Briefly noted for November 29, 2022

Check out these amazing WPA-style posters created by the Department of Energy to mark the infrastructure achievements made possible under the 2009 stimulus bill. I hope this time around, the government doesn’t wait 10 years to start selling the infrastructure and climate bills that passed earlier this year.

Two takes on this year’s tech industry crash: The first, from Derek Thompson, is cultural (the crash is big tech’s “midlife crisis”). The second, from Matt Yglesias, is financial (higher interest rates are making speculation in technology relatively less attractive).

Steven Johnson on the importance of the cassette tape and the way it changed both the sound and the business of music—in many of the same ways that another low-fidelity technology, the mp3, did.

Finally, if you have been wondering what Post.news is, how it’s different from other social networks, and especially how it plans to make money, here’s a primer from Neiman Journalism Lab.

Briefly noted for November 23, 2022

It looks like the theme of this week’s Briefly Noted post is Substack. I didn’t intend it, but each of the following is taken from the platform:

Substack is launching a new “letters” feature to support epistolary blogging. Like most things Substack, I love the idea, but I hate the paywall, and I worry about long term preservation and access. Epistolary scholarship has a long tradition in the humanities (St. Paul is a pretty decent example), and like blogging, I’m glad to see it making a comeback, just not on a proprietary platform.

Did you know Gettysburg still invites confederate reinactors to march in its Remembrance Day parade, battle flags and all? Neither did I. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory writes: “Every year Confederate reenactors are invited to march alongside United States soldiers in Gettyburg’s Remembrance Day Parade, which commemorates Lincoln’s famous address. That’s right. On the same day that the community gathers to reflect on Lincoln’s words, Confederate flags are marched through the streets.”

A couple tech links via Platformer: Anti vaxxers are posing as public health authorities on Twitter with $8 “verified accounts” and the NFTs people bought as “lifetime passes” to Coachella seem to have disappeared with the rest of FTX.

Kareem Abdul-Jabar is the best. Here he is on forgiveness: “I see people constantly saying, ‘I forgive but I don’t forget,’ which they think makes them both moral and tough. Actually, they are neither. The phrase means the exact opposite of forgiving. To forgive is to forget the transgression in order to start fresh.”

Briefly Noted for November 16, 2022

Ryan Cordell posted his remarks from the 30 Years of Digital Humanities at UVA conference. He makes some great points about the importance of collaboration in digital humanities. One thing he says, that I’ve often thought myself, is how bad the standard DH curriculum is at teaching collaboration to students. It’s very hard to teach the ins-and-outs, ups-and-downs of working in a team in a one semester classroom course, especially when each student must be graded individually. We can teach skills in the classroom, but we all know that’s not really what matters for successful digital humanities work. That’s why centers, notwithstanding recent critiques of them, are so important and why we have to do a better job of integrating our classroom teaching and center-based research.

I don’t think Ezra Klein reads this blog, but if he does, I want to tell him that he should do more Q&A episodes with Aaron Retica, his editor, as he did in his post-election podcast. It’s great to hear Ezra’s opinions unfiltered by his interactions with a guest, and Aaron Retica’s questions (and voice!) are challenging and insightful. It’s obvious they make a great team.

Speaking of Klein, like him and his old partner, Matt Yglesias, I’m extremely skeptical of the hype around Ron DeSantis’s presidential prospects. It’s true that he scored a big win in a purplish state. He’s certainly a talented politician. But his win wasn’t bigger than other purplish state Republican governors (Dewine in Ohio or Sununu in New Hampshire). Furthermore (and I don’t hear anyone talking about this) DeSantis was running against, for all intents and purposes, another Republican—former Republican-governor-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. The conventional wisdom was that running Christ against DeSantis would peel off moderate Republican votes. Did no one remember that the same strategy lost him and the Democrats the governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2014? Did no one imagine that running a former Republican might also depress Democratic votes? What committed Democrat wants to vote for a guy they hated a few short years ago just because he changed the letter in front of his name? It would be like asking Democrats to vote for Paul Ryan for President in 2024 because he didn’t go full-MAGA and might pick up some disgruntled Republican and Independent swing votes. I’m all for running moderate Democratic candidates in the Biden mold. But if they’re going to be right of the party’s base on policy, then they absolutely must be trusted party members. People want to know what side they’re voting for. In any event, I don’t think DeSantis’s victory is all it’s being cracked up to be. He ran a good race against a bad candidate with the underlying national fundamentals (inflation, crime, etc.) as wind at his back. That puts him in the conversation for 2024, but it doesn’t make him a strong favorite for the nomination, much less the presidency. Remember President Scott Walker? Neither do I.

