The fish that bites its tail

Last Monday I left the class thinking about three main ideas my mates talked about: Language is a technology on its own (said Caterina); the British Library has one of the largest collection of pornish writing in the world; and the amanuensis thought the print to make books ugly. These last two ideas had of course to do with the novel and printing. And so this got me to think about Don Quixote, as it was one of the first novel, and it has a bad reception.

As in the case of the printers vs amanuenses, poetry was the high-art, the one which had the goddess like state for readers due to its form: rhythm, rhyme, images and, to some extent, its metaphysical content. When Cervantes dare use prose to narrate a realistic story it was believed to be ugly, non artistic; and so it was a form soon abandoned. Don Quixote made little sense to its contemporaries – it was read, and has its own response to it by Avellaneda (or Lope de Vega) as Pamela would have a century and many years later. Certainly, no other similar work was published after 1615. The author even tried to embellish what he probably knew was not the best form to write – but the fact that he was a bad poet did not help him in getting a better standing for his work, at all (“The Phoenix of the Wits” and friends used to laugh at Miguel).

I am writing about this particular work of fiction because I do believe that any literary form (a media) is inclusive of a previous one (Cervantes was using a phonetic alphabet for sure, trying to include the best literary form, and fitting other genres into his work, for instance), and the new one alters the old one at the same time. It may be disregarded at first. In due time, though, that hated form becomes the rule, modifying the whole scope of reality – it changes the society that was trying to avoid that particular media.

Reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) has just helped me in reinforcing my own postulation. I would summarize his notions in three main references:

  • From oral to written = from discontinuity or pluralism to continuity and homogeneity. The invention of the phonetic
    "El pez que se muerde la cola" or "The fish that bites its tail" is a Spanish expression for "vicious circle"

    “El pez que se muerde la cola” or “The fish that bites its tail” is a Spanish expression for “vicious circle”

    alphabet lead to a revolution in that it permitted translation of cultures, leading to the homogenization of, at least, the Western world.  One of the most relevant idea is McLuhan’s connection between the creation of this kind of society and the military, specially in the passage related to the French and American Revolutions and the situation of oral communities.

  •  Technology is an extension of the central nervous system of humans. As such, the human existence is modeled on a new way because in accepting such extensions there is a “subliminal awareness and numbness” that gets the man “perpetually modified” (46). Moreover, it is thanks to that favorable reception of new mechanism that the man “finds ever new ways of modifying his technology” (46).
  •  Hot vs. cool media: the first “extends one single sense in high definition” and requires no participation from its audience; it is explosive (examples are the phonetic alphabet, paper, or radio). The second asks its audience for completion of the content (speech, the telephone, are examples). They are relevant to society and its variation in that “specialist technologies detribalize” and the “nonspecialist electric technology retribalizes” (24). Therefore, its implications towards the presence of media in culture is that of the effect the hot medium has when introduced to a cool culture (30-31). (I think that if this chapter were a media, it would be quite cool, for I was to actively participate not to get lost).

There are many other hypotheses along the book. Nonetheless, those are, in my opinion, the most relevant. Also, because they have some connection to our previous readings. Maybe one of the major links is that McLuhan seems to agree with Kittler in his notion that “media define what really is.” Both philosophers converge on declaring that technology, the medium, inventions are both the means and the content; or as McLuhan puts it: “the medium is the message.” At the same time, they both assert the fact that the new tool has no meaning on itself. It has no existence. The medium only gets both meaning and existence when in combination with other medium. But the meaning is not exactly what we should worry about (not too much, leastwise). The effect is the basis for all concern.

Regarding the effect of media, I am going to take into account McLuhan’s notion about the hot medium being a means towards homogeneity in order to go back to literature and to close the post with a quote from Moretti on “The Sould and the Harpy.”

Let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis

Written years later (1988), it points again to the idea that media, in this case written works of literature, are nothing but an extension of our principles; those that we use, basically, to establish order by conventions and so, entertainment, all our gadgets, are just new forms for our nervous system and its tranquility.

On innovation, humans and by-products

Kittler‘s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, published in Germany in 1986, provides a thorough journey from the first attempts to create the phonograph to the end of the World War II. However, his is not a regular history book. In his Introduction to the book the author already prepares the readers to the philosophical historiography that they are about to read. Philosophers such as Benjamin, Ong, Foucault,Hegel; writers like Goethe, Poe or Strauss; and Edison, Hansen, Turing or Von Neumann as  innovators, are already mentioned as a brief example of the whole picture. It is important to notice that Lacan’s ideas about the symbolic together with McLuhan’s “the content of one medium is always another medium” (12) are (in my opinion) the ones that are going to permeate the text.

