Reading in the Information Age. On Hayle’s “How We Think”

If hyper-reading involves jumping from a text to another one, I’m guilty. The moment I read that a group of students had created a project where they gave the characters on Romeo and Juliet a Facebook profile, make them friends and created an event for the party where the lovers met, I stopped reading Hayles and moved to Google to search for this awesome idea: Romeo and Juliet: A Facebook Tragedy.

So my close reading of How We Think by N. Katherine Hayles -an insightful look about the ways digital texts are affecting or benefiting reading in young audiences, as well as the role Digital Humanities can play in developing new methods in which new hyper- and machine-reading can be implemented to resemble the tradition close reading in the Humanities – got interrupted by the end of the chapter “How We Read.” But I must admit that I found it interesting enough to stop and think about where I find myself, and my students, in the tryptic she proposes: close-reading, hyper-reading, machine-reading. First, I would give a brief description of the three to see how they intertwine or detach themselves.

Close-reading, belonging to the field of literary criticism, is “the careful and sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general” (Wikipedia). Practised by the Humanities, the method is becoming outdated, deficiente, and, at the end of the day, slow-moving. Hayles indicates that close-reading, though still needed as to ensure literacy and critical thinking, is no longer applicable for it leads to formulated results or the same conclusions. Moreover, given the great amount of published literary works that we can now explore, the method proves unfruitful. Also, until digital text is understood as an instance to be studied in the close-reading technique, this kind of text is going to be marginalized by the academia. And so an additional method has to be used.

In the age of information a new type reading arises for those who spend their time on a computer: hyper-reading. Defined as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading” (167), its basic mode of operation is a fragmentary reading by which the reader pecks the text, looking for keywords, gathering the main idea in a short time, and moving on to another text usually by a hyperlink. This has become an imperative. However, the need to skim over texts that fast is enacting changes in our brains – leading to an impossibility to pay attention in a close-reading manner. I’ll discuss this point later.

Finally, machine-reading is “the automatic, unsupervised understanding of text” (70), according to Etzioni, Banko and Cafarella (2006). It provides the opportunity to explore larger amounts of texts, along the construction of new knowledge impossible to gain before. Though many scholars have yet to twig the relevance of this type of method, it usually takes researchers from their first intuition to new questions to examine the texts. A good example would be Franco Moretti, who by getting data on a large corpus on British novels then asks questions to further explore the development of the genre.

These three reading  cannot be separated. They intertwine in that the hyper-reading looks for certain passages that can be close-read. Machine- and hyper-reading can identify unknown forms or structures that can later on be also studied by asserting a close-reading on the writings.

Now, how do I read? I do a lot of hyper-reading when searching for information to analyse or write about specific novels in my literature classes. Books that I have first read, closely, and found some particular issue I want to analyse. Right now, I’m also moving on to the third realm. I am learning how to use R language and environment to analyse texts that I might have not read before. How do I think, though? As Hayles points out, I usually know what I am looking for before I begin to hyper- or machine-read, then I interpret what I find. Given my ability to multitask, I wonder if those modes of reading are changing my brain…

…are my students’ brains also changed and unable to perform one activity focusing all their attention to it? I don’t teach literature – maybe in a couple of semesters- but Spanish. I have sussed that students like to have different tasks or modes of reading while learning new vocabulary, for instance. Memorization of a list of words never worked for me either. So I have pictures, games, videos, or sentences ready for them to learn new words. Usually I don’t ask them for a close-reading the day we have a text on culture – they have to hyper-read various texts in order to get the main idea for a new concept. Unfortunately I haven’t yet tried machine-reading with them. So far, it has worked for my classes. Is it negative? Would they be able to later on move on to a close-reading mode when they get to 400 level classes on literature?

As Humanists, Digital Humanists, and teachers/profs, I believe we have to understand the technogenesis Hayles talks about. Technology and humans develop by adapting to one another. Digital media is moving human beings to a faster and miscellaneous mode of communication. It is shaping new patterns of knowledge and research. I guess that we cannot avoid the change. So we have to adapt it and take full advantage of it. 