How Humanists Should Use Mastodon

I’m brand new to Mastodon. Many of us are. This might suggest that we shouldn’t have opinions. But I think the opposite is true. If Mastodon is truly a decentralized platform, if it’s truly designed to support distinctive communities and their distinctive needs, then we, as a community of humanists, should decide how we’re going to use it. We should start doing it now, before it gets away from us.

Deciding how we want to use it—what Mastodon will mean to us—means not putting too much stock in the “norms” and “rules” that other communities have established on the site. That is not to say we should be bulls in the porcelain shop (or as Shawna Ross tooted, we “don’t want to go all Kool-Aid man”), or that we should be disrespectful to other, more established communities and their needs and concerns. As always, we should approach our work, our tools, and our public engagements with humility. But it’s legitimate for us to use the technology to meet our needs and concerns, needs and concerns that have for too long gone unmet by Twitter, needs and concerns that may not be the same as other, older Mastodon communities.

In that spirit, here are a few early thoughts on how I think we should use Mastodon to build a supportive, inclusive, interesting, and useful thing for the humanities community.

First, you should join a server (e.g. hcommons.social) where a lot of other humanists can be found, and spend most of your time in your “local” or “community” timeline/tab. It is all well and good to follow people from other servers, and you should keep up with friends and happenings in those other places. But if you’re on the right server, your main source of serendipity, delight, information, and community will come from that local timeline. If your server’s local timeline is not delivering those things, find another server.

Second, and relatedly, you should mostly avoid the “the fediverse” (i.e. the feed of posts aggregated from across Mastodon’s servers found in the “federated” or “all” tab in your app). It seems to me that in time this aggregated feed will just reproduce Twitter, in all its disorienting chaos and vitriol. It probably won’t be quite so bad because it won’t have an algorithm pushing ads and outrage down your throat. But there’s bound to be plenty of ugly distraction nonetheless.

Third, and this is bound to be controversial, but don’t be too fussed about content warnings (CW’s), except insofar as you think members of your local server will appreciate them. That is, I wouldn’t be too worried about sticking to the “norms” or “best practices” that other, earlier communities on Mastodon have established. I appreciate that these norms are in place because Mastodon has been a refuge for marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other communities—and I think we want to be a refuge for members of those communities too. But we shouldn’t simply adopt the practices of the early adopters because they say we should. We should decide the ways in which we want to use the tools Mastodon gives us to support our aims, including, but not limited to, our aims of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, for example, I think it’s totally fine to use the CW feature to truncate and expand a long toot. One of the distinctive features of the humanities community is its tolerance for difference. Another is its longwindedness. It’s OK to use the tool to support both things!

Fourth, let’s start blogging again. One of the great things about early #DH Twitter was that we were all still blogging. Twitter became a place where we could let a wider audience know that we blogged something and then support a discussion around that something that was more freeflowing than the blog’s own comments thread could support. Let’s bring that practice back! One easy step would be to stop posting long, narrative threads (i.e. tweets “1/27”) to social media. Instead just post a title, a one sentence description, a link to your post with a #blogpost hashtag, and an invitation to discuss. If we could use Mastodon to reinvigorate the culture of humanities blogging, that would be an amazing success.