In some way, this media theorist is going to unite the anxiety yet caused by mass media, technology and its military applicability.  Responding to the question from last week: Can machines think? and analysing Guyau’s “Memory and Phonograph” (1880) Kittler states that “phonographs do not think, therefore they are possible” (33). But he also implies the question: why are they possible? What do we need them for? How are they changing our system of communication, our perception of reality? Let’s clarify here that the words real and reality are going to plague the work, sometimes to the confusion of the reader: “media define what really is” (3).

Connecting technology with art, Kittler points out that the advance of the first has completely changed they way one interacts with the second. Nonetheless, that progression was not always a blunt one. It took quite a lot of time to move from paintings to  photographs, but cinema became soon after since it implemented the past, in splices, to create new artifacts. That crossing of media was inclusive of the gramophone and the typewriter too.

For the purpose of trying to understand/explain both Benjamin’s and Kittler’s concern about the reframing of human perception due to the introduction to mechanics in daily life, I would like to pay attention to the typewriter. By means of explaining how what we now usually take only as the word that defines the “machine with keys for producing print like characters one at a time on paper inserted around a roller” (Dictionary), also used to refer to the female typist, Kittler introduces the first consequence of the mechanization of writing: an inversion of “gender of writing” (183) was carried out. While men were the ones who could write and publish freely, women were subjected to use pseudonyms to see their words printed. With the invention of this artifact, though, came a “desexualization of writing, sacrificing its metaphysics and turning it into word processing” (187).  Literature changed.

By redefining the writing values, mechanized writing and “the symbols of a standardized keyboard makes humans (and women) as equal as equal signs” (231). Is that so? As far as I am concerned, equality in writers was improved; but a lot of humans were left out nonetheless, either due to an-alphabetization, lack of means to use a typewriter, or being part of a community were the sign is an oral one.

Later, the second consequence is introduced. With the development of a system of electro-mechanics into human communication it became possible to create the Enigma machine at the end of the World War I. Used since as a service for military and governmental correspondence it highly impacted communication, as used for war purposes. Turing and his mates at Bletchley Park were able to create an “automatized oracle to interpret fully automatized secret radio communication” (256), to what Kittler calls “War of typewriters.”

Connected with this last idea it is necessary to mention that the text is well aware of the not so distant path between upper class traditions with the so call mass culture. It provides a good insight of the complications and implications that the transvaluation of human values since the introduction of technology in daily life. As pointed out in the introduction, entertainment, the media culture that acts as a manipulation of society, was just a by-product of a more serious issue than giving Western world access to the Internet and reality shows. Technical development is to “accommodate the enormous rates and volumes of bits required, spent, and celebrated by electronic warfare…the bomb” (1). Though new realities emerge from the distortion of the real, many real  instances are lost in the way.

My own manipulation of the visual data to provide different realities?

My own manipulation of the visual data to provide different realities?

Are search engines and the Internet hurting human memory?

Are search engines and the Internet hurting human memory?

This article from Slate Magazine explores the changes search engines are producing in our memories. According to it, they are not reducing our capacity to memorise. Instead, they are changing communication (some about it is mentioned in my previous post); while in the past we used to ask our relatives, friends, mates for information, we now ask our gadgets. 

Can machines think?

The progressive development of technology till its present-day condition had and has to do with humans’ needs. Most inventions were conceived to supply solution to a missing thingy, or as problem solving tools. The more advances were made, the easier was to create new artifacts. Therefore, as Heidegger states (btw, what’s with all those gerunds?), technology is a means to an end and a human activity at the same time. Personally, I understand these two statements as joined at the hip. Technology is not an independent entity; it is not self-governed.  The means to a particular end have been created and configured by a person who, at the same time, is involved in dealing with that end once it is reached and, as a consequence, responsible for the result.

Due to the fact that technology is involved in most of our daily life tasks such as turning off the alarm clock, starting the car, playing some music on the radio (I believe singing like crazy on your favourite tune is still a human (re)action), etc., we no longer spend time thinking about the implications of the digital being something good, bad, dangerous or profitable. 60 years ago, though, things were different, for they were creating the digital computers that we now use.

