Bethany Nowviskie

a game nonetheless

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[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 »

open and shut

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I recently collaborated on a project a little outside the ordinary for me: a case study for a chapter in a forthcoming textbook for, well, cops and spooks. (Cue performative outrage and sub-tweeting about the digital humanities’ complicity in our modern surveillance state–which I will address in a moment.) The book is the infelicitously-titled Application of Big Data for National Security: A Practitioner’s Guide to Emerging Technologies, edited by Babak Akhgar et al. These are circles alien to me, but in which my chapter’s co-author, Gregory Saathoff, frequently moves.

I write about the project here for two reasons–seemingly different, but in fact closely aligned. The first is that I successfully and quite easily negotiated alterations to my author’s contract with Elsevier (my own little valentine) that made it possible for me to reconcile placing the chapter in a Butterworth-Heinemann book with my deeply-held open access values. (I remain, in terms of journal publishing, a Cost of Knowledge signatory, pledging not to publish in or contribute editing and reviewing time to Elsevier journals until their business practices become less damaging to academic libraries and the public good.) I thought it might be helpful for others to know how I undertook this negotiation, and why open access publishing is usually even easier for me. The other reason for this post has to do with the content and message of the book chapter, and its relation to recent debates in the digital humanities. This, too, relates to problems of openness, audience, and the public impact of humanities scholarship. Read the rest of this entry »

all at once

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Thirteen years ago, I was a graduate student in English literature when the Twin Towers collapsed, a fireball erupted from the Pentagon, and a group of everyday travelers hurtled a fourth involved commercial airliner, in self-sacrifice, into a muddy field. We got an email from our department chair. It read (I paraphrase), “this is why poetry matters.”

I had been watching people leap to their deaths from skyscrapers on the morning news. “Bullshit,” said I, a girl who had been in love with Shakespeare and Pope and Keats and Tennyson since grade school. And that was the end of any more conventional conception I may have had of my own career–the end, for me, of the profession of English.

I was, truth be told, already on the way out, toward my discipline’s methodological and material oddball fringe–specializing by then not in literary hermeneutics but in the mapping of its lessons and techniques to bibliography, scholarly editing, human-computer interaction, and humanities computing. Over time–by applying my teaching experience and past education in Education, and by learning from the side jobs in labs and centers that I held as a grad student–I built some expertise in project management and digital cultural heritage. In that way, I applied myself to work that felt more satisfyingly pragmatic to me. I couldn’t bear to spend my time happily, as a single, sensitive reader and writer–but I could happily spend it struggling: nudging and nurturing people, and helping them find ways to work effectively as teams in the protection and remediation and interpretation and sharing of stuff. Soon I was a mother and a post-doc. Then I was a member of UVa’s research faculty in Media Studies and a mother some more. Finally, I became a librarian and (heaven help me) an administrator. Read the rest of this entry »

charter-ing a path

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[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!]

In recent years, we’ve guided four separate cohorts of the graduate fellows who participate in the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program through an unusual exercise. Praxis is a team-based fellowship, in which six students, from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in varied phases of their graduate careers, spend two full semesters working together to design, create, and launch a digital project—either “from scratch” or by building on and refining the work of the previous year’s group. They do this with the benefit of careful mentorship, smart technical instruction, and lots of free caffeine and therapy from University of Virginia Library faculty and staff.

Our fellows’ first challenge, though, is not the daunting one of formulating a scholarly question that lends itself to exploration through building. Nor is it the challenge of learning a new digital production method (or four, or five), nor even of designing a system that can make a meaningful technical or intellectual contribution to humanities teaching and research (like the 2011-13 cohorts’ Prism project, or the past two groups’ revival of the Ivanhoe Game). Instead, our fellows nervously draft a project charter. Read the rest of this entry »

speculative computing & the centers to come

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[This is a short talk I prepared for a panel discussion today with Brett Bobley, Ed Ayers, and Stephen Robertson, on the future of DH centers. The lovely occasion is the 20th anniversary celebration of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Happy birthday, CHNM! Next year, I’ll buy you a drink.]

When I was a graduate student in my mid-20s, around (gasp!) the turn of the century, I helped to found an intentionally short-lived but very interesting and effective humanities computing think tank. It was sort of an unauthorized, prototyping or tool-building offshoot of the center where I worked, UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. This is before the Scholars’ Lab existed. Only CHNM and (relative to today’s wild blossoming) a startlingly few other such digital humanities and digital history centers were in operation. This is, in fact, before “DH” existed, as a term of art.

One of the many fun things for me, about establishing this think tank—alongside folks like Jerome McGann, Steve Ramsay, Johanna Drucker, Geoffrey Rockwell, Andrea Laue, Worthy Martin, and a few others—was that I got to name it! Sometimes you do, if you’re the one building the website. (Or at least, you used to.) The name I suggested was the Speculative Computing Lab—SpecLab, for short. I was so enamored with the idea—the metaphor, really, of speculative computing—that it also became the title of my dissertation. Let me tell you why, and explain why I tell this story on a panel about the future of DH centers. Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at 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.