Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Game Change: Digital Technology and Performative Humanities

| 11 Comments

“Game changing” is a term we hear a lot in digital humanities. I have used it myself. But try, as I was asked to do for a recent talk at Brown University’s Ancient Religion, Modern Technology workshop, to name a list of truly game-changing developments wrought by digital humanities. I come up short.

Struggling with this problem, I found it useful in preparing my talk to examine the origins or at least the evolution of the term. I’m sure it’s not the earliest use, but the first reference I could find to “game changing” (as an adjective) in Google Books was from a 1953 Newsweek article, not surprisingly about baseball, specifically in reference to how Babe Ruth and his mastery of the home run changed the game of baseball. This is a telling, if serendipitous, example, because baseball fans will know that Babe Ruth really did change baseball, in that the game was played one way before he joined the Red Sox in 1914 and another way really ever since. Babe Ruth’s veritable invention of the home run changed baseball forever, from the “small ball” game of infield singles, sacrifice bunts, and strategic base running of the late-19th and early-20th centuries to the modern game dominated by power and strength. As Baseball Magazine put it none-too-flatteringly in 1921: “Babe has not only smashed all records, he has smashed the long-accepted system of things in the batting world and on the ruins of the system has erected another system or rather lack of system whose dominant quality is brute force.” From what I could gather from my quick survey of Google Books, for the better part of the next thirty years, the term is mainly used in just this way, in the context of sports, literally to talk about how games have been changed.

In the 1980s, however, the term seems to take on a new meaning, a new frequency and a new currency. Interestingly, the term’s new relevance seems to be tied to a boom in business and self-help books. This probably comes as no surprise: I think most of us will associate the term today with the kind of management-speak taught in business schools and professional development workshops. In this context, it’s used metaphorically to recommend new strategies for success in sales, finance, or one’s own career. It’s still used in the context of sports, but most of what I found throughout the 80s and 90s relates to business and career. Going back to our graph, however, we see that it’s not until the turn of this century that term gets its big boost. Here we see another shift in its usage, from referring to business in general to the technology business in particular. This also comes as no surprise, considering the digital communications revolution that tooks shape during the five years on either side of the new millenium. Here we see a new word appended to the phrase: game-changing technology. And even more specifically, the phrase seems to become bound up with a fourth word: innovation. Today use of the term has been extended even further to be used in all manner of cultural discourse from politics to university-press-published humanities texts.

But when we use the term in these other arenas—i.e. in ways other than in the literal sense of changing the way a sport or game is played—in order for it to be meaningful, in order for it to be more than jargon and hyperbole, in order for the “game-changing” developments we’re describing to live up to the description, it seems to me that they have to effect a transformation akin to the one Babe Ruth effected in baseball. After Ruth, baseball games were won and lost by new means, and the skills required to be successful at baseball were completely different. A skilled baserunner was useless if most runs were driven in off homeruns. The change Ruth made wasn’t engendered by him being able to bunt or steal more effectively than, say, Ty Cobb (widely acknowledged as the best player of the “small ball” era) it was engendered by making bunting and stealing irrelevant, by doing something completely new.

In the same way, I don’t think technologies that simply help us do what we’ve always done, but better and more efficiently, should be counted as game-changing. Innovation isn’t enough. Something that helps us write a traditional journal article more expertly or answer an existing question more satisfactorily isn’t to me a game-changing development. When you use Zotero to organize your research, or even when you use sophisticated text mining techniques to answer a question that you could have answered (though possibly less compellingly) using other methods, or even when you use those techniques to answer questions that you couldn’t have answered but would like to have answered, that’s not to me game-changing. And when you write that research up and publish it in a print journal, or even online as an open access .pdf, or even as a rich multimedia visualization or Omeka exhibit, that to me looks like playing the existing game more expertly, not fundamentally changing the game itself.

These things may make excellent use of new technologies. But they do so to more or less the same ends: to critique or interpret a certain text or artifact or set of text or artifacts. Indeed, it is this act of criticism and interpretation that is central to our current vision of humanistic pursuit. It is what we mean when we talk about humanities. A journal article by other means isn’t a game changer. It is the very essence of the game we play.

