The Increasingly Symbiotic Relationship Between Humans and Technology

By Nick Ward

Digital technologies are undeniably changing the way we experience and understand the world that surrounds us. Every day, we experience the profound influence that media and technology have on every aspect of our culture and society, including literature and the arts, libraries and archives, politics, law, and education.

Concurrently, news headlines are dominated by stories of how democracies have been undermined through election hacking, and everywhere you look someone is taking a photograph or video intended to enrich their social media profiles.

The ubiquity of these relentlessly evolving technologies is a relatively new phenomenon and one that commands a more thorough and nuanced understanding. Central to any informed discussion on our modern realities and cultures must be a narrative on the influence of the digital.

Carleton University is now offering a Minor in Digital Humanities, housed in the Department of English Language and Literature, to complement the existing Collaborative Master’s in Digital Humanities.

The newly established and highly interdisciplinary Minor intends to help students from all academic backgrounds to rethink and master new digital literacies. It will encourage students to question how new media alter literature and the arts, and will facilitate the exploration of new digital tools to analyze texts and cultures.

Students will explore such topics as the fate of reading and writing during the age of Twitter, blogs and e-books, how social media is altering our individual and collective identities, how digital networks are changing popular culture—and, of course, how to read a million books.

Our conventional methods of studying, interpreting, and teaching social and cultural trends have developed over an extended period dominated by the printed word. But our understanding of printed archives, books, and other analog artforms only goes so far where digital culture is concerned.

Carleton’s bold steps to create such a progressive and expansive program have made the university an international leader in the academic study of the intersection of human beings and innovative technology.

At the forefront of this journey is English Professor Brian Greenspan, whose research traces storytelling through a variety of media platforms. Appropriately, Greenspan is particularly fascinated with how the current vogue in utopian and dystopian narratives responds to new developments in narrative technologies like print, e-books, video games, and social media.

Professor Greenspan discussed with FASSinate the discipline …

Thanks for doing this, Professor Greenspan. Am I correct in stating that Digital Humanities is the study of how digital media and culture modifies art, literature, culture, education and, generally, how we perceive and function in an always connected modernity? If yes, why do you believe it is essential that we wrangle a better comprehension of our changing utopian or dystopian realities?   

Our conventional methods of studying, interpreting, and teaching social and cultural trends have developed over an extended period dominated by the printed word. But our understanding of printed archives, books, and other analog art forms only goes so far where digital culture is concerned. Digital culture is dynamic, interactive, multimedia and multimodal, and proliferates at a scale and speed that traditional scholarly methods are hard pressed to keep up with.

The humanities have been operating under the assumption that, no matter what happens in the broader world, books somehow exist in an eternal space untouched by technological change. And yet books are a technology like any other—an incredibly powerful one at that.

While they aren’t going away anytime soon (thankfully!), books now exist alongside—and oftentimes within—other forms of digital communication. Print is part of a media ecology that includes e-books and online journals, as well as YouTube, online games, streaming audio, social media, and other forms of digital culture. Most of us read and write in multiple media and modalities every day, which is precisely why we need to understand them better at the level of the platform, code, and algorithm, but also to understand the broader effects of these technologies on our social values and our ways of relating to one another.

For the record, I don’t consider our current reality utopian, which is exactly why we need critical approaches capable of addressing digital arts and culture. But the situation isn’t entirely apocalyptic, either: e-books, digital games, and social media don’t mean the end of books, culture, and higher learning as we know it. Even the most seemingly trivial examples of digital culture often contain traces of progressive social dreaming, and reflect our collective hopes and aspirations for a better world. It’s important not to dismiss the progressive elements of digital arts and culture, even as we critique their more negative implications.

Brain Greenspan

Professor Greenspan in the Hyperlab.

How is the study of the Digital Humanities inherently interdisciplinary? In your opinion, who should consider the DH minor?

Our DH classes are probably the most interdisciplinary on campus—maybe on any campus. The DH Minor is open to absolutely anyone across the University who is enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts program, and our students come from English, History, Film, Law, Religion, and Classics, but also from Communications, Journalism, Computer Science, Engineering—you name it. They all bring their own perspectives and approaches into the classroom, which makes for a really exciting mix of interests and ideas, all converging around digital media.

Publishing, law, politics, music, and the performing arts—there isn’t a field today not touched by digital networks and media, and they all require new literacies. No matter what your Major is, or what your future academic or career goals are, a better understanding of all things digital will prepare you for what comes next.