While reading Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950) and Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953) I couldn’t help but wonder what they would think about Siri. And since I was having a hard time understanding what both of them were saying, I found it easy to amuse myself with the toy. I had asked it some weird things before, but today I focused on some of the concerns of “the father of artificial intelligence”.

Nope, I’m not Alexis. But I don’t own an iPhone yet, so I borrowed his.

According to Apple: “Siri lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk.”  Clearly, that makes it a tool and, as such, it won’t tell us if it is a machine; it cannot tell if it loves; it doesn’t know, it seems, whether it is beautiful; it won’t joke. Following one of the questions in Turing’s, it hasn’t tried strawberries (really?? Apple, you should give Siri some strawberries right now). Rather, it has been programmed to answer who its teacher was for commercial purposes: Apple, in California. Interesting, since Turing suggests teaching machines, to some extend, like children in school. Finally, I decided to ask the tool for a controversial opinion among humans: “What do you think about war?” Not surprisingly, Siri avoids giving an answer that would point out the political view of the company. Nonetheless, the answer is quite striking: “I think, therefore I am.” Bweep, bip bip, bweep. Fire alarm. It can think. Those afraid of technology should do something about this, right now!!

It was Habermas who raised, in my opinion, the most relevant question in that it is still valid to our days: are we using technology, or is it using us? In order to answer this question it is impossible to escape politics and economy. “Capitalism is the first mode of production in world history to institutionalize self-sustaining economic growth,” explains Habermas. The economic growth is what is managing the world. As a result, we have changed our interaction in society. The problem then lies not on how many electronic doodads we own but, rather, how we have reshaped communities due to the use of technology. According to the philosopher, there is a lack of balance.

The real issue lies on the fact that it is us, humans, who teach machines what to do, when and how to act. It is us who can manage them. We could choose to destroy every single digital artifact. But that would be going back in time to those days were society was based on companionship rather than rampant competitiveness. As a result, some technology has become more a reflection of society than an aid. And that is the big issue here.

As a final note and connecting the post back to our debates in class, I feel that some humanists, or people in general, are following what Turing calls “The Head in the Sand Objection,” preventing a real understanding of the problem. We have already talked about humanists been afraid of digital tools being applied to the study of the human knowledge. Again, why? Why do we believe that “the consequences of machines thinking would be too dreadful?” (444). On Humanities, it would help on research, as it does to medicine. Since technology is a means to an end and a human activity, we can still use it to find some responses.

I may be going to far here, but the too dreadful a consequence is that machines, as driven by humans, would “think” as we do, therefore being biased, and cruel in some extend (they have no soul, right?), and creating still more trouble in an already too cracked a society.

Dándole la vuelta a la tortilla

First, let me apologise for using a Spanish expression in the title, but it is the best one I could think of to describe my feeling about the reading for this week. In English, it would translate to “changing the subject”- though it literally means “turning the omelette over.” What subject did The Universal Computer by Davis change, then?

I am happy with telling people that I chose to study English because I could not compute complex equations. I just can’t hack them! And this week I felt the same way. Just as I flipped through the digital pages of the digital book, the terror I stopped feeling six years ago came back. As such, at some point through the reading I was struggling to understand all the mathematics, logics, symbols and fractions involved in it.  I even thought that I mistakenly must have entered a world I would never come to make sense of. So, I told myself: “stop trying to make sense of the formulas and pay attention to the narrative.” It worked. I realised that I could read the book from a different point of view: Humanities.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don't want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don’t want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail: ebooks, digital tools, data-mining, DH, etc.

Usually, humanists have found computers to be extraterrestrial artifacts that must remain out of their kingdom; the machine is the enemy, some might think. Somehow, a wall has been built between both of them. The way I see this fear is that while an engine works mechanically, with a definite set of units, human(ist)s have been studying works on an interpretative or speculative manner, many times without a particular and limited result. How many times has Shakespeare been analysed? Right. His corpus continues to be studied whether for literary, linguistic, historic purposes. Cantor, one of the men Davis writes about, studied the playwright to prove that Francis Bacon was the real author of plays. And this could be a present-day example: What Shakespeare Plays Originally Sounded Like. Though DH is enhancing the possibilities of study, some humanists still think that the cold-hearted robot is not able to help, or that it is going to limit chances to speculate, or worse, contribute to nothing new.

Davis, nonetheless, demonstrates that the creation of an “all-purpose machine/computer/artifact” was nothing but a big contribution to human knowledge. Therefore, I believe, we are facing a humanist development. The abstract concept took form only when one man followed the discoveries of another, adding to it more ideas, and finally achieving Leibniz biggest dream:

He dreamed of machines capable of carrying out calculations, freeing the mind for creative thought (3).