Fifth, keep politics to a minimum. It’s not that we should never talk about politics, but reworking takes that one can get elsewhere in the media (cable news, the op-ed pages, Twitter, etc.) isn’t going to make this a nicer place to be. If you’re going to get political, clearly tie it to your research, teaching, public humanities practice, or something else that connects you to the community that your local server is intended for. Otherwise, set up another account on another, more clearly political server, and post there.

Those are just some early thoughts. I’ll probably follow up in the next week or so with some more. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.

Briefly Noted for November 9, 2022

Taylor Swift told us in the Folklore studio movie that the 5th track on each of her albums holds a special meaning for her. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but the film confirmed it. The tracks include some of her best: “All Too Well”, “Dear John”, “Tolerate It.” Here’s a Spotify playlist of Swift’s 5th songs. The latest, “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” is the highlight of her new album.

If you like Marketplace on NPR, listen to this recent episode of the Pivot podcast. Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace, joins Kara Swisher to discuss the latest business/tech stories. It’s great to hear Ryssdal’s distinctive voice in this more free flowing, opinion laden format.

I’m very grateful to have been nominated for election to the Board of the National Council on Public History. If you’re a member, I hope you’ll read my candidate statement and consider voting for me.

UConn has a top-5 recruiting class this year in men’s basketball. That’s big.

Briefly Noted for November 7, 2022

With news that the new owner of Twitter has decided to sell verified accounts, I’ve decided to keep @foundhistory to prevent anyone from impersonating me (though Lord knows who would want to). You won’t see me tweeting for the reasons I laid out last week, but I figure if I’m keeping the account, I might as well push links to posts on this blog to the platform for those of you who remain there.

More Twitter: Zeynep Tufekci on ad-supported social networking sites (Twitter in particular): “Humans have strong in-group and out-group tendencies — sociology-speak for my team versus your team…. If you want to keep a group of people engaged, fueling that group competition is a pretty good method…. This means that whatever the topic, by design and by algorithm, social media often elevates the worst, most divisive content…. This is an infrastructure of authoritarianism, created to deliver ads more effectively. It’s a terrible model for the digital public sphere.” I spent an hour in my class today trying to explain this dynamic, and Zeynep just did it in a paragraph. Sigh.

And in non-Twitter news: UConn is launching a new streaming service for its athletics program, the first in the nation.

Briefly Noted for November 3, 2022

Nearly 200 years ago, the United States promised to seat a delegate from the Cherokee Nation in Congress as part of the treaty that forcibly removed the tribe from Georgia to Oklahoma. There’s a renewed movement to make good on that promise. The United States should meet its treaty obligations. It’s not just a matter of justice for indigenous peoples (though that’s the most important part). It’s about being a nation that deserves the trust of its citizens and the world. In that way it’s part and parcel of the fight against creeping authoritarianism in this country. Autocrats lie, cheat, and steal. Liberal democracies aren’t supposed to do that.

How can the richest man in the world be worried about money? The Verge explains how Elon Musk is kind of desperate for Twitter to make money.

Forbes reports this morning that a Beijing-based team at TikTok had plans to monitor the physical location of specific Americans. No word yet on which Americans or whether they are members of the government. I’ve been banging the “TikTok is dangerous” (and not just for teen self-esteem) drum for years now to eye rolls from friends and colleagues. This isn’t quite an “I told you so” moment, but it’s getting close.

Farewell, Twitter

Yesterday, I decided to deactivate my Twitter account. I’m just waiting to download my archive (if that remains a thing under the new regime) and I’ll be gone. As I said in my last thread, I’ve watched as Twitter, a place I once loved, has decayed into a fever swamp of vitriol and hate.

I was one of Twitter’s earliest users, back when it was SMS only. No website, no API, no app. I created @foundhistory upon the advice of my colleagues Ken Albers, Jeremy Boggs, and Josh Greenberg, who were attending SxSW in Austin in March of 2007, where Twitter made its big debut among the technorati. We may have been the first digital humanists on the platform.

In those early years, say from 2007-2012, I made a ton of friends. Some of them I’ve gone on to meet in person. Some of them I still only know by the time we’ve spent together on Twitter. It’s where we built the #DH community.

