November 2015 – Dune Scholar

Dune Scholar

Science Fiction, Feminism, and Digital Humanities All in One Place

Month: November 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities by Dr. James Smithies

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Smithies’ lecture.

Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities – James Smithies, Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury

The Politics of Cyberinfrastructure

The American Council of Learned Societies’ “Our Cultural Commonwealth” report (2006) looked at opportunities for computationally intensive Humanities research. Models were based off of STEM and big dollar projects. Geoffrey Rockwell’s “As Transparent as Infrastructure” Open Stax CNS (2010) asked, do we really need expensive new infrastructure? Patrick Svenson’s “From Optical Fiber” DHQ 5.1 (2011) asked, what about people, spaces, and laboratories? Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” (blog post July 27, 2015) asked, what about gender and race and inclusivity? Susan Leigh Star’s “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14.2 (2002) said that infrastructure isn’t boring; it’s political. Water, pipes, bridges, and playgrounds: these are worth fighting for. Ethnography gives us an interesting, nonboring way to look at infrastructure.

What is the current state of infrastructure? Wires, boxes, etc. Sciences have a good idea about what it means to them (telescope, databases, etc.) – do we?

Towards a Systems Analysis

Robert Lilienfield’s “Systems Theory as an Ideology” Social Research 42.4 (1975) shows that people talk about systems today but wouldn’t have in earlier centuries. Looking at the history of ideas, you can see that we were not always using terms like bureaucracy, managerialism, and neoliberalism. Once you put something under a microscope and examine it, you can start “pulling levers” and manipulating it as you see fit.

T. P. Hughes’ “Technological Momentum in History” Past and Present 44.1 (1969) reviews the history of technology and systems vs. technological determinism. People aren’t just determined by technology. Smithies gave the example of a NASA control room. It has computers, but there are people and weather conditions controlling it.

Jenny Chan’s “A Suicide Survivor” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.31.1 (2013) and “The Politics of Global Production” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.32.2 (2013) look at the ethics of infrastructure, labor market ethics, and corporate values and the classroom. There is an irony in a History teacher using an iPad made in the Foxconn factory in China (where people committing suicide because of working conditions has made the news in the West several times) to teach students about factory production.

There are four layers of infrastructure:
Layer 4: Application (websites, blogs…)
Layer 3: Transportation (TCP, UDP…)
Layer 2: Internet (IP address…)
Layer 1: Link (Ethernet…)

Humanities are still at the fourth layer. But meanwhile, issues around Open Internet/Net Neutrality are important because of the potential for companies to throttle at lower levels. We like to theorize (a la Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus) about non-linear structures, but this doesn’t do much practically.

Humanities cyberinfrastructure should not be just like STEM’s. It is much more capacious and deals with sectors like Government, NGOs, Non-Commercial, and Commercial. All of it is enclosed within a model/framework of metadata.

Smithies then showed an interesting diagram/model that tried to visualize how the infrastructure currently out there is related to different sectors and open/closed access. He emphasized that his model is grounded in engineering, but that we really need hundreds of these models to show how they’re subjective and diverse. Having a model is a more mature way of having a discussion about infrastructure with others. It’s difficult to demonstrate the value of systems analysis to Humanists. How do we measure uses in the different sectors? The diagram really shows us what we don’t know.

Smart Infrastructures for Cultural and Social Research by Professor Paul Arthur

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Arthur’s lecture.

Smart Infrastructures for Cultural and Social Research – Paul Arthur, Professor and inaugural Australian Chair in Digital Humanities at the University of Western Sydney

Infrastructure used to mostly mean equipment and facilities, but now it is  also about people, who are maybe even more important (for example, having people to communicate between IT and elsewhere).

Few predicted that Google, a big corporation, would end up doing so much of the digitization work that normally libraries might be expected to do. He mentioned Graeme Turner’s Towards an Australian Humanities Digital Archive. Australia chose not to proceed with doing it by itself, partly because of Google, but it does now have Trove. Digitization is important, but infrastructure for Humanities researchers are the texts. Those are their evidence, not the technology that enables it. Merely scanning is not enough; texts have to be searchable, etc. The success of Trove has put pressure on the National Library as a trusted custodian to expand its projects as well as support other libraries.

Social and Cultural Research were chosen as terms rather than Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS), so it is not restricted to specific disciplines.

