Bethany Nowviskie

a game nonetheless

Tags: , ,

[I recently had the pleasure of responding to a creative and beautifully grounded talk by Kevin Hamilton of the University of Illinois, called “Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes.” Kevin spoke as part of a workshop on “Algorithmic Cultures,” hosted by Chad Wellmon at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The great Frank Pasquale also presented on themes from his new book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, to which Siva Vaidhyanathan offered an illuminating response. My thanks to Chad and the IASC for hosting the conversation, and to Frank and Kevin for their encouragement to post these remarks. I hope Kevin will publish his terrific paper! You’ll only get glimpses of it in what is to follow.]

I want to begin from Kevin Hamilton’s own, very effective jumping-off point. By doing that, I’ll hope to encourage some further historical and contextual thinking about these problems in much the same way Kevin did, with his situating of the “black box” metaphor in changing 20th-century conceptions of agency and work—in our evolving notions of the relation of laborers to the systems and environments they inhabit. My context is a little different, though, if closely aligned, because I’m thinking of modes of interpretive work, of scholarship and creativity in the humanities. I’ll also talk a bit about the formal definition of the algorithm, and why I think it’s useful—particularly for practitioners and critics of the digital humanities but really for all scholars engaged in a discussion of algorithmic culture—to be clear on what an algorithm is and is not, especially in its connection to the kind of work we and most of our academic colleagues do.

“What do we do,” Kevin productively asks, “when the sociotechnical system we hope to study is obscured from view?” You’ve heard from him about a range of experimental approaches, all tending toward the conclusion—which resonates strongly with my own experience in digital project and platform design—that the most fruitful research paths may lie beyond or alongside the impulse to “reveal” the contents of a so-called algorithmic black box: even to include making a kind of peace with our platforms and our growing awareness of own situated positions within them.

But I’ll ask again. Traditionally, when we become interested in obscured systems, what do we do? Well, “we” (the sort of folks, that is, in the room today)—go to grad school.

Nobody lives with conceptual black boxes and the allure of revelation more than the philologist or the scholarly editor. Unless it’s the historian—or the archaeologist—or the interpreter of the aesthetic dimension of arts and letters. Okay, nobody lives with black boxes more than the modern humanities scholar, and not only because of the ever-more-evident algorithmic and proprietary nature of our shared infrastructure for scholarly communication. She lives with black boxes for two further reasons: both because her subjects of inquiry are themselves products of systems obscured by time and loss (opaque or inaccessible, in part or in whole), and because she operates on datasets that, generally, come to her through the multiple, muddy layers of accident, selection, possessiveness, generosity, intellectual honesty, outright deception, and hard-to-parse interoperating subjectivities that we call a library. Read the rest of this entry »

a kit for hosting Speaking in Code

Tags: , ,

[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to be serving as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR! (and see the Scholars’ Lab’s announcement, too).]

This is a belated follow-up post to last autumn’s “How We Learned to Start/Stop Speaking in Code,” in which I described the motivation for us, at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab, to host a two-day summit on the scholarly and social implications of tacit knowledge exchange in digital humanities software development. But the timing is good!—because today, the Scholars’ Lab is releasing a web-based toolkit that any group can use to host a similar gathering. We also want to make the community aware of some venues in which distributed discussions of the social and theoretical side of DH software development can continue online: using the #codespeak hashtag on Twitter, and at the #speakingincode channel on IRC.

“Speaking in Code” was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, and it brought together 32 competitively-selected, advanced software developers with expertise in humanities applications of computing, for an extended conversation about the culture and craft of codework in DH. The group that met in Charlottesville last November paid special attention to knowledge and theoretical understandings that are gained in practice yet typically go unspoken—embodied in systems, techniques, interfaces, and tools, rather than in words. This is a brand of humanities work that can seem arcane and inaccessible to scholars, or worse: because its methods and outcomes are not always broadly legible, it is easily assumed to be devoid of critical thought and contextual (historical, theoretical, or literary) understanding. To quote my last post:

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. Read the rest of this entry »

on the origin of “hack” and “yack”

Tags: ,

One of the least helpful constructs of our “digital humanities” moment has been a supposed active opposition, drawn out over the course of years in publications, presentations, and social media conversation, between two inane-sounding concepts: “hack” and “yack.” The heralding of DH as the academy’s “next big thing” has been (depending on whom you ask) over-due or overblown, unexpected or contrived, refreshing or retrograde—but one thing is clear: everyone has a rhetorical use for it.  The uses of “hack vs. yack,” on the other hand, rapidly became so one-sided that I find it odd the phrase retains any currency for critique.

Read the rest of this entry »

how we learned to start/stop “speaking in code”

Tags: , ,

[UPDATE: #codespeak is over and was a smashing success. See a post on outcomes, including a kit for hosting similar gatherings, here. This entry is cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to be serving as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]

Here’s a consummation devoutly to be wished: digital humanities research and practice becomes its best self, and finds scholars and technology staff engaging as peers in mutually intelligible conversation. It sounds like a modest hope, until you reflect on how far we are from achieving that vision.

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. A real division exists in style and practice, even when the subjects and objects of humanities inquiry are the same. What might bridge a gap like that? And can we move past an historical moment in the academy, in which the onus is almost entirely placed on archivally and theoretically trained humanities scholars to become tech-savvy digital humanists—to build a concomitant sense of momentum, responsibility, and opportunity in our community of DH software engineers? Can we build greater community itself, just by making a space in which such problems are addressed? Read the rest of this entry »

switching codes

Tags: , ,

This post should really be a comment on one entitled “Tacit,” by Natalia Cecire — but it exceeds the author’s permitted word length for comments, so — rather than cut too much — I’m publishing it here. Alex Gil has also shared some thoughts, which I find very constructive. The subject is “Speaking in Code,” an NEH-funded summit and planning meeting we are hosting at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab. This 2-day program is meant to get advanced digital humanities software developers talking with each other, perhaps for the first time, about what may go unspoken in their technical and communal practice, and therefore be difficult for scholars and newbies to access — and then to see where they think energy may lie, within their own ranks, for concrete next steps.

* * *

Hi, Natalia — thank you very much for your post. You’re absolutely right to call me out on the make-up of the list of facilitators for the “Speaking in Code” summit. This is a move I have been known to make, myself. (More than once, actually, usually with happy endings.) So I respect the impulse.

I’m writing to share some of the thought process and fumbling around I went through in the first phase of organizing “Speaking in Code.” Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at http://nowviskie.org by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.