I have had some of the best discussions of my academic career on Twitter. Twitter has given me some of my best ideas. Twitter made possible projects like One Week | One Tool, THATCamp, and Hacking the Academy. Twitter has gotten me speaking gigs. It has helped me publicize my work. It has allowed me to keep up with the work of colleagues in the field.

These are the reasons people in the ideas biz (journalists, professors, etc.) are on Twitter. They are the reasons they stay on Twitter when they know (as I’ve known) that they’re complicit in the hatred and even violence it stokes.

But, for me, “I have to be on Twitter for my job” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Sometime between 2012 and 2017 (it wasn’t just the 2016 election, though that was a big part of it) the benefits of being on Twitter started to be outweighed by the costs of being on Twitter—to my mental health, to my self-respect, to my ability to think clearly, to my sense of decency. Elon Musk’s purchase of the company, and more pointedly his recent (and recently deleted) tweet fueling conspiracy theories about the cause of the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, is the last straw. If before this week, Twitter was full of ugliness, now it’s wholly owned by it. It’s time to go.

Whatever benefit having 7000 followers has to my career, it’s no longer worth the cost to my dignity and our culture. I’m leaving Twitter, and it makes me really sad. If any of you find someplace else to be, please let me know. I want our conversations to continue.

Why STEM can’t answer today’s hard questions

I recently relistened an interview Ezra Klein did with Danielle Allen (Harvard Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) in 2019, in which they discuss how science, technology, and business differ fundamentally from politics because the former disciplines assume a set of values that are already ordered by priority (efficiency, profit, etc.) but politics is essentially all about the setting and the reordering of those values. That’s why engineering and STEM have a hard time “fixing” politics and a hard time “solving” more human questions (and perhaps even why STEM majors vote in much smaller numbers than humanities majors).

This is something the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief in the years since Klein and Allen’s conversation. On one level, STEM can “fix” the pandemic by giving us miracle vaccines. But that’s only if we assume a set of values that are held in common by the populace (the health of the community, safety, trust in expertise, etc.) If the values themselves are at issue, as they are surrounding COVID-19, then STEM doesn’t have much to offer, at least for those communities (red state voters, anti-vaxxers) whose values diverge from those assumed by STEM.

This suggests, as Allen argues, that we need to rebalance the school curriculum in favor of humanities education, including paying a greater attention to language (the primary toolkit of politics) and civics. It also suggests the need for more humanities within the STEM curriculum—not just the three-credit add-on ethics courses that characterize engineering programs and medical school, but a real integration of humanities topics, methods, and thinking as part of what it means to “know” about STEM.

This is, of course, something that’s especially appealing to me as a historian of science, but it’s something that should be just as appealing to engineers, who like to frame their work as “problem solving.” If STEM really wants to solve the big problems facing us today, it is going to have to start further back, to solve for more than just technical questions, but also for the values questions that increasingly precede them.

Connecticut as Borderland

Anne is from New York City (Stuyvesant Town, on the Lower East Side). I was born in Hartford and raised in Massachusetts. My parents were both raised in East Hartford. When, after living in DC for ten years and with a new baby, we had the opportunity to come to Connecticut in 2010, it seemed like easy way to stay in touch with family to the north and south. For me personally, Connecticut is a borderland. It has been for centuries.

There is a great scholarly literature on borders and boundaries and the ways in which these function — geographically, culturally, politically, mathematically. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, for example, anthropologist James Clifford described the ways in which culture is as much a product of movement across borders and between places and as it is a product of place. Thomas Gieryn has shown how scientists engage in “boundary work,” the work of defining and policing disciplinary and professional boundaries. Mathematics, physics, meteorology, and other natural sciences describe “boundary conditions” in the differential equations they use to model everything from the resilience of building materials to climate change. Humanists and social scientists study how minortized groups negotiate socially constructed boundaries of race, gender, and class.

