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 Practised by the Humanities, the method is becoming outdated, deficiente, and, at the end of the day, slow-moving. Hayles indicates that close-reading, though still needed as to ensure literacy and critical thinking, is no longer applicable for it leads to formulated results or the same conclusions.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.

Do we need to know about the medial ideology?

Reading the book for this week, and for some reason, this particular quote by Jacques Derrida from an interview got my attention:

“With pens and typewriters you think you know how it works, how ‘it responds.’ Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking –at any rate, don’t know– how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. This secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of modern technology. We know how to use them and what they are for, without knowing what goes on with them, in them, on their side” (88).

Certainly, we love our laptops, smartphones, video games consoles, cameras, etc. Most users just choose to use the technology at their hands to do the basics: write, email, search for information, play – most of them don’t like reading on the digital gadget I’ve noticed. Others users have enough understanding of their gadgets as to first buy the product according to their needs and then be able to use it properly, to fix a little bug, or to replace a broken part. Very few people actually know what goes on in the machine when using it, and are usually those who create or advance the technology for those careless users. Everyone who has access to technology is now dependent of the many instruments on hand. Whichever group one belongs to, though, seems to be of little importance when analyzing how the development of bigger storage media has changed the relationship between the human and the machine.

To that change and the unknown realm of the computer processing, the “internal demon of the apparatus,” is to what Kirschenbaum is going to pay attention in his book Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. He writes about it due to many reasons, that I gather as: 1) “we need to recapture [the] role [ of storage technologies] in the cultural history of computing; 2) Agrippa being hacked and thus breaking its main characteristic of destroying itself once opened; and the recovery of hard drives from the WTC; but most importantly, 3) it is in that particular place that electronic texts, as “artifacts-mechanisms -subject to material and historical forms of understanding” (17), are stored for us to read.

These texts are functionally inmaterial, they cannot be handled, touched, read with the eye. Nonetheless, since they resemble traditional forms of inscriptions in the process of creation, they fall in the realm of humanities. They “assigns value to time, history, and social or material circumstance – even trauma and wear – as part of our thinking… . Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present” (23). We have to pay attention to them as they are new forms representations.

Representations that are going to be stored forever. The author makes it clear when he repeats again and again, in many different ways, that “Every contact leaves a trace.” And forensic investigation can discover those traces no matter how hard we try to erase a document from a disc. But, following Mark Bernstein account on the cost of choosing what to dismiss being higher than the possibility of saving everything that we can possibly imagine, I ask: do we really want to have all our digital experience saved for the eternity? To which extent is it necessary to preserve all electronic textuality? We might be “prisoners of the present” (Leyton). Forensic investigation is recovering the past through the discovery of past objects. Such investigation helps in getting some tangible or visual instance from the “medial ideology” that is impossible to uncover for most people.

Now, given Kirschenbaum’s notions, I wonder, yet again: Should everyone know how electronic gadgets work? No. Should they know about the implications of using them in one way or another? Yes.

As a matter of fact, I have never heard about Mystery House before, for instance. Or I have never seen an Apple II. Some may think this to be a huge ignorance on my part. But, I happened to be born when everything was being developed or was already on the market. So when I was able to play video games Olentzero left a Nintendo 64 under the Christmas tree (I think I was 8-9 and still play with it sometimes); and by the time I had a computer (I was 12), it was running Windows Me, and I got to play The Sims for hours, along with my many other games, as well as writing papers for high school. No one taught me how to use the computer, I learnt. I broke it, I fixed it. Then I got Internet connection, and I learnt my way through the surfing of the web.

I think that my point here is that, unless someone is really interested in computers or wants to work on forensic investigations, etc. there is no need to really be able to clearly see how things work. However, everyone should be aware of the implications of using electronic devices, and that every online/electronic text is stored arbitrarily for you to never be able to erase traces – so careful if you are doing something ropey.

Now, the question that comes up many times in class, should digital humanists know the how in their working process? Or should they just use it as a tool for further research of their different fields? To what extent would it help to know how the hard drive where all the images of an archive works to someone who wants to analyse the pictures?

