand this emergence in historical terms?” (“Screenscapes”) “Screens are in some ways an interface to a computationally inflected world. They hold historical, material and cultural significance (just consider windows, paintings or medieval churches, or the number of computer and mobile screens used in cafés). Screens can also be integrated with various kinds of interaction technology.” (“Frequently Asked Questions”) This approach again exemplifies that by looking at the digital as a tool, study object and medium, the tensions between the outside and inside of the academy can be negated in certain sense as the HUMlab reaches past the confines of the typical institution.
“About.” HUMlab. Umeå University, n.d. Web. 26 Sept 2015.
“Digital Rock Carvings.” HUMlab. Umeå University, n.d. Web. 26 Sept 2015.
Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Kindle AZW File.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” HUMlab. Umeå University, n.d. Web. 26 Sept 2015.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is “Digital Humanities” and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” differences (2014): 1-17. Web. 25 Sept 2015.
Ramsay, Stephen. “Why I’m In It.” Sitewide ATOM. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
“Research at HUMlab.” HUMlab. Umeå University, n.d. Web. 26 Sept 2015.
“Screenscapes.” HUMlab. Umeå University, n.d. Web. 26 Sept 2015.
Svensson, Patrik. “The Humanistiscope—Exploring the Situatedness of Humanities Infrastructure.” Between Humanities and the Digital. Ed. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 337-353. Print.