NCRIS Status Report on the NCRIS eResearch Capability found that Australia’s HASS has not kept up with the rest of the world. What does that mean? Should there be one national infrastructure or many that interlock? (Sciences have diverse needs and infrastructure to match, from medical to biological to space.) HASS often told to talk more with each other; should we be cross-pollinating more? (yes)

Conversations around infrastructure should also discuss rewards and recognition for people and the work they do with digital. Ideally, research should be citable, Open Access, and reproducible.


It is now much easier for people to document their lives. We can look at people in their framework and environments (social network analysis). We’ve gone from linear print to multilinearity and hyperlinked texts. Biographies are no longer just looking at individuals in isolation but more broadly. Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) has become a research network; the term biography doesn’t really apply anymore. There are 13,000 entries, modeled after the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) which sees itself as a curated collection rather than a dictionary. It is now possible to look at themes instead of an A-Z or chronological approach – this is really changing how these dictionaries function.

Editing Process

In 2009, the ADB team was still using analogue processes of paper editing, pencils and sharpeners, and typists typing up material. It shows the persistence of analogue with its long history. One person would work on a thing at a time and be notified of articles to work on through folders placed in their pigeonhole. Articles’ progress was charted through magnets on a whiteboard. They eventually moved to Windows Live (then Skydrive, now Onedrive).

Once ADB went online, it prompted questions of what represents a life? What represents a nation? Who makes it in? Where are women, Aborigines, workers, etc.?

ADB is free but ODNB is behind a paywall. Some of ADB is also available in Trove.

Obituaries Australia

The goal is to publish all previously published obituaries in Australia. It offers different perspectives from ADB and the chance for more people to be included. There is a Related Entries box instead of hyperlinks within the text. You can create diagrams of family trees and spousal relationships.

HuNI (Humanities Networked Infrastructure)

HuNI (pronounced honey) is a Humanities infrastructure aggregator with open linked data and API. The good thing is, although cultural data is hard and laborious to collect, once it is collected, it withstands the test of time for scholars.

During the Q&A, Alan Liu posed an interesting question: Will DH always be tied to nations?

Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Liu’s lecture.

Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies – by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

Liu opened with a fitting quote from Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” [I believe this could also apply when thinking about teaching. As Liu said in a previous lecture, the Humanities are supposed to be building a human being. Shouldn’t we be considering where these students will end up after they leave the classroom? It might seem fine to continue in an analogue style without acknowledging changing technology or skills students will need, but this neglects considering where the human being will be in the larger world context of the Digital Age.]

The latecomer status of DH after cultural criticism and theory (hack vs. yack) during the development of the Humanities has posed a problem and tension within the field. “Culture” has become “Infrastructure”. Electricity grids, internet connectivity, etc. are now part of how we operate. Movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max foregrounded infrastructure to set up their atmosphere, culture, and dystopian setting. Infrastructure (or lack thereof) is culture. Theorists (ex. Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway) going forward must start to include infrastructure in their critiques of discipline, gender, and cyborg/hybrid identities.

What Would DH Infrastructure Critique Look Like?

Method 1:

  • Agile
  • Scrum development: The All Blacks’ rugby analogy/metaphor is actually not very good; quilting one is better (see Trello which looks like a pattern).
  • Lightly anti-foundationalist
    • James Smithies’ “postfoundationalism” DHQ 8.1 (2014)
    • Michael Dieter’s “critical technical practice” differences 25.1 (2014)
    • Bruno Latour’s “compositionism”
    • Ackbar Abbas and David Theo Goldberg’s “poor theory”
    • These critics are okay with not being totalizing, instead providing just-in-time critique.
    • We’ve avoided being tactical because we think it’s too close to IT.
  • DH should treat infrastructure not as a stable foundation and thus allow Critical Infrastructure Studies to be a mode of Cultural Studies.

Method 2

  • LTS approach, Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power (1983)
  • Star/Bowker’s information ethnography approach
  • Neoinstitutionalism (from sociology and organizational studies)
  • Social constructivist and adaptive structuration approaches to organizational technology (from sociology, organizational studies, and information science)

DH, more than New Media Studies (which has been more activist and not a paradigm of the library), has focused on intramural changes and directed energy (sometimes militant) to institutions (breaking down pay walls, changing pedagogy, etc. has been the equivalent to storming administration buildings in the 1970s). Can that drive be harnessed to go outside the institution too?