Works cited:

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.

Sosnoski, James. 1999. “Hyper- Readings and Their Reading Engines.” In Passions, Pedagogies, and Twenty First Century Technologies, edited by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe.

Software is changing culture and society

On my last post I discussed the importance of hardware following the reading of Kirschenbaum‘s Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination, and I wondered if it is truly necessary for mainstream users to know how their material, physical computer works. This week I move on to ask myself: do we need to know how to program? And that takes me to the software realm, the non-physical part of technology that plays, in my opinion, a bigger role in the change of analog to digital culture. A digital culture that has been constructed with new media, and not upon an imitation of the traditional media. This week’s reading sheds some light on the issue of the new media being the leading force on that change and construction of a different society.

Lev Manovich poses four main questions in his introduction to Software Takes Command (2013) (you can read it online):  1) “What happens to the idea of a “medium” after previously media-specific tools have been simulated and extended in software?” 2) “Is it still meaningful to talk about different mediums at all?” 3) “Or do we now find ourselves in a new brave world of one single mono medium, or a metamedium?” 4) What is “media” after software?” (4). We have to ask these questions in order to understand the need for a new discipline, Software Studies, as “to investigate the role of software in contemporary culture, and the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself” (10). This is, software and culture interact with each other in a circular  way – which we can connect to McLuhan’s ideas as well. Manovich is going to focus on mainstream applications, rather than those used by programmers, because he understands that those practices are the ones that are shaping society, the software used by most people is changing cultural identity.

Being familiar with the many example he provides (social media, iOS, Photoshop, etc) my attention has focused on the history of the development of the computer as a tool for learning, discovering and creation by Alan Kay and his team at PARC. Their aim at developing a new tool was to provide the user with an already built-in software environment in which he/she could create new software. His was a metamedium; he transformed Alan Turing’s Universal Machine into a Universal Media Machine. They didn’t want to just mimic the old media, paper, writing, image, but to change them in order to create new forms. Ted Nelson developed the hypertext in 1965 to interconnect material in a complex way never available before; Douglas Engelbart, three years later, presented the “view control” system – which later on advanced into the GUI following Bruner‘s ideas of inactive, iconic and symbolic learning.

The consequence of their detachment from the academia I think is pretty clear: commercial use; the fight between different companies to get as many buyers of their software as possible. User interface was soon popular due to the straightforward, easy way to use by anyone. The team ascribed to the industry. And in order to make it really easy to use, they used a whole range metaphors that anyone could understand: save your text in a file/document that you then classify on different folders.

Manovich, nonetheless, attributes this use of metaphors of the traditional media into the new one to the lack of a history of software. According to him, the GUI and other software has certainly make learning and creation on computers something almost natural to humans – specially for digital natives. Experts even view a different future since “children who were born into and raised in the digital world – are coming of age, and soon our world will be reshaped in their image” (Born Digital). Both the invisibility of software and the development of a new media has to do with the metaphors – or so I understood in the reading- and the quality of computer media to expand in infinite new forms.

It is as though we are asked to remember and cherish the older media – and erase it at the same time (101)

This is only possible to the fact that software builds itself by sums and accumulation of previous languages, creating new ones on the process and, thus, following what the author calls media hybridization. I believe here is where DH comes to be related. Following Manovich notions, are DH projects multimedia or hybrids? Do we want to assemble different media in a setting without mixing them?; or are we to create new media from those different materials already on hand?

By joining two or more mediums, their languages are going to interchange their properties and create new structures. These are going to be unknown to us till the time they are created. At the same time, culture and society is going to be re-structured, luckily not immediately. And I wonder, is this why so many people are grumpy about the metamedium, the bonding of the odds and sods of the digital and the analog, of  the digital and the Humanities? A fear of those new unknown forms being born? I should cocoa! However, I would say that the software itself is harmless. It is guiding the development of technology in terms of what we are able to create. We should fear the industry, not the medium.

 Work cited:

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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.”