The Emergence of the Digital Humanities
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The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

Steven E. Jones

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eBook - ePub

The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

Steven E. Jones

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About This Book

The past decade has seen a profound shift in our collective understanding of the digital network. What was once understood to be a transcendent virtual reality is now experienced as a ubiquitous grid of data that we move through and interact with every day, raising new questions about the social, locative, embodied, and object-oriented nature of our experience in the networked world.

In The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones examines this shift in our relationship to digital technology and the ways that it has affected humanities scholarship and the academy more broadly. Based on the premise that the network is now everywhere rather than merely "out there, " Jones links together seemingly disparate cultural events—the essential features of popular social media, the rise of motion-control gaming and mobile platforms, the controversy over the "gamification" of everyday life, the spatial turn, fabrication and 3D printing, and electronic publishing—and argues that cultural responses to changes in technology provide an essential context for understanding the emergence of the digital humanities as a new field of study in this millennium.

The Open Access version of this book, available at, has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 license.

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Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.
(William Gibson 2010)1
The eversion of cyberspace, or the shift in perception it metaphorically describes, has actually been going on for some time, now. When Gibson coined the term cyberspace in 1982–1984, it was a metaphor for the global information network, but, in the decade that followed, it made a material difference in technology and culture, and in the perceived relation between the two. Now, as Gibson and others have recently noted, the term has started to fade like an old photograph, to sound increasingly archaic.2 In a Twitter exchange on November 27, 2011, @scottdot asked “Who the hell says ‘cyber’-anything anymore?” and in a few minutes Gibson himself (@GreatDismal) responded: “I have said that myself, many times.” The notable exceptions, perhaps significantly enough, are uses of the term by the military and governments, as in cyber-attack and cyber-warfare, and in the analogous case of cyber-bullying. In all of these cases, one might imagine that there's a resistance to acknowledging the (frightening) breakdown of the distinction, the interpenetration of what had been conceived of as separate worlds. Even in this case, the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute began her testimony before a congressional committee on cybersecurity in March 2013 by observing that “cyberspace is woven into the fabric of our daily lives,” and she has said repeatedly (in a paradoxical-sounding metaphor) that cyberspace “functions as the very endoskeleton of modern life.”3 No longer a place apart (some other “space”), it's now seen as the infrastructure inside the “body” of everyday
existence. For some years now, Gibson has been pointing out that “cyberspace is everywhere now, having everted and colonized the world. It starts to sound kind of ridiculous to speak of cyberspace as being somewhere else.”4 Although she continues to use the term, Secretary Lute would agree with Gibson that cyberspace has everted, turned inside out (and outside in).
In one sense, Gibson is just overwriting his own earlier metaphor (cyberspace) with a newer one (eversion). But, despite his claim that “cyberspace is everywhere, now,” in fact, as one of his characters says in the 2007 novel, Spook Country, there never was any cyberspace, really. It was just a way of understanding the culture's relationship to networked technology, in other words, a metaphor. As that relationship changed, so did the metaphor. Of course, most of the time people don't go around measuring in figurative terms their shifting attitudes toward technology. Everyday technology is experienced in more literal, concrete terms. for increasing numbers of people, networked technology is becoming an integral part of everyday life they take for granted—and that's the point. The metaphor of eversion is particularly resonant, particularly useful, because it articulates a widely experienced shift in our collective understanding of the network during the last decade: inside out, from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to mundane experience, from a mysterious, invisible abstract world to a still mostly invisible (but real) data-grid that we move through every day in the physical world.5 If cyberspace once seemed a transcendent elsewhere, someplace other than the world we normally inhabit, that relationship has inverted as the network has everted. In a 2009 interview, Gibson described the eversion in this way:
The ubiquitous connectivity that we're all taking very much for granted, and are increasingly depending on, has become our Here. And the disconnected space, you know, when you can't get your Wifito link up, or when your cellphone won't work, that's become our There.6
The network is no longer normally imagined as a place you jack into in order to upload your disembodied consciousness, a place you “visit” as if it were another planet. It's right here all around us, the water in which we swim. Moreover, we made it, or at least we contribute our own data to it daily, whether fully aware or fully consenting or not.
The term eversion is unusual, with medical and surgical associations appearing early (in which inner surfaces—of the eyelid, for example—are turned inside out), and as the term for a rhetorical figure in the seventeenth century (also called eparedos), in which a sequence of words or phrases is turned around and repeated in reverse order (according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)). Gibson himself first used a form of the term in print in a poem published in 1992, “Agrippa” (as we'll see in Chapter 3). There it simply described an umbrella turned inside out by the wind in Japan (“umbrella everted in the storm's Pacific breath”). It's perhaps interesting, however, that Gibson's initial use of the word was to describe a physical object out in the weather. By 2007, he used it as a metaphor for the digital network's turning-out into the physical, out into the world.