[Another science fiction reference came up!] Liu mentioned that insect hives are really popular in science fiction these days. The neoliberal environment is remodeling culture to its corporate structures (workers in hives, etc.).

Liu is exploring the crossover between academic and scholarly infrastructures and extra-academic infrastructure.

He is the only Humanities faculty on a board looking at different software choices (for example: Microsoft 365 and Google Apps for Education). [Many other organizations are also constantly going through these debates over which software package to go with, even without having a full understanding of the implications down the road.] What are the long-term implications or going with either one? Are we locking ourselves in by choosing one? Shouldn’t we be on these committees?

The Future of the Humanities by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

In this presentation on November 5, 2015, entitled “The Future of the Humanities”, Professor Alan Liu focused on the larger conversation in the public realm around the so-called crisis in the Humanities. We’ve all seen the articles and blogs about the irrelevance of Liberal Arts and poor employability prospects. He questioned whether or not there is a crisis, mentioning articles like Blaine Greteman’s “It’s the End of the Humanities as We Know It, And I Feel Fine” (2014) and Benjamin Schmidt’s “A Crisis in the Humanities?” (2013) and “Crisis in the Humanities? Or Just Women in the Workplace?” (2013). Perhaps the drop-off in humanities majors is due to the end of the spike in baby boomers or women now entering professional disciplines in larger numbers. He referred to Stefan Collini’s “Seeing a Specialist: The Humanities as Academic Disciplines” (2015).

Liu spoke of his experience at the University of California Santa Barbara during the troublesome post-recession time when funding cuts meant a change from the collegial open-space plan to the sequestering of faculty away from staff and students. [This reminds me of the situation here at the University of Canterbury, where postgraduate students are placed in cubicles behind locked doors in another building and don’t mingle much with their supervisors or administrative staff. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize how cut-off you are from decisions that affect you.] Tellingly, the only thing left after the move was the ethernet outlet.

Enter of which Liu is a co-founder. He discussed its roles of advocacy and research for the Humanities. These include op-eds and research pieces, infographics, mini-documentary videos, and an emphasis on plain and simple language for non-academics. It also hosts workshops and colloquias that get people together, and is working on a new project called “WhatEvery1Says” which is about analyzing the discourse about the Humanities with the aid of technology. He made an interesting point that they want to also look at how media discourse might affect public policy by looking at government data. On a positive note, people still feel good enough about their Humanities degrees to include them in obituary and wedding announcements, indicating that they are an important part of their identity.

One of the big takeaways for me was his discussion of frameworks and how you have to be strategic about your argument because people don’t think logically and rationally — they put information they hear in terms of a simplified framework that they already have (like the family). [I’m going to check out George Lakoff’s “Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse” (2004) and the for possible insights into feminist activism.] Humanists, he said, have always had to balance these two frames in showing their value to society. On the one hand, there is the big thematic frame which has the Humanities helping ameliorate social problems. On the other hand, there is the personal episodic frame which runs along the lines of how reading poetry changed one’s life.

He believes that the stance the Humanities needs to take is one that focuses on society and people and how their well-being will be stronger with the Humanities. It should be “The Future and the Humanities”. We can’t rebut the opposition’s arguments and keep rehearsing the problems if we want to change the conversation. He mentioned New Zealand’s new science education initiative called “A Nation of Curious Minds” [which I’ve heard a lot about] in comparison with his article “The Humanities and Tomorrow’s Discoveries” (2012) and the use of the term discovery.

An interesting aside was that Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that the Humanities are actually American because the Cold War and Sputnik propelled the U.S. government to spend money on showing its difference from the Russian space race. Back then, money was poured into the sciences and the humanities.

Liu challenged us to rethink the terms we use when communicating with those outside our fields, because he said “critical thinking” and “close reading” are non-starters to them. [This was a good point that I need to think more about in terms of how we tell our graduates to sell themselves on their CVs/resumes.] We ultimately need to show how we are doing the work of building a human being and act like innovators in this age of innovation. Perhaps borrowing terms from the sciences is not a bad strategy, as words like discovery and insight do capture the work we do, just in different ways.

Key Trends in Digital Humanities by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

I am very fortunate to be at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand while Professor Alan Liu is here for six weeks as a Visiting Fulbright Specialist (he is cofounder of and teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara). He has given two talks already and impressed me and other postgraduate students with his accessible and understandable explanations and compelling ideas about the place of the Digital Humanities in today and tomorrow’s world. One of my friends now “gets” why I am so interested in DH thanks to Liu.