Ha! So as early as by the last years of the 17th century, someone was thinking logically about a means of obtaining data so that we could then creatively play with it. Clearly, he was not able to create that perfect calculator, but sow the seeds for it. Little by little, Leibniz himself, Boole, Frege, Bertrand, Cantor, Hilbert, Gödel and others, set the basis for Alan Turing.

While his predecessors had, in 1930s Turing attention did not focus on the set of rules that lets a person compute an algorithm. Instead, he paid attention to what the person did when computing on a tape. This way, he found a mathematical model that was able to replace the person for a machine that could perform any algorithmic process. Turing machine would use a strip of tape and a table of rules in order to manipulate symbols.

With his work, he set forth the limits of the mechanical computation for those who would develop computers years later. Then, it could be said that humans have been the ones to be inventive enough as to create an “all-purpose computer” that can carry out an unlimited number of tasks which we no longer have to spend time in. Why are we afraid of it then? The optimism posed by Leibniz is obscured by the constant fear of humanists to include the digital realm on their labor. It is necessary to understand how machines can help us.

In sum, that is what I meant by “dándole la vuelta a la tortilla:” being able to recognise the humanist work of mathematicians, or logicians, or engineers in the past, at least. This way it would be easier, possibly, to accept the fact that Digital Humanities is a convergence of two traditionally separated fields that will help us, time-limited humans, process knowledge quickly and give us time to think more about it. Since some information is just a click away, why not take advantage on something as data-mining to explore new questions of research instead of spending 3/4 of the time in just searching for what we think is on a giving text.

Likewise, I may have used the expression because I really miss my dad’s heavenly “tortilla de patata.”

The most valuable content on DH

The most valuable content on DH

During our class on Monday, we were asked: how are we going to evaluate the value, the usefulness, the quality of projects carried out within the Digital Humanities? It is no longer a question of how many publications a researcher has, the number of sales of printed books, or subscriptions to journals. Some students were pointing at the number of visits on the web pages. I suggested the possibility of measuring them with the new questions they could raise regarding their object of study: authorship attribution, new connections between authors, literary influence, etc. We couldn’t get a correct answer. By all accounts, students in Prof. Ramsay’s class were not the only ones to talk about this problem.

Since the world of DH is constantly evolving , a new digital service was launched yesterday (and I am not talking about the Apple’s iOs7 or new iPhones): DHThis. A crowdsourcing platform that changes the way content is published and evaluated. It allows users to upvote and downvote articles, and only those with the most upvotes will get published in the front page of DHThis.

DHThis is built on an ethos of open access and open engagement and provides an ongoing forum for defining DH in the moment.

Pretty interesting, right? It is a good start to begin evaluating DH in a different way, as opposed to the editorial model to curate content. Following the non-ending discussions on the field about defining the DH or if it should become a discipline, etc. there has already been some criticism on the new platform, though: Towards a Front Page for the Digital Humanities #dhthis by Michael Widner, or A Gentle Critique of DHThis by @whitneytrettien.

Now, what do you think?

Digital Humanities: An Undefined Term

Now and then a (to some extent rhetorical) question is raised in classes, meetings and conferences: “What is Digital Humanities?” Its rhetorical nature lies on the fact that DH, whether as a method, a system or an end on itself, is a plural, interdisciplinary and nonstop evolutionary entity.

Beginning the discussion about the definition of DH the first day of class, the readings for this week has included a lecture by Unsworth, an article by McCarty, the second version of DH Manifesto, a short guide by Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, and Presner, and two debates by Kirschenbaum and Alvarado, all framed on the term Manifestos. What all of them have in common is an effort to describe Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities and its implications towards the Humanities discipline. Besides, all of them seem to argue in favour of the need of using technologies in humanistic projects in our era, arguing against those who think that using computers would be detrimental in a field such a literary analysis. Furthermore, they try to persuade humanists  to have computational knowledge in order to create more useful projects.

Regarding this last note, Unsworth, in his “What is Humanities Computing and what is not?” tries to separate real digital practices from charlatans. For if HC is “a practice of representation […] a way of reason and a set of ontological commitment,” there has to be a clear cut consensus on how to make everyone participate on projects with tools such as search engines. These have to allow interaction between scholars, creators, and users, in order to meet one of the main goals of DH: easy access to sources of the human record, opening up investigations to collaboration between different scholars or anyone interested in the subject. In his opinion, human communication is the basis of DH, especially now that it is so easy to communicate via the Internet.