If those things, so much of what we consider to be the work of digital humanities, don’t count as game changers, then what does count? In his new book, Reading Machines, Steve Ramsay argues that the promise of digital technologies for humanities scholarship is not so much to help us establish a new interpretation of a given text but to make and remake that text to produce meaning after meaning. Here Steve looks to the Oulipo or “workshop of potential literature” movement, which sought to use artificial constraints of time or meter or mathematics—such as replacing all the nouns in an existing text with other nouns according to a predefined constraint—to create “story-making machines,” as a model. He draws on Jerry McGann and Lisa Samuels’ notion of cultural criticism as “deformance,” a word that for Steve “usefully combines a number of terms, including ‘form,’ ‘deform,’ and ‘performance.'” For Ramsay digital humanists “neither worry that criticism is being naively mechanized, nor that algorithms are being pressed beyond their inability” but rather imagine “the artifacts of human culture as being radically transformed, reordered, disassembled, and reassembled” to produce new artifacts.

This rings true to me. Increasingly, our digital work is crossing the boundary that separates secondary source from primary source, that separates second-hand criticism from original creation. In this our work looks increasingly like art.

The notion of digital humanities as deformance or performance extends beyond what Steve calls “algorithmic criticism,” beyond the work of bringing computational processes to bear on humanities texts. Increasingly digital humanities work is being conceived as much as event as product or project. With the rise of social media and with its ethic of transparency, digital humanities is increasingly being done in public and experienced by its audiences in real time. Two recent CHNM projects, One Week | One Tool and Hacking the Academy, point in this direction.

An NEH-funded summer institute, One Week | One Tool set out to build a digital tool for humanities scholarship, from inception to launch, in one week. For one week in July 2010, CHNM brought together a group of twelve digital humanists of diverse disciplinary backgrounds and practical experience (Steve Ramsay among them) to build a new software application or service. The tool the group created, Anthologize, a WordPress plugin which allows bloggers to remix, rework, and publish their blog posts as an e-book, is currently in use by thousands of WordPress users.

At the outset, One Week | One Tool set out to prove three claims: 1) that learning by doing is an important and effective part of digital humanities training; 2) that the NEH summer institute can be adapted to accommodate practical digital humanities pedagogy; and 3) that digital humanities tools can be built more quickly and affordably than conventional wisdom would suggest. I think we succeeded in proving these claims. But as a project, I think One Week | One Tool showed something else, something unexpected.

One of the teams working on Anthologize during One Week | One Tool was an outreach team. We have found that outreach—or more crudely, marketing—is absolutely crucial to making open source tools successful. The One Week | One Tool outreach team made heavy use of Twitter, blogs, and other social media during the week Anthologize was built, and one of the strategies we employed was the Apple-style “unveil”—letting a user community know something is coming but not letting on as to what it will be. All twelve members of the One Week | One Tool crew—not only the outreach team, but the developers, designers, and project managers as well—joined in on this, live-Tweeting and live-blogging their work, but not letting on as to what they were building. This created a tremendous buzz around the work of the team in the digital humanities community and even among a broader audience (articles about One Week | One Tool turned up in The Atlantic, ReadWriteWeb, and the Chronicle of Higher Education). More interestingly, these broader communities joined in the discussion, inspired the team at CHNM to work harder to produce a tool (actually put the fear of God in them), and ultimately influenced the design and distribution of the tool. It was, as Tim Carmody, now of Wired Magazine put it, representative of a new kind of “generative web event.”

Quoting his colleague, Robin Sloan, Tim lists the essential features of the generative web event:

Live. It’s an event that hap­pens at a spe­cific time and place in the real world. It’s some­thing you can buy a ticket for—or fol­low on Twitter.

Gen­er­a­tive. Some­thing new gets cre­ated. The event doesn’t have to pro­duce a series of lumi­nous photo essays; the point is sim­ply that con­trib­u­tors aren’t oper­at­ing in play­back mode. They’re think­ing on their feet, col­lab­o­rat­ing on their feet, creat­ing on their feet. There’s risk involved! And that’s one of the most com­pelling rea­sons to fol­low along.

