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.

Expanding Minds: Books on Hacking Your Head

Thinking about our own minds often seems so pataphysically impossible as to be useless and silly, but, to paraphrase Steven Johnson (again), trying to understand the brain is trying to understand ourselves. By contrast, trying to expand and enhance it seems much easier. You can expand your mind without really understanding how it happens. There are many ways to make your brain feel bigger, and these three new books provide many steps in that direction.

Upgrade your grey matter because one day it may matter.
— Deltron 3030

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level by Ron Hale-Evans and Marty Hale-Evans (Wiley, 2011), the “unofficial sequel” to Ron’s previous book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain (O’Reilly, 2006; which I mentioned previously). From the sublime to the silly, extensive lists of mental activities, experiments, and games comprise these books, and they’re as fun as they are fertile.

Many of the hacks here take advantage of the fact that the way you see your mind and your world are often radically related, if not often the same thing. What I mean is that a lot of these are not just mental exercises, but tricks for productivity, ways to communicate better, hacks for breaking bad habits, tips for time management, and creative ways to be more creative. It’s not just about the hacks though. Mindhacker is also stocked with other (re)sources: Relevant URLs, books, and articles are listed on every page, along with the stories of the hacks’ origins, and the book’s website has even more, including pieces of code as well as complete programs.

Speaking of programs, Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008) tackles maximizing the mind from a programmer’s point of view, and it overlaps and complement’s the books mentioned above nicely. Maps, models, recipes, and other scripts and schedules are a part of Hunt’s push, but you don’t have to be code nerd to get plenty out of this book. It has helpful tips for everyone. Chapter four, “Get in Your Right Mind,” even suggests rock climbing, which I regularly use to clear my mind’s cache.

From the grounded to the grandiose, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2011) stretches the mind in multiple manners, also blurring the line between the brain and the world. Clark’s extended mind thesis posits the mind beyond the body… Sometimes. That is, sometimes we perform a Dawkinsian flip, seeing the biosphere as an endless network of DNA regardless of organismal boundaries; sometimes our brains and the brains of others are emphatically embodied. It’s a simple but sizable distinction. Where we draw those lines changes everything about how we see the mind and the world.

Other than a few minor missteps (e.g., In his conclusion, Clark unfortunately defines the mind as a “mashup,” when really he just means that it’s extremely diverse, infinitely adaptable, and ultimately mysterious), Supersizing the Mind is one of the better books I’ve seen in the neurosciences in a while.

If you want a brain book that’s handy and fun, I definitely recommend Mindhacker and Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Those two, along with Dan Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006), will get you a long way toward optimizing your cognitive output. If you want something a bit more theoretical, check out Supersizing the Mind. Either way, get to mining and minding your mind. It is still legal.

Maker Faire, 2008: Austin, Texas

Wow, where does one start? The makers of the world convened in Austin, Texas one weekend in October to make, build, rebuild, battle, and exchange their stuff and their ideas. I even had visitors from two other states join in the fun. Perhaps the best way to approach a summary of Maker Faire’s controlled chaos, of this menagerie of goods and good-doers, of this DIY carnival, of the impossible to sum up is a list with occasional pictures… Continue reading “Maker Faire, 2008: Austin, Texas”