His first talk on October 28, 2015, was entitled “Key Trends in Digital Humanities: How the Digital Humanities Challenge the Idea of the Humanities”.

He said the gold standard for humanists was hermeneutics and examining meaning-making. He then outlined five key trends in DH that we need to consider:

1 — “Data”: Quantified, Big, Structured

The new question at conferences is where’s your data? But humanists are not used to thinking about their work as data or considering how to analyze it in meaningfully interpretable ways. Compared to the science fields, our data is messy. Part of this is because we are dealing with heritage collections from the past which are hard to structure and made up of bits and pieces. In “Scraping the Social? Issues in Live Social Research” Marres and Weltevrede (2013) argue that data already has assumptions built into it.

In large-scale DH projects, we don’t currently have the apparatus to present large data in something like a block quote or with a reference to go check the library (you can’t cite 3,000 novels in a journal article). He mentioned the Dataverse Project. We now need something different from a library to meet our needs. Data provenance is a lot more important than library provenance (provenance = where something came from). The day is coming when you will have a colleague whose job is to curate and manage data, and that person will get tenure based on these tasks because they will be necessary to humanist work. Without them, we will give up and go back to reading one book!

The upside to lots of data is that you get access to seeing large shifts and patterns across time. But there is a danger in drawing seemingly conclusive meaning from big data as we seek to fit our results into our previous ways of knowing like genres and classes. This is a limited way of drawing meaning from data.

2 — Spatial Pattern

He mentioned several interesting projects and texts:

Although diagrams and maps are types of models, humanities scholars are more comfortable with representations than models and manipulations. But we need to learn these kinds of modeling skills to successfully analyze the models.

3 — Temporal Pattern (Narrative)

As humanists, we like to find linear patterns and tell stories. But hypertexts are not  linear. He cited Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2001) which said the “database and narrative are natural enemies” (pg. 225). He also mentioned Karl Grossner’s “Topotime” (2013) and Wolfgang Ernst’s “Archives in Transition” (2013). We must deal with the differences between microtime and computer time and our human concept of time.

4 — Social Networks

The social network analysis model was originally designed to look at the relationship between people and organizations. But now things like the RoSE system are moving away from this goal and using books and plays instead (example: seeing how Shakespeare’s plays relate to one another). He mentioned Bearman and Stovel’s “Becoming a Nazi” (2000). DH is making humanists face up to the challenge of the crowd. It is no longer enough to call it culture and dismiss it.

5 — Topic Models

A good introduction to topic modeling is Ted Underwood’s “Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough” (2012). Basically, it infers from a large data set a discrete set of topics, treating documents as a “bag of words”. For example, you might put Moby Dick through a program and come up with several topics like whales and religion. The research sweet spot/problem is between the topics you already know and the ones you’re not sure about. Topic modeling is really trending. Ways to do this include visualizations in a word cloud or Andrew Goldstone’s Dfr-browser. Also check out Matt Burton’s “The Joy of Topic Modeling”. We are now in a probabilistic universe, where in science, they recognize that you can’t know definitively where an electron is when you’re modeling the atom. But in the humanities, we find that view frustrating because it is hard to tell a good story without a definitive answer! Example: instead of saying “Raskolnikov kills the old woman” you might only be able to say “There is a 74% chance that such and such event happened”.

A parting thought was a return to Plato’s Phaedrus and the belief that meaning is in our minds, not in books.


Liu brought up the current discussions about the material history of the book by Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania. In Liu’s classes, he goes back to the beginning of text and shows students how punctuation and spacing have not always been around. Actually, humans have been “text-encoding” forever and text has never been a static object. Although there were fears that the digital age would make it go away, it has deeply embedded itself into the source code and become really important.

Liu said that one critique of DH is that it is obsessed with distant reading, but it does close reading too. The key is balance. One method enables some things; the other enables other things. The scrambling of knowledge can be valuable too.

Liu emphasized that discursive knowledge is not the capstone of knowledge. And that the discursive narrative essay is not the only way to present information. Digital won’t become normalized until we get rid of this notion. We need to displace the relationship between that mode and other modes. (For example: instead of a thesis always being at the end, have students make a thesis at the beginning or middle.) The world wants reports and spreadsheets and parts of knowledge. The future lies in humanists forming small teams and producing research both for the public and other scholars.

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