Reply To: Critical Digital Humanities? Or Digital Humanities Criticism?

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Alex Koch

I should admit I don’t have much of a suggestion for fixing each of the problems brought up this week in the readings. And in many ways, the chapters seemed eerily similar to pieces/critiques I’ve read from other disciplines – it’s simply par for the course, pun fully intended.

That said, the reading I found myself most drawn to was Ian Bogost’s ‘The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.” To be clear, I wasn’t drawn to it out of malice, but rather its devil’s advocate nature. Too often in the humanities I feel we fall into the trap of either agreeing with ourselves or doing too much talking and not enough doing. Bogost addresses the issue of centrality in the study of humanities, and how humanists too often look out the window rather than go through the door, so to speak, into the outside world. We are so concerned with being central, with being accepting, with being outward – and yet we spend most of our time speaking only with others who agree with us. This, naturally, doesn’t allow for much growth or outward focus. Bogost, if I’m reading it correctly, seems to say that this is the cause of the barriers existing around humanities scholarship, and that those barriers may possibly be broken down by further inclination toward digital humanities scholarship.

Bogost’s article is, a bit pretentious. His language is flowery and over-the-top. He’s clearly a showoff, and this article only exists to expound his anger towards the community at large…but a community he is nonetheless a part of. One can assume Bogost feels a certain amount of guilt for being a part of the “fetid den of Lacanian self-denial,” he so describes, and likely wrote this piece in part to cleanse himself of his transgressions against the world. With this in mind, I took in this treatise with a grain of salt. But the heart of his argument still rings true: without a concerted effort to look outward, the humanities will shrivel into a hateful husk of a community, but luckily digital humanists are working to prevent such a future.

In the same vein, William Pannapacker’s article ‘Digital Humanities Triumphant?’ is a warning against elitism in the digital humanities field, and echoes the concerns of Bogost. The reticence of digital humanities scholars to accept outsiders is certainly understandable. When one spends most of their career defending its legitimacy, they are bound to become defensive and insular. Particularly due to the competitive nature of federal funding… As “digital” becomes an ever-increasingly-used buzzword for the humanities (so that even the stodgiest, most “old school,” universities and departments have begun embrace this development) it seems only fitting that we’d see schisms and cliques form to keep the “powers that be” outside of the hip, new, academic world DHers have cultivated. But this attitude isn’t doing the field any favors. Pannapacker states that the humanities community at large has accepted digital humanities as a viable field, and no longer do they need to fight to prove themselves. But now, as Pannapacker points out, they’ve created an aura of exclusivity and even refer to digital humanists as the “cool kids table.” So, as Bogost also said, this leaves very little room for growth – especially as everyone looks to display their unique voice and/or approach.

I return to Bogost because, even with scholars like Pannapacker – who are doing their best Santayana impression (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”) – the academy continues to swallow emerging disciplines and fresh discourse whole…Spawning new versions of debates and critiques we’ve (as paying members of the academy) already taken part in. I don’t really know what to suggest to avoid this, because at the end of the day Academic Gatekeeping is all about the benjamins.
Which brings me to the article I’m contributing this week…. I realize it doesn’t have much to do with academia, but Big Data and data mining are occurring in the public sphere as well. As someone with a background in communication, I’m interested in the way digital humanities affects the community as a group of users, not just from a usability standpoint, but how advances in technologies will impact their day to day lives. The WSJ article by Elizabeth Dwoskin titled “What Secrets Your Phone is Sharing About You” discusses a company called “Turnstyle Solutions,” a data mining company who sells information about customers to paying businesses. They mine customer data by tracking their movements on their phones, judging how the customer spends their time and then selling this information to businesses that might profit from understanding their customer’s consuming habits better.

Where our parents’ generation worried about getting cancer from prolonged cell phone usage, we now have to worry if our phones are telling our local gym how often we’re visiting nearby fast food restaurants. Big Brother isn’t just watching us; he’s kind of judgy, too.

Chris Glipin, Turnstyle’s founder, says: “We know there is more value to be extracted from this data…[b]ut we’re wanting to move cautiously and turn on the tap slowly—in a way that doesn’t offend customers.”

The value is clear – businesses would certainly benefit from being able to more accurately target current and potential customers. And don’t we, as consumers, want to be more specifically catered to? It would certainly make our consuming experience more personal and efficient. But at what cost? With mobile device usage becoming more common, and endless amounts of personal data streaming constantly, companies such as Turnstyle will have access to heaps of information most people would never willingly volunteer. There seems to be no sphere of privacy surrounding mobile data, and some argue that perhaps there should be. And unless you’re a technical juggernaut, you’re likely unaware of how to lock down your own data. It’s going to be an ongoing argument for quite some time to come, but I think the discussion of ethics in digital humanities is an interesting, and important, one. I’d love to hear everyone else’s reaction to this article, and see how you would approach ethics in the digital humanities field.