By nature, DH is a totally transmedia field. What are some examples of media and texts that are studied?

“Transmedia” is a good way to put it. Digital Humanities students might, for instance, learn to use computers to analyze a novel or gauge the mood of an online movie review forum. In some courses, we read “born digital” stories, poetry, and drama written specifically for the web, and students learn to create their own interactive stories and games. In other courses, students might use software to visualize ancient trade routes, to map the social network of Enlightenment musicians and patrons, or to compare some of the many apps based on Shakespeare’s works. Students are using network analysis to determine whether the Arab Spring really started with a tweet, whether Edward Snowden was a traitor or hero, and whether hackers elected a President. Some of my students even built a game in which you have to explore Carleton’s campus with a mobile device, and unlock its secrets without becoming infected by student zombies. Building is a great way to theorize and conceptualize, and there’s often a strong creative element to our DH courses. It’s really up to the imagination of the students.

Very interesting. How exactly are these mediums studied?

There are two complementary ways of approaching DH. The first is to use traditional theories and methods to study digital artefacts—say, by doing a postcolonial reading of video games, or a Marxist analysis of Bitcoin.

But you can also use computers to study older, pre-digital cultural objects. There are so many new tools and platforms that make scholarship simpler, and that allow us to interpret on a scale that just wasn’t possible before. For instance, we can use computational methods to “read” entire libraries at once, and contextualize the results using vast linguistic or historical databases.

Our students are creating digital maps to track the migration of refugees, and building 3D models of ancient towns or artefacts that provide a more tangible appreciation of the past. They’re studying the myth and reality of virtual reality, and designing augmented reality theatre that blends live performers with animated characters. Other students are studying controversial memes like Slenderman, or investigating Fitbits and other wearable devices to see how they’re changing our understanding of urban space and our own bodies. We’re taking all of these approaches right here at Carleton in order to pose new questions about culture, and discover new patterns both online and offline.

Why in your opinion is DH so well situated in the Department of English Language, and Literature?

English administers the DH Minor, but it includes courses and instructors from dozens of other programs, and B.A. students from any program across campus can enrol. So you could take DH courses based in Sociology, History, Film, Music, or Philosophy to satisfy your Minor, and each course will take a slightly different approach to digital media. In some courses, students might use special software to analyze texts, languages, and discourses, or to “deform” artworks, animations and films, literally visualizing them in different ways to reveal new insights. In others cases, they might try their hands at creating interactive stories, digital games based on historical fiction, or 3D simulations of archaeological sites. Some of our students are even exploring complex datasets by translating them into soundscapes and listening for patterns that escape the eye.

Whatever field you’re majoring in, our DH courses will give you insight and methods to help you do better. It’s also important to stress that no prior programming skills are required, though students can expect to engage with new digital tools and methods of study. Of course, those who want to learn some programming will certainly have the opportunity.

Carleton University has positioned itself as a leader in the field. How do you see the discipline growing at CU? 

There’s no denying Carleton’s reputation in the field: we were chosen to co-host the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations’ world conference in 2020, which will bring hundreds of scholars from around the world to Ottawa. We’re one of the few Canadian universities with DH instruction at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and our programs are about the broadest anywhere. Because our instructors and students come from so many different fields of study, we’re really well positioned to understand and embrace the effects of digital media on research and scholarship generally.

And it doesn’t stop when the term ends, either. Our new intensive summer institute, DHSITE@Carleton (Digital Humanities Summer Institute), gives students the chance to get advanced, hands-on instruction in digital media. We offer courses on everything from editing digital video to programming social media bots, to creating artificially intelligent game characters. It’s like a digital media boot camp.

Finally, Prof. Greenspan, in your opinion, how is the prominence of modern digital technology changing our cultural identities?

Many scholars are making claims about how digital media are changing us both individually and collectively. The fear is that digital networks and media platforms are only telling us what they want us to know, distracting us from what’s important, lowering literacy levels, and dividing us. It’s true that digital culture is changing our individual and collective identities, but the jury is still out on what these changes will mean for us either as Canadians or as global citizens. What’s certain is that we won’t find the answer in books alone, nor by drawing analogies between the digital and older media, such as television. You can only understand new media  by engaging and interacting with them directly, which is exactly what our Digital Humanities courses offer.

Any last words?

Just that I’m very happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more about DH at Carleton, or discuss how it might fit with their current program or career goals.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018 in , ,
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