Pub­lish­able. The result of all that gen­er­a­tion ought, ide­ally, to be some­thing you can pub­lish on the web, some­thing that peo­ple can hap­pily dis­cover two weeks or two years after the event is over.

Per­for­ma­tive. The event has an audience—either live or online, and ide­ally both. The event’s struc­ture and prod­ucts are carefully con­sid­ered and well-crafted. I love the Bar­Camp model; this is not a BarCamp.

Ser­ial. It doesn’t just hap­pen once, and it doesn’t just hap­pen once a year. Ide­ally it hap­penn… what? Once a month? It’s a pat­tern: you focus sharply on the event, but then the media that you pro­duce flares out onto the web to grow your audi­ence and pull them in—to focus on the next event. Focus, flare.

To this list I would add a sixth item, which follows from all of the above, and is perhaps obvious, but which I think we should make explicit. Generative web events are collaborative.

CHNM’s Hacking the Academy project is another example from digital humanities of this kind of generative web event. On May 21, 2010, Dan Cohen and I put out a call for “papers” for a collectively produced volume that would explore how the academy might be reformed using digital media and technology. We gave potential contributors only seven days to respond, and during this time we received more than 300 submissions from nearly 200 authors.

Turning this into the “book” that eventually became Hacking the Academy would take considerably longer than a week. The huge response presented us with a problem, one that required us to rethink our assumptions about the nature of authorship and editing and the relationship between the two. Reading through the submissions, some as long as 10,000 words, others as short as 140 characters, we struggled with how to accommodate such a diversity of forms and voices. Our key breakthrough came when we realized we had to let the writing dictate the form of the book rather than the opposite. We established three formal buckets (“feature essays,” “coversations,” and “voices”) and three topical buckets (“scholarship,” “teaching,” and “institutions”) into which we would fit the very best submissions. Some of the good longer pieces could stand on their own, relatively unedited, as features. But in most cases, we had to give ourselves permission to be almost ruthless in the editing (at least when compared to long accepted notions of authorial versus editorial prerogative in academic writing) so that submissions would fit into the formal and intellectual spaces we created. Long or short, formal or informal, we let the best writing rise to the top, selecting contributions (either entire pieces or very often just a particularly compelling paragraph) that could be juxtaposed or contraposed or placed in conversation with one another to best effect.

In the end, the “book” exists in several forms. There is the “raw” index of every submission. There is our 150-odd-page remix of this material, containing more approximately 40 articles from more than 60 authors, which is being published online and in print by the University of Michigan’s MPublishing division and Digital Culture Books imprint. Then, and I think most interestingly, there are third-party remixes, including one by Mark Sample re-titled Hacking the Accident.

Appropriately, Hacking the Accident is itself a performance of sorts. Using the classic Oulipo technique of N+7, in which the author replaces every noun in a text with the noun seven dictionary entries ahead of it, Mark has created a new work, not of humanities scholarship, but of literature, or poetry, or theater, or something else altogether.

These are just two examples, two with which I am particularly familar, of what we might call “performative humanities.” There are others: most significantly, the lively performative exchanges that play out in the digital humanities Twittersphere every day. I wouldn’t go so far to say performance is the future of humanities in general or even digital humanities in particular. But I do think the generative web event is one example of a game-changing development. Performance is a different ball game than publication. The things required to make a successful performance are very different from the things required to make a successful text. It requires different skills, different labor arrangements, way more collaboration, and different economies than traditional humanities research.

We can look to new tools and new research findings, but I think we will only know for sure that digital humanities has changed the game when what it takes to succeed in the humanities has changed. We will know the game has change when bunting and base-running aren’t working any more, and a new kind of player with a new set of skills comes to dominate the field of play.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

[This post is based on a talk I gave on February 13, 2012 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Many thanks to Michael Satlow for the kind invitation, generous hospitality, and an excellent two-day workshop.]

11 Comments

  1. This is both provocative and fascinating, Tom. But in the spirit of your thesis, I want to respond to and remix the arguments you offer in support of a slightly different conclusion.