In 1999, Marcos Novak, who is a theorist and practitioner of “virtual architecture,” used the term eversion in roughly the same way as Gibson later would.7 Novak begins with the premise that “we are tending toward a culture of ubiquitous virtuality,” a state beyond cyberspace and VR. Novak argues, however, that the concept of immersion by itself is incomplete, that it “lacks a complementary concept describing the outpouring of virtuality onto ordinary space” (309, 311). That missing concept is eversion—“the obverse of immersion” (311). Novak's anticipates Gibson's use of the term in a number of ways, even before the implications of newer networked technologies in the new millennium were fully evident. He uses the same spatial metaphor, for example: “Eversion… signifies a turning inside—out of virtuality, a casting outward of the virtual into the space of everyday experience” (311). And Novak grasps what will become in the 2000s the crucial point of the eversion of cyberspace—the shift of focus to the everyday and to physical space: “the phenomena we are familiar with in cyberspace will find, indeed are finding, their equivalent, everted forms in ordinary space” (312).
For Novak, at the time, the shift was primarily conceptual. He had not yet seen the eversion embodied in the banal ubiquity of mobile technology, or even of widespread and free, or inexpensive, fast wireless Internet connections. As a visionary architect, however, Novak was used to modeling and thinking with imaginary objects, design fictions, including in his case hyperspatial or multidimensional structures that figure eversion in graphical terms. Furthermore, he was interested in design based on metaphors, and in what he calls the “poetics of new technologies” (309). For Novak, eversion is a concept for more precisely imagining “the cultural and poetic circumstances brought about by the exponential growth of information technology” (312). Since those early speculations, in a 2008 exhibit for example, Novak has explored the idea “that we live in a new sort of space, encompassing the actual and the virtual, and using the invisible as a bridge and interface between the two”—a formulation that sounds much like the mixed-reality state of the eversion as I'll be characterizing it.8 Again, as an architect working in an auspicious time, Novak connects that experience to objects in space, what he calls “turbulent topologies,” and a sense of being surrounded by “strange geometries.” I'll come back in the next chapter to that sense of the eversion as exposing weird, heretofore hidden dimensions of experience, and to the seemingly contradictory sense that the network is mundane, a fact of life all around us, but somehow still redolent of an otherness associated with its former existence as cyberspatial. This double sense is what characterizes our moment of transition, of the eversion still in the process of working itself out and becoming more widely distributed.
In fact, William Gibson is often credited with saying that the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.9 There's a way in which what Novak sensed with his future-oriented theoretical antennae around the turn of the century took a few years to be experienced by a preponderance of users. And that process continues. But I think we can roughly date the watershed moment when the preponderant collective perception fundamentally changed to 2004–2008. At about that historical moment, the quintessential virtual world, Second Life, arguably peaked. It was more or less taken for granted just as it began to decline, in terms of number of users and—more importantly—in terms of the publicity surrounding it as the paradigm platform for the future of the Internet as a whole.10 At around the same time, the idea that the network itself was essentially a virtual world, a second life, lost some of its power, as network technology became increasingly intertwined with everyday activities. The MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Warcraft was taking off at the same time as a mainstream entertainment, but the interface for that game was decidedly video gamelike in its mixed menus, chat, and 3D graphics. The experience of playing it for many people, with their headsets on, talking to their guild, was closer to using social-network software than to immersive VR as it had been imagined in the era of cyberspace during the 1990s.
Speaking of games, at about the same time, Nintendo's motion-control Wii was introduced (2006), helping to usher in an era of mixed-reality casual gaming, matched only by the rapid rise of mobile gaming. The same massive increase in the use of mobile technologies contributed to the success of the so-called Web 2.0 social-network platforms introduced at the time, especially Facebook. As I pointed out in the Introduction, Facebook first appeared around 2004 (MySpace had preceded it by about a year), but it came into its own, reaching a mass user base, in 2006–2007–just in time to be joined by the microblogging platform Twitter in 2006. Geolocative social-network platform Foursquare, in which users check in to real-world locations using GPS, debuted in 2009. Indeed, as the work of Jason Farman (among others) has shown, the rise of mobile computing is in itself another way to characterize the shift I'm calling the eversion.11 Farman sees the rise of mobile media as a significant “cultural shift” and a force that produces and reconfigures “social and embodied space”; his work focuses on “the embodied and spatial actions to which our devices contribute” (1, 5, 2). The timeline of eversion, therefore, is marked by the appearance of Apple's iPhone, for example, which was previewed in 2006 and introduced in January 2007; the Android OS and phones followed within a year.
Early in 2007, William Gibson's novel Spook Country was published, in which he first articulated the eversion of cyberspace.12 Set in 2006, its story is based on the rise of mobile network access (though everyone in the book still flips their cell phones open and closed, rather than poking at a multitouch interface, a telling detail that dates the writing to the just-pre-iPhone era), and on the related confluence of AR, locative art, viral marketing, pervasive surveillance, and the total security state. Like what happens in the novel (and the one that preceded it in the trilogy, Pattern Recognition), the novel itself is an act of “coolhunting,” a report from the interface of culture and networked technology. Characters in the novel execute works of art (and a direct-action protest) by leveraging the cellular data networks, GPS satellite data, and the mobile and wireless Web to tag or annotate the physical world, overlayering locations with data of various kinds, including surreal 3D artists' images. The novel presents a media landscape in which the mundane trumps the transcendent, but it's a mundane with a difference, and the difference is distributed and mobile networked data. In Spook Country's vision of 2006, already there isn't any cyberspace out there, because the network is down here, all around us. The book is about streets and buildings, shipping containers and remote-control drone aircraft, pills, guns, and religious fetish objects, objects of all kinds, because that's where the network lives, now, as data and sensors and connections, built into and surrounding the myriad physical objects that make up the ambient world.
This condition, what Gibson calls the eversion of cyberspace, corresponds to a shift noted by a number of media-studies specialists working in different disciplines, what Katherine Hayles, for ex...

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