It is McCarty who addresses the evolution of computing in the humanities and its advantages nowadays by writing an attempted historiography of the field and creating a conceptual map. I say attempted for he points out, again, the difficulty of closing the boundaries of “the role of calculating machines” in humanities since they are “also symbol-manipulation devices.”  His revision through history serves as a good example of the transformation on DH and, hence, its need for a continuos exploration of the question “what is humanities computing?.” It is important to note that the first attempt to leave the traditional annotation of texts was Roberto Busa‘s work on the Index Thomisticus by Thomas Aquinas – as early as 1940s the Jesuit scholar wrote a concordance using computers. Museologists were the next to join the new method, and by 1966 the Computers and the Humanities journal was founded. Thanks to ALLC in 1972 and ACH in 1987, a sense of community began to emerge. The problem of communication was vanquished soon with the World Wide Web and the Internet, email systems, and hypermedia. In his conclusion he addresses the need of focusing analysis on the data rather than the subject itself, creating a brand new laboratory that is inclusive to humanities, and making the specialist take part in conversations about the nature of their research – addressing Unsworth notion.

I believe that the Manifesto 2.0 shows the idea of communication and collaboration quite clearly:

Digital Humanities have a utopian core […] it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship […] Digital Humanities = Co-creation  […] teamwork […] actively engaged in the task of creating an audience –even a mass audience– for humanistic learning (3-5)

It is interesting how in the introduction to the chapter “Provocations,” Burdick addresses the need of a real shape of DH, with criticism and experimentation in the field, rather than just using digital tools within the Humanities, for the fact that technology is now naturalized on our lives, has made implications about its use “invisible” (102). Also, this text is aware of the danger of leading DH to its fall, if they don’t serve the same models of knowledge as Humanities do: questioning of the world. It also explores the difference between printed and digital texts because DH allows a manipulation of the item that was not possible before. Hand in hand with that manipulation comes the flourishing of a more “fluid, iterative, and distributive” (109) notion of information, changing the way departments or disciplines treat their subjects.

Kirschenbaum’s work is a representative case of what Digital Humanities can offer if they are inclusive of all the notions discussed by the authors already mentioned. First of all, the digital edition of the Debates has a nice visual interface that allows the user to interact with the text easily. But its contribution consists on his overview about the social, networking, shared research, and collaborative essence of the field. He writes about the project of the Companion to Digital Humanities, the consolidation of the ACH, ALLC, and ADHO, or events such as the Day of Digital Humanities. Most importantly, he pays attention to the success of DH during the MLA Convention in 2009. Thanks to Twitter, real-time commentaries on the panels through the tag #mla09 allowed many people to engage in a simultaneous conversation and build networks od DHers. To conclude, he points out the significance of using the words “digital humanities” in debates around open-access, since DH is about having research divulged in a public manner, with explicit infrastructures and depending upon online social networks.

Finally, “The Digital Humanities Situation” by Alvarado serves as a conclusion to the discussed articles. His view of DH is that of a social category that is on constant movement since the community encloses traditional and new humanists. This prevents a sole definition since it involves “as many methods and tools as there are intersections between texts and technologies.” Nonetheless, there is a clear awareness of the possibilities that DH offers towards crossing disciplines and the creation of new discourses.

To a student that wants to learn how to use digital tools to analyse literature in the future these Manifests can be both enlightening and subversive. The sustained notion of the third culture (humanism+science) can provide vehicles that are rather convenient as it enables a cross-examination on unstudied objects, even change the way we thought about the familiar ones; or else, it can make a muck of your perception about humanities and their methodologies. In any case, these readings show that Digital Humanities is not going to overtake printed material or traditional criticism of literature. Rather, they are to help in the circulation of information, contributing to, and at the same time changing, the learning of the humanistic disciplines thanks to the many new possibilities they can offer. In sum, is there really a need of a single definition?


Alvarado, Rafael. “The Digital Humanities Situation,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Burdick, Anne, et al., “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities,” in Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Lunenfeld, Peter, et al. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto Version 2.0.” Accessed August 26, 2013.

McCarthy, Willard. “Humanities Computing,” in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2003.

Unsworth, John. “What Is Humanities Computing and What Is Not?.” University of Munich, 2002. Lecture. Accessed August 27, 2013.