Theorizing the Digital: Workshop No. 2

Digital Stages

In As You like It Shakespeare famously informed his audience at The Globe that ‘All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players’. Meanwhile, four hundred years later in her book My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, N. Katherine Hayles points out that ‘computers are no longer merely tools (if they ever were) but are complex systems that increasingly produce the conditions, ideologies, assumptions and practices that help to constitute what we call reality’. If Shakespeare’s audience could understand themselves as theatrical subjects (as surely they must have done for those famous lines to resonate) it is because the Renaissance stage itself provided, like the digital today, those very ‘conditions, ideologies, assumptions and practices’ that Hayles argues help to constitute reality.

normalIn short, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights did not just reflect the anxieties and desires of Elizabethan England, but they very actively helped to construct and shape them. In another four hundred years, what will humanists study to make sense of our present period? The digital stage of the world wide web of course, because, like Shakespeare’s stage, the web is the example par excellance of what Stephen Greenblatt (in reference to Renaissance theatre) calls the ‘cultural circulation of social energy’.

The above is my own way of theorizing the digital and I find it particularly rewarding because it provides me with with a useful framework for thinking about my own work and my own historical moment. Perhaps the internet is to the second Elizabethan Age what the theatre was to the first. If this is the case, then the people who provide the web with content, the makers, are the equivalent to Renaissance playwrights – webwrights(?) Either way, players are going to play and the web, with its ready made audience of billions, is the biggest theatre of all. Interestingly, enough, the word ‘theory’ has the same etymological root as ‘theatre’ – from the Greek ‘theoras’, meaning to speculate which itself is derived from ‘thea’, meaning ‘a view’. If we were to be ‘theorizing the theatre’, we would quite literally be speculating about a view.

What, then, is the current view of the field for those of us working with the digital from the perspective of researchers? The second workshop of Cardiff’s Digital Humanities Network began with an exploration and discussion into how we might define the state of this field. Problematically, everyone agreed, it was a very difficult field to define due to the individual and their discipline. For example, a social scientist is going to take a very different approach to digital work than a computer scientist or someone studying English literature.12695214_10208644624701399_2098398818_o Furthermore, there are so many books and articles on the digital it is difficult to know where to start or even end (as the Network develops we will be including on the website a bibliography of those books and articles that we have found to be most useful). Part of the problem is that the digital is such a new area of study within academia that there is a vast overlap between the traditional scholarly monograph about the digital and the more popular tech books that populate bestseller lists. There is also the suspicion, from some of the conversations that I have had, that books themselves are problematic; they give the impression of being static and authoritative – characteristics that are in many ways antithetical to the digital. The view of the field, then? If Victorian Studies, say, is a beautiful, well tended football pitch with an all-seater stadium surrounding it, then digital humanities is a thousand of these fields stitched together with many different people all spread out standing on the sidelines, most likely watching different games.  Digital Humanities does not define a discipline, but is more a description of people working in cognate areas.

These differences were exposed further when we began to discuss pressing concerns emerging from the digital as, depending on what field one is working in, the focus on issues becomes quite specific. Julia Thomas (ENCAP) was mostly concerned about computer vision and how to make images searchable without tagging. Can machines ‘learn’ from large sets of data? Julia also observed that it is very difficult to maintain the momentum of crowd-sourcing. Jenny Kidd (JOMEC) discussed the ethics of practice and the ethics of technology in museums in participatory projects and the problems surrounding them. Jenny’s focus on ethics, however, brought about an interesting discussion with Julia about the ethics of crowd sourcing. 12656536_10208644624781401_777989721_o Is an ‘expert tag’, for example, more valuable than a non-expert one? The interesting point was also made that tagging relies on ‘altruism’, the sense of doing good by crowd-sourcing. My own concerns (Michael Goodman, ENCAP) were about engagement and the dissemination of knowledge and how traditional academic structures are often barriers to this. Additionally, I pointed out, there are too many grey areas when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. Jess Hoare (NESTA), spoke about the difficulty in safeguarding data and anonymity in relation to public organisations.

The digital, then, like any other medium, provides practitioners and theorists with its own set of problems. What this workshop demonstrated, for me, at least, was that the lack of rules and fluidity that characterises digital practice within the academy, instead of being seen as negative (no paradigmatic text), can actually be envisioned as a positive. The digital gives us an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine anew not just what scholarship is, but also what it does. And that, my good audience, is how I like it.

– Michael Goodman

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