Of Data Sets and Digital Humanities

I began my journey into computer use with the local library’s Apple II and my own Commodore Vic-20. It wasn’t long before I learned BASIC and upgraded to a Commodore 64. As advanced as those machines were for the time, they had no operating systems or internal storage to speak of. I mowed lawns and washed cars to buy accessories for my bedroom setup. First up was a cassette drive to save the programs that would previously disappear when I turned off my computer.
Commodore Datasette
I joined my first user group in the sixth grade. Equipped with my Datasette (Commodore’s cassette-driven external storage device), I was able to trade software with the more experienced programmers in the group. I was one of the only non-adults at those meetings. I distinctly remember the regular appearance of a contrivance called “the Octopus.” This thing connected many Datasettes to the same source thereby allowing the mass copying of whatever was on the master cassette tape. Admittedly, I was mostly collecting old arcade games, but the possibilities were exciting.

Speaking of, the next item on my list of peripherals was a modem. I had no idea what I was going to connect to, but the allure of far-flung databases was the stuff of my prepubescent dreams. The prospect of knowledge coming into my humble machine over the phone line was just amazing. Without a tangible goal or the money for long-distance charges, my interest faded, and BMX and skateboarding took sway over my days. I never got a modem, and my computer-fueled fever wouldn’t return until I started writing for magazines in the early 1990s. Thankfully others bit early by the bug weren’t so distracted.

Debates in the Digital HumanitiesThe history of computing and connectivity since is far too lengthy and eventful to go into here, as are its impacts on academia, but so-called “big data” and the digital humanities have emerged recently as major arenas of scholarship and debate. Integrating new technologies into research is nothing unique, so getting past the buzzwords that often simply repackage old methodologies in new, digital boxes is the first step to figuring out what’s really new and novel. Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), is a solid place to begin. This 500-page compendium interrogates the fledgling field from all angles: what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s done, and where it’s going. And it’s not just about how the research is done but also how it’s reported and shared. Each section in this book includes print versions of relevant blog posts. Everyone from Matthew Kirschenbaum, Alex Reid, and the always critical Ian Bogost to Lev Manovich, Mark Sample, and the inimitable Alan Liu–among many others–get in on establishing and critiquing the field. If you’re wondering what all the tweets are about, this book is definitely the place to start.

Switching CodesIf you’d prefer to dive directly into the deep end, Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is an excellent companion to Debates in the Digital Humanities. Editors Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover and their contributors drill down into the wild, wired, and weird. Each section here has a call-and-response format. Ian Foster, Albert Borgmann, and Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (whose piece on the migration of the aura is especially interesting) are all here, Alan Liu makes an appearance via one of the responses, and there’s even an interlude card game designed by Eric Zimmerman (“Figment: The Switching Codes Game”)! Fun and games aside, Switching Codes leans toward the philosophical, making it essential for seeing the bigger picture through our increasingly bigger data sets.

My path eventually led me back to both computers and to scholarship, both of which thankfully advanced astronomically in my absence. I still have the Commodore Vic-20, the 64, and that old Datasette, but I now connect to databases with purpose and ease, and my own digital humanities work is informed by excellent books like these two.


I must acknowledged that my personal hacker history here was spurred on by my current bedtime reading, Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (Bantam, 1992), which is an excellent history of the darkside of digital humanity.