Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Week 1 (continued):

Thoughts on Digital Humanities:

Forgive me and my Millennial-ness for maybe taking too much for granted here, or for oversimplifying the concept, but even as a child of the late 70's the idea that research can and should take into account the connected digital nature of itself seems glaringly obvious. This might have been a big deal in the early 1990's when just getting computers to connect to each other was a skilled feat, but today... you almost have to assume that everything is digital. It's like saying "we should be critical of the role that networked digital technology takes in interpersonal relationships." Today's college freshmen were born in 1996, the year I got my first email address. They have never known a world that wasn't intimately interconnected through digital means, and they can be forgiven for their blank stares when we suggest that it has an impact. The fact that huge percentages of the world now own smartphones and communicate with friends seamlessly all over the world online as well as the real world is a nearly-decade-old concept. It's the norm, is what I'm trying to say, not something new or flashy to hang the hopes of refreshing a field of study on.

What WOULD feel new about Digital Humanities is if we could somehow iron out the cross-platform incompatibilities. Anything published in the United States before 1923 is in the Public Domain; this means that a huge chunk of freqently-taught Western literature, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, scientific texts, religious texts, music, art, games, etc. are all public property. Why, then, is there no single simple, searchable, printable, annotatable format for these texts? Private sector businesses are exceedingly proficient at creating tools that provide uniform experience and compatibility, but academia is wretchedly bad at this, even when the content itself is free and not protected by intellectual property rights. In an effort to track down twenty five or thirty public-domain texts for two courses I'm using, Project Gutenberg,, half a dozen websites, a few printed books, and excerpts of texts on Google Books. The texts aren't easy to collate, arrange, read, move from device to device, annotate, or excerpt. This is a problem that needs solving, because they should be. Volunteers have made huge headway on this project already at Gutenberg and Librivox, but theirs is a homegrown effort, and it shows. A beefier interface experience of Public Domain texts, preferably one that could seamlessly transition to copyrighted, paid-for electronic texts, would make interaction with these texts much easier for scholarship. D2L and Blackboard are clunky, disappointing prototypes of what really should be something more akin to a user-owned mobile-capable MS Office suite, a set of tools that set a standard by which we can usefully archive, access, manipulate, and interpolate texts for scholarly purposes.

Why Apple isn't all over this, I have no idea. They could dominate education forever with a tool set like this. Sure "everything published before 1923" is a monumentally huge amount of data, but it's not infinite, and it's not locked down by copyright.

No comments: