The Elegance of Context

Mark Sample's article "Platform Studies as Historical Inquiry, or, Video Games Bleed History" may not have the most elegant title ever, although it is surely and unmistakably accurate. Sample places the methodology of inquiry into reach of a broad audience by applying it to the social context of video game systems across the past three decades, more or less. 

Sample bases this exploration on the levels of Digital Media, as first coined by Lars Konzack then adapted by Nick Montfort; I appreciate the invitation to continue adapting these layers, but so far I haven't thought of anything even approaching the useful simplicity of the current model. I found it fascinating that few scholars have considered the platform, code, or form and function layers, focusing instead on the interface and reception layers; I suppose it makes sense because the interface especially influences any game's reception and operation and this defines the game's longevity; physical platforms and their accompanying code, on the contrary, enjoy almost anything but longevity...they are the momentary blips in the current of trendy technology rendered obsolete by moving continuously on into the obsolesence of the past where they stay loved for their historical value. Studying only the upper layers of platform studies is like studying on Mona Lisa's eyes (important as they are) and forgetting about that smile. 

Vectors Journal

I was, and continue to be, entranced by the Vectors Journal. Its inventiveness! Its recognition and representation of the labyrinthine structure of the creative process! It's a project within a project, where the editorial statement itself is an exercise in the convoluted capacity of a digital repository. The coexistence of code, text (termed "lexia," invoking an everpresent etymological intentionality), and visual concept mapping creates a robust amalgam of interconnectivity meant to expose the flexibility and complexity of a multimedia archive.

I thought the following exerpts from the editorial statement (generated as I explored the evolving word map) were particularly apt:

  •  "Taking collaboration as a fundamental component of each project, we challenged everyone involved to subvert entrenched ideas about process, and to reach beyond the horizons of their traditional realms to consider how form is content, process is product…"
  • "Complex problems rarely obey the neat confines of academic disciplines, yet much scholarship continues to reside within disciplinary boundaries.  Each discipline develops its own subculture, its own methodologies, its own vocabularies, modes of thought propagated by academic journals and professional societies.  Robustly interdisciplinary work demands new modes of thinking but also inventive modes of assessment.  In experimenting with form and content, Vectors pursues interdisciplinary work in its themes, its collaborative work processes, and in its multi-tiered peer review structure, aiming to push knowledge production beyond the limits of traditional disciplinary thinking."

This description of an idealized multimedia platform was a helpful framework for me to (begin to) interpret the Roaring Twenties project hosted on the Vectors site. The layered interfaces of maps, sound clips, and written documents form a totally unique recreation of 1920s New York City, and prompt questions not only about the historical era but also about the ephemerality of experience and the ability or inability of recording (in every sense of the word) to represent, preserve, or interpret a stage of history.

In a nutshell, I continue to be fascinated by (and attracted to) both the ideological impulses and the tangible outputs of the Vectors Journal.




Fandom's Reach and De Kosnik

I’m old enough to remember when computers were mostly just amusement for the masses and data storage for companies. By the turn of the millennium, as more people could afford the device, a different set of ideas took center stage. With the internet, you could get and share news instantaneously, make blog posts, and talk with people all over the world all at once in chat rooms. It was a huge change from the professionals that held the power over information the average Joe could acquire. The competition became greater with more choices on the ‘information highway’. 

One of these subjects that has become a major topic of interest is the popular culture of fan archives. De Kosnik writes, “...the focus of this book is on how people who are usually marginalized in narratives of technological development are innovating new media practices in ways that will likely alter how cultural memory takes form, becomes institutionalized, and operates going forward.” Fandom has become a welcome pastime for some, people watching episodes of their favorite shows, and talking with others on forums about the stories and complexities of characters. With that has come the dawn of fan creations related to their shows or books of choice in the forms of fanfiction, fan podcasts, and fan videos. Those that wanted to use their creativity would post works to share with others that enjoyed their takes on the fandom. The choices were endless, as long as they were within some set framework of their show or book. I believe fans were inspired by the shows to fill in story gaps, or in the case of De Kosnik, fill in the blanks for characters that were rarely portrayed because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation with this media. At first, I did not see much in the way of effectiveness, as the push/pull between fans and commercial producers made very little difference. However, changes have started to come through to fill these gaps in traditional media, who wants to court fans. Shows like “Glee” and “Orange is the New Black” were important steps in showing positive gay portrayals, and the racial casting for parts has become broader than ever before. Movie studios are more affected by the fans now that then they can admit, as the audience can now vote or veto with their wallets, and there are more choices online than they ever had before.  

The Ephemeral Digital

This summer, while on a Zoom meeting with some friends we watched the 2014 horror movie "Unfriended". The entirety of the film takes place through the lens of a computer monitor, in it we see our protagonist, Blair, make Google searches and text her boyfriend while trying to make amends with a ghost who has infiltrated her friend group's Zoom call. It's a bad, schlocky movie that seems like it's trying to say something about the dangers of cyberbullying and social media, yet the main problem with the film, (of which there are many) is that it never makes a case for why Blair does not simply shut her computer and leave. 

I took issue with Blair's actions because, as Ben Peters points out in "Digital" digital computers function as indexical tools: they forever point to a world, be it real or a possibility, yet digital objects cannot manifest this world they point to. The idea of a digital screen manifesting real harm, even through the widely used trope of a ghost, seems unbelievable. No matter how scary the ghost may appear on Facebook, it is deeply ingrained in my head that this scariness cannot be real. As Peters puts it, "Digital media, such as these, point and refer to real world objects outside of themselves, and this transducing from the symbolic to the real limits both the computing and the indexing power of digital media." (p.8)

I think this is an interesting point to make when we look to the act of reading on a digital screen in terms of semiotics. Text, under the scale which Charles Sanders Peirce puts it falls under the symbol in terms of semiotics. When reading text on a digital device we then have the screen itself, which is indexical, simulating the analog task of reading on print. The digital here functions as an extension of our thought process, and the spread of ideas. It's a tool and yet, our constant movement towards digital over analog means that we spend hours of our day with works that can disappear at the click of a button and yet still have the appearance of reality, or as Peters puts it "Digital media indexes not only our world but all possible worlds" (p. 13).

Analog v. Digital Recording: Trying to get a 'Real' Sound

I was in the music fraternity in undergrad. Less a fraternity than a loose association of music dorks, the fraternity put me in touch with a great deal of music majors, myself being an English lit major. All of my friends in the music fraternity loved jazz. They played trumpets, trombones, and tubas. They were in the jazz club, they took jazz classes, and they formed jazz bands. I made music, too, but what it seemed that my art was never taken as seriously. Every time I made a new song, I shared it with my jazz friends, and they always recieved it with a nearly imperceptible touch of irony, as if everyone was let in on a secret abotu my own music that I didn't understand.

Now I understand it. I played keyboards and guitars treated with dozens of digital effects. I recorded my music into a Macbook Air. They played real instruments. They owned reel-to-reel tape machines. Their music was analogical, mine digital. Their music was physical, mine symbolic. 

Peters writes: "Digital media, such as these, point and refer to real world objects outside of themselves,
and this transducing from the symbolic to the real limits both the computing and the
indexing power of digital media" (8).

To the music majors, my music only "pointed and refered" to what they had in their hands: trumpts, tubas, and trombones. My music was merely "symbolic" or their real, analogical musical world. Which is to say my music was all 1's and 0's, there's was all tape and spit valve.

But as Peters goes on to write: "We can now see how the digital and the analog are non-oppositional modes of indexing the world. Take the classic analog medium, the phonograph (an early record
player named for how it transduces a real world event of sound, phono, into symbolic
writing, -graphy, and then reads the writing into reproducing the sound)" (12).

The music majors failed to realize that evey digital action is part analog, as even analog technoligy has "symbolic writing." Only the language changes. Just as spit flies out of their gold instruments, as John Lennon once said "I got blisters on my fingers," regardless of what signal recieves the musical information I give it.


A Critique of "Making, Critique"

In their introduction "Making, Critique," Hayles and Pressman assert that humanities scholarship and projects are uniquely isolating, stating that since "the typical model of humanities scholarship is that of the single author working more or less alone to produces books and articles" (xvi) and "interactions [between colleagues] tend to be cooperative rather than truly collaborative" (xvi), "students majoring in the humanities typically come into this world with little practice in such work environments [that involve teamwork], a less than optimum situation for their integration into it" (xvi). Humanities graduates have long been plagued by the (more or less spurious) narrative that degrees in creative or investigative arts are ill-suited to garner employment outside of academia; this argument that the humanities model of relative scholastic independence is a detriment to a future in the working world offends the popular case that the humanities are valuable because of their unusual demands and the resulting flexible skill sets. While I agree with Hayles and Pressman that digital humanities projects "offer an alternative model for research and pedagogy" (xvi), I think that their appeal to the sense that the humanities need to adapt to the structure of other disciplines (or risk obsolescence) is underdeveloped and only half true. (Aren't all projects that investigate/interpret the past vulnerable to obsolescence-themed criticism?)  Perhaps I am being too critical. But it seems that there are better arguments to be made for the utility of digital humanities than a sloppy appeal to the popular obsession with teamwork. Additionally, most of Kirschenbaum's essay "What is Digital Humanities, and What's in Doing in English Departments?" elaborates on technology's ability to aid existing collaborative movements in the humanities (hence the proliferation of DH-themed organizations) and augment individual research procedures, rather than replace or reform all instances of lone-ranger-style efforts. 

Week 1: George Anders

Digital Humanities seems to be about bringing the human element into the workroom. In the article by George Anders, he mentions, “Being able to read the room is such a crucial skill, adds Phunware sales executive Mike Snavely, that he's willing to hire people who don't know much about technology if they have a gift for relating to other people.” The workforce needs math and engineering degrees, but human relations are necessary just as much. There appears to be contempt for liberal arts majors, that the mainstream finds the education nice but useless in the job market. Yet there are important skills we learn, while utilizing creativity and ingenuity can be a major asset that more linear ways of thinking from math and engineering degrees don’t have. In a world where technology is king, humans still must work together, and it is even harder when social skills and flexibility are not being taught or are in the field of dying social graces. Liberal arts majors can be the bridges in the gaps where other degrees are lacking. This is where we can find a niche and be welcomed in a job market that can be quite ruthless to those who don’t fit the square peg mold of traditional stem fields. 

Links to Digital Humanities    Classics and Latin   Mysteries, from the post online, "Observations on the current stage of the Digital Humanities and their environment identify four dangers: (1) The focus on infrastructures for the Digital Humanities may obscure that research ultimately is driven by analytical methods and tools, not just by the provision of data or publishing tools. (2) Information technology can support the Humanities in many forms and national traditions. That textual analysis is much discussed right now, should not hide the view of a broader disciplinary field. (3) The mobile revolution looming may once again lead to a repetition of highly destructive processes observed at the PC and the internet revolutions. (4) The Digital Humanities may have to take a much stronger part in the development, not only the reception, of technology. – A series of concrete and controversial questions, which allow the discussion of some of these trends, is derived.