    The examples you cite seem, to me, to cluster around revolutionizing distribution rather than production. I don’t dispute the performative nature of these events. But the content in Hacking the Academy was fairly traditional, the sort of things that academics have produced since the dawn of academia. Less traditional was the degree of inclusiveness. Academics have always made quips, dashed off short thoughts, and also produced weighty essays, but it is the last of these alone which have traditionally been published. And this points to the process of distribution as the really revolutionary element. Hacking the Academy took full advantage of the capaciousness of the web, and the low cost of publishing online, to innovate in content delivery, offering classes of content that might not traditionally have been grouped together or published at all.

    In a similar vein, the most striking element of One Week | One Tool is what it ultimately produced: a plug-in for collecting and publishing content. Here, process and outcome came into alignment. The innovative methods you describe served to attract attention and build an audience, allowing for more effective distribution of the finished product. And that product itself aims at easing and improving the distribution of extant content in new formats.

    Why do I prefer ‘distribution’ to ‘performance’? I think it’s a more inclusive term. Some work will, indeed, be performative. But even the solitary practitioners writing journal articles are being swept along by the changes in distribution. Their content is digital now, whether they wish it or not. It will travel socially. It will be found by keyword searches, quoted on blogs, and mined for its data. It will be reused in unpredictable places in unexpected ways. The old journal article sat on a shelf in a few hundred academic libraries, and in a few thousand professors’ offices, seldom disturbed. Even decades old content — no more performative than it was at the time of its creation — is being transformed by the changes in distribution.

    Distribution is the game changer. It changes what we can produce – because instead of having to tailor our work-product to fit within established distribution channels, we can produce what seems most compelling and then tailor the distribution channel to match the content. It changes who we can reach – content can be accessed, in theory, by anyone from anywhere, making it easier to cross disciplinary boundaries or to reach beyond the academy. And it changes how we reach them – with less emphasis on publishers to act as filters, and more emphasis on self-marketing to capture an audience.

    There are real hurdles to all of this. And real drawbacks. It took decades for Ruth’s legacy to take hold in baseball, and a century later, many purists still lament the decline of small-ball. This won’t be different.

  2. Thanks very much for this provocative and insightful post. It addresses much of what I’ve been thinking about from the perspective on theatre history and historiography, which is to say looking at digital technology as not just the “performative humanities,” but performance itself broadly.

    I this context, I might add that the shift in modes of production and performance/distribution affected by digital technology also has echoes in the various shifts of the film industry as independent producers and artists coalesced in vertically integrated studio systems of the 1920s only to disperse into more autonomous independent auteurs of the 1960s. Film history provides a compelling case study since the enterprise–like the digital humanities–is both one of production and dissemination. Advances in technology (including the advent of digital effects in “films” and HD videos) have continually shaped the way people created films, the kinds of formal structures and content they created, and how those videos were circulated to audiences. Although historically this overlaps with baseball (indeed many of the most profound changes in early film production map directly, if coincidentally, onto Ruth’s career), the shifts in film were more fundamentally different. In film, the game not only changed how it was played, but what it meant to play at all.

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  5. I agree with Sarah. For me, this brings to mind two points: (1) By 2015, an academic who does not know how to produce multimedia using the powerful but forbiddingly complicated Adobe Creative Suite may face the same disadvantages as the professor of 1980 who clung to her typewriter to avoid using the powerful but forbiddingly complicated WordPerfect. (2) At a more fundamental level, the evils of academic gatekeeping are threatened by open-source publishing venues such as Scribd. I ought to know–I’ve been there.

  6. Tom. Methinks you don’t take this far enough. Think about the Day of DH as a similar performative event. Performance is in the moment, ephemeral and experiential. Highlighting that DH suggests performance, not permanence captures the energy of theater, a play, or even the progressive nature of technology. Sometimes I think that DH focuses too much on the archive and not enough on the act of production of interpretation.

  7. Hi Tom,
    My name is Amy, and I am a student in a digital humanities seminar called “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary.
    In my final paper for the course, I would like to base my argument on some of the ideas surrounding your blog post. You can read my paper after April 25th on the course blog: http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/author/amybroddy/

  8. Hi Amy — Looking forward to the paper. @ me on Twitter when it’s ready and I’ll spread the word.

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