I would really find it interesting to learn how everything works; but I believe I won’t have enough time to be capable of understanding everything that is going on in the computer while I write this post, checking the default dictionary on the Mac, listening to music on iTunes, and having an intermittent chat on Facebook with a friend on my second desktop. That gets up my nose quite a lot. I would love to know. But I like getting broad knowledge of a couple of things instead of wandering around many to end up knowing nothing.

And now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to copy some scanned copies of an old book to an external hard drive to later on extract the text and work with it.

Work cited:

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT University Press, 2008.

Setting Balance Between the Parts: the Human and the Digital

Reading Walter Benjamin‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for week, I have again had an understanding towards media that makes it a tool towards our control. This literary critic and philosopher takes the cinema as one of the biggest challenges to art since it changed reproductivity of the world. With mechanization came a new form of reproduction. It was no longer something manual that took human exertion. By creating a product generated by the sum of little reproductions, its artistic value moved from an individual devotion to a communal exhibition. As a consequence, a new force was given to art: political function. Let’s see.

The characteristics of film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment (16).

Here, I understand that one of the main functions of art in terms of its presence in society of art is to set up a balance between the human and the system (the apparatus). This would sound familiar if you read my last post, where I quote Moretti‘s notion that “the substantial function of literature is to secure consent.” Real consentire (together+feel), is attained only by guaranteeing a balance between the parts. But, how can be get balance in this age of technology where the content is so much limited for each individual? Surely, it is impossible to “make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness” (61) as McLuhan wonders. 

In an attempt to exemplify the difference between a sculptor, a writer, a photographer, and an actor, Benjamin takes us to literature, as an art. While in the old days there were just a bunch of authors who exhibited their works in front of a rather big audience, thanks to the press those readers were able to become authors. This led to a blurred line between writer and reader, for the later was able to get some knowledge of the craft. Taking into account that literary competence became polytechnic, it was possible for literature to be a “common property.”

And I ask myself…since being able to use media or computers is also a polytechnical competence, is new technology a “common property” that can help us all? Is it building a balance? Each day, a bigger number of people use technology and become writers as they can post, comment on news, chat, show their daily routines, etc. Nonetheless, if “mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (Benjamin, 15), isn’t media changing the reaction of humans towards art, life, and more importantly, self-consciousness? That’s dangerous, innit?

Internet access is now, in my opinion, overrated. We certainly have access to more information and research, we can text our roommate, who is sitting next door, or video call our family, that is thousands of kilometers away. That’s really nice, because I do both things.

Nevertheless, like cinema – which is not a so much a common property as it has distorted reality with its huge apparatus of publicity,- social media is the goose that laid golden eggs, but not all the glitter is gold. First, in spite of the ability to use Internet as a encyclopedia to learn about basically anything, users tend to focus their attention towards their main interest. It closes the scope of self-consciousness in that we cannot be aware of our position within a whole community (Benjamin posses this idea when arguing that capitalist driven cinema can make audiences oblivious to their social class or position). Moreover, unlike the common perception that we are all being turned into a homogenous and beautiful world, smaller cliques are created. Both set apart, cordoned off from each other in some cases.

Between 1963 and 1968, Pierre Bourdieu carried out a research to demonstrate that personal taste is driven by education and social class, and, thus, exclusion. “Tastes are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes” (56). With it a conflict of the legitimacy of culture is created. Thus, since it is the ruling class who has access to knowledge, it is going to govern the tastes. And as distinction is declared, distance between the groups, the classes, the cliques is increased. No homogeneity here.

Finally, I would like to try to connect all the above said with Humanities and Digital Humanities. So, the first is, I guess, the ruling class in this case, for it has centuries of tradition to back up their reasonings. Humanities are a “common property” for they study human knowledge and benefit humanity. DH, on the other hand, use technology as an approach to that human knowledge and, since technology is seen as a force that is changing perception, the DH is disregarded by H. But, if human perception is changing, Humanities should study the new variation, right?. How are they going to do it if they don’t pay attention to computers? As Humanists, there should be an awareness of the danger in making a distinction between one and the other. H has to take into account new media. Only in such a manner it would be able to comprehend self-consciousness of the 21st century on. For that is the only way to gain balance between the human and the apparatus.

Works cited and further reading:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (1936). Web.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. 1979. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997.

Moretti, Franco. “The Soul and the Harpy.” From Signs Taken for Wonders. 1988. Web.

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?

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.”