Connecticut is a borderland in so many of these ways. It takes its name from the river, which divides all New England. The Connecticut River is the central feature of the New England states, more than the mountains on our western and northern borders, and (at least for the past century and a half as the economy of New England has moved away from fishing and the Atlantic trade) even more than the eastern seaboard. It dictates the flow of people and goods across the region. Look at a highway or railroad map and you’ll see that they mirror the north-south orientation of the River: with the exception of the Mass Pike, a relatively new road, there are very few east-west roads in New England. Just try driving from Hartford to Providence, a distance of only 60 miles between two state capitals, and you’ll find that the two cities are linked only by secondary roads. It can take hours, and during that time you’ll realize how much the River divides the Massachusetts bay side of New England from the Hudson River side. You’ll see the same thing if you plan a ski trip in Northern New England. Boston people ski in New Hampshire along the north-south I-93 corridor. New York people ski in Vermont along the I-91 corridor. The Connecticut River forms the boundary between those very similar yet very different states. Long ago New Hampshire and New York even fought a war for control of Vermont, leaving it an independent republic for four years at the time of the Revolution. (It was actually named “New Connecticut” for a time.)

But Connecticut has been a borderland for much longer than that. East of the river was the ancestral territory of the Algonquin speaking Pequot, Mohegan, and Nipmuck peoples who lived along Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast. West of the river was the borderland territory of the Tunxis and related peoples that separated those Algonquin speaking peoples from the Mohawks and other Hudson River and Great Lakes-centered Iriquois speaking peoples. With European colonization the English and Dutch settled on the same boundary. Hartford started as a far eastern outpost of the Dutch Hudson River colonies only to be usurped by English colonists from Boston. Their journey was made famous by Frederic Edwin Church in his painting, “Reverend Thomas Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford.” That he labeled what is now one of the most densely populated regions of the United States a “wilderness” suggests just how much of a divide the colonists perceived in land between Massachusetts Bay and the Hudson River Valley.

Frederick Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636 (original at the Wadsworth Atheneum)

Connecticut itself was founded as three separate English colonies, two focused on the East (Connecticut, centered around Hartford, and Saybrook at the mouth of the river) and one focused on the West (New Haven). For the first century of its statehood, Connecticut had two state capitals, Hartford and New Haven, and its legislature split time between the two. Indeed anyone who has lived here knows that Connecticut still has this feeling of a borderland, a place where two cultures meet, where differences are negotiated and where bargains between them are made. People in Fairfield County take the train to New York. People in Hartford drive to work. The Northeast of the state is populated with rabid Red Sox fans. The Southwest, Yankees. My own town of West Hartford sits smack on the border, and sports allegiances vary house to house — this time of year you’ll see a Giants flag flying from one front porch, a Patriots flag from the next. (My own household is likewise evenly split: My younger son and I are Pats fans. My wife and older son are Giants fans. Thank goodness she likes the Mets and not the Yankees.)

Source: Ben Blatt, Finding the True Border Between Yankee and Red Sox Nation Using Facebook Data, Harvard Sports Analysis Collective

Connecticut’s place in the broader cultural imagination also reflects its liminal status. In film, Connecticut is usually portrayed as a place of ambivalence, detachment, and opacity (viz. The Ice Storm and The Stepford Wives). Connecticut’s greatest legends are about people who can’t be pinned down: the Leatherman and Nutmegger.

People from the rest of New England often doubt that we’re part of New England at all, and people from New York generally move to Fairfield County suburbs and Litchfield County farms as a form of “escape.” Like other borderlands: Turkey, Tijuana, Tibet, we are both and neither. We are both New York and New England, but we are also neither, which is probably why there’s so little state patriotism here. We are not meant to be a people, but rather a buffer and trading zone between two much stronger peoples. (Another time, I’ll write about how Connecticut people love to hate Connecticut, something not unrelated to the state’s status as a borderland.)

As I get older I realize that I have always personally felt this way: both and neither. In high school I was both a jock and a nerd, but also neither. Now at work, I’m drawn both to solitary scholarly pursuits and collaborative administrative ones, even though they’re often mutually incompatible and unrewarded. Like Connecticut, I am a borderland, and it suits me just fine.