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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

I went to my colleague Ray Siemens’s talk on his research Tuesday afternoon, where he was presented with the UVic Faculty of Humanities annual research award. I had been somewhat unsure about the scope of the Digital Humanities field, as he and his research team conceive of it. Was it a matter of coding or editing texts in some thicker digital way that would permit hyperlinks and the intercollation of multiple manuscript versions? Was it a flashy way of dragging traditional humanistic teaching into the online world?

The way Ray explained it made much more sense. In his view, what the humanities needs is a more robust understanding of how knowledge is, or will be, created and transmitted in the digital age. He describes his work as a search to explore and help create “new knowledge environments.” I understand this term to refer to a range of conceptual approaches to scholarship in the digital era, including the future shape and function of the historic archive or library, the new possibilities for collaboration among colleagues in real or virtual time, the proliferation of new modes of textual study that would take advantage of the expanding nodes of knowledge available in the cloud, and the complete rethinking of the most basic units of our collective knowledge trust—among them, the book itself. Ray understands this project as one that must be informed by the past as much as it is motivated and propagated by exciting new technologies now in development in the academic and corporate worlds. (Ray is apparently ecumenical about designating those he calls project “stakeholders,” who include academics, students, government, and corporations.)

cosmonaut_poster

Pizdetz! Where did I leave my reading glasses?

As he was talking, I formed a mental image of a virtual world, not so far from examples such as the online virtual reality game Second Life, in which students, scholars, and anyone else interested in knowledge creation and exchange could collaborate using innovative (yet familiar) modes of virtual interaction. This is not a distant reality; it’s already happening in a myriad of ways on the ‘Net—via computers, app phones, social networking sites, online text databases, and even stodgy old email—but we’ve barely begun to take account of how all these changes have affected our institutional or informal modes of knowledge creation.

I mentioned to Ray that I hoped his ideas about digital humanities would proliferate even more quickly into hoary scholarly redoubts like the academic conference. I was unable to attend a recent series of roundtables on Edouard Glissant taking place at NYU, for example, and frustratingly, there was no obvious way to hook into the ideas this series generated if you weren’t in New York at the time. Such a lack of technologically supported interactivity seems like a throwback, or worse, to another era. Back as far as the mid-1990s I attended a conference in San Francisco that really felt like a groundbreaking event in the emergence of a digital scholarly culture; notably, for instance, there were videos made of major sessions that were then distributed online. My fellow grad students and I at the time thought this was marvelous, despite the slow loading speed with which archived videos could be downloaded back in those early days of Internet 1.0. Now this kind of one-way dissemination of information seems rather quaint: it’s hard to imagine putting digital media online these days without offering a user-comments section to make communication (at least) bi-directional. We’ve come a long way, baby.

In the heart of Manhattan this year, where creolizing knowledge is ironically at stake, even the most basic level of interactivity is not guaranteed.

Yet, look, in the heart of Manhattan this year, at the NYU roundtables on Glissant, where creolizing knowledge in the broadest sense is ironically at stake, even that most basic level of interactivity entailed in publishing a recording over the Internet is not guaranteed. And I was at a Caribbean Studies Association conference in Jamaica last summer for which the only part of the conference that was available online was the conference program. This has to make it unreasonably difficult for scholars and students to participate from far away, or after-the-fact. It also speaks to another challenge for Digital Humanities: dealing with vastly uneven distribution of resources in the digital haves/have-nots global dispensation of the present.

As I understand it, Ray’s work portends or simply reflects the (hopefully) coming changes to older offline modes of scholarly activity. Of course, there is no promise that scholarship will improve with a more technologically informed consideration of what we as scholars are doing now, or will be doing soon. (And as my colleague Michael Best reminded us on Tuesday, there is no guarantee that new forms of the archive will be less volatile and fragile than older ones.) Yet the pace of technological change continues to outstrip our thinking about it, and the question concerning technology, to riff on Heidegger, is whether and how we recognize it.

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