How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

Image of How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis
Release Date: 
May 2, 2012
University of Chicago Press
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“How We Think has arrived at the right time.”

N. Katherine Hayles intends the title How We Think to be many things: controversial, an open-ended question, and an assertion that “we think through, with, and alongside media.”

The primary concern of How We Think is the acceptance of digital media in academia, in particular the humanities and social sciences. Digital media is not new to education, and although the hard sciences have made the transition a significant portion of the humanities has not.

The educational change wrought by digital media is truly significant. Pre-web, a student’s essay would simply disappear after being handed in.

Today students can complete as assignments smaller parts of a larger web project visible to anyone with an Internet connection. A project thus exposed to the Internet can influence 100,000 people versus a book that may sell in the low hundreds. Projects with an outreach component encourage contributions from expert amateurs, volunteers who collect data and contribute narrative, images, and memory.

Digital media studies can be synergistic, opening up new lines of inquiry, using visualization tools to discover new patterns simply by the researcher following the data streams.

The author however sees two widely differing but equally mistaken reactions to digital media in academia:

1. No big deal
2. Outright rejection

The author estimates that to date only 10% of humanities scholars have gone beyond general purpose information technology into more complex digital tools, while the demographics predict a rise to 50% in the next 10 to 15 years.

The academic field of the humanities is no longer stable and this puts pressure on traditional practices. Print-based traditional scholarship appears to be struggling with the implications of digital media. There are questions about the validity of web research, the reliability of online material, and lack of consensus among researchers.

One concern is whether the digital humanities should become a separate field from traditional humanities. The approach advocated by N. Katherine Hayles is to initiate a new branch of academic inquiry: comparative media studies.

There are two levels of use of digital media in the institution of education. The first level is one of infrastructure: email, department websites, web search, text messages, and digital files. At this level there is also an effect on methods of research, library versus web (being blurred by libraries offering Internet access with traditional research materials already online).

The next level is one of expert use involving databases, statistics, web design, graphics and animation, hypertext, video, and sound to display and disseminate research results worldwide. The second wave is many things: ongoing, exploratory, interpretive, experiential, emotive and generative. The second wave is also one of vastly increased scale with machines able to query, search, access, and analyze millions of texts.

The second wave can also be also applied to real world space using GPS and GIS (Geographical Information Systems). Practices can include data mining, digitizing historical records and documents, and 3D visualization and rendering of historical sites.

The use of databases in humanities projects offers new flexibility by providing different interfaces, views, and perspectives for divergent users, permitting the same database to be used for varying purposes, allowing scholars to reach different communities.

The impact of digital media also affects traditional pedagogy. The author provides anecdotal evidence that college instructors are shifting from assigning long novels to chapters and excerpts.

As a possible clue to understanding what’s going on, the author quotes Fred Brooks—the most important part of design is identifying good optimizations for the scarcest resources; and in today’s world with its tremendous onslaught of information, the scarcest resource is the human attention span. Optimizing attention leads to the practice of skimming, scanning, fragmenting, juxtaposing, and computer mediated and machine reading.

Scanning (or hyper-reading) is necessary due to the sheer quantity of online material. But does hyper-reading in turn cause shorter attention spans? Hyper-reading does not sit easily alongside close reading and in fact may make close reading more difficult to achieve. There are strengths and limitations to both cognitive modes. Deep attention is needed for math, challenging literary works, and complex music. Deep reading prefers a single attention stream with a high tolerance for boredom.

Hyper- versus close-reading is just one of the many complex and urgent open issues in learning theory and pedagogy. Is this issue just a contemporary cultural condition or does it have long-term consequences?

Statistics show that print reading is down and digital reading is up. Another urgent question becomes how to convert increased digital reading into increased reading ability. The author provides an (old) quip from Woody Allen. “I took a speed reading course and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It was about Russia.”

The author also addresses infrastructure and funding aspects of academia such as the necessity of humanities departments teaming with engineering and computer science departments on projects and grant applications. Collaborations between departments currently do exist and go deep, a number of “Big Humanities” projects are discussed, including Virtual Peace, Hypermedia Berlin, and HyperCities. HyperCities is a project that continues year to year through generations of students, as the author says, “growing the field.”

The teacher may be master of the class, but true imagination belongs to the student. Where the author really shines is in her depiction of a variety of students’ digital, multimedia, multimodal, and time-shifting projects.

One truly outstanding chapter addresses a project documenting the impact of the telegraphy on society. The author shows great depth of understanding of the technology and culture of that era. This part of the book really comes alive, you can feel the author’s geeky enthusiasm for discussing the practices, economics, politics, technology constraints and capabilities of telegraphy, the value of digital coding theory, the evolution of codes from letters to numbers, and businesses driven to using cryptography from the increased cost of sending codes.

The author also explores technical issues of software project development, designing and coding software databases, and the SQL language. Some of this appears to be outside the author’s area of expertise as she attributes sinister motives to accepted software practices.

It has been said that an education in post-modern literary criticism ruins ones ability to think and write. N. Katherine Hayles shows that for herself at least lit-crit is just a style put on or shed as easily as a raincoat.

How We Think was clearly written for two audiences: lit-crit chapters for her peers and jargon free chapters written for the rest of us. The author’s lit-crit style tends toward an almost hypnotic word-stream of conscious.

Here are two short samplings: “It is precisely because contemporary technogenesis posits a strong connection between ongoing dynamic adaptation of technics and humans that multiple points of intervention open up.”

And: “As we have seen, contemporary Technogenesis implies continuous reciprocal causuality between human bodies and technics.” On discovery of a keyword such as “technogenesis,” or “hermeneutics,” the experienced hyper-reader will simply fast-forward to the next chapter.

Richly referenced, much of the material comes from interviews of scholars from universities and the program office of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH).

N. Katherine Hayles’ point is clear and her arguments well constructed: the teaching of digital media in the humanities should be legitimized where it is not already, and there should be a new line of study, comparative media studies, to help bridge the gap between digital and traditional scholarship.

If you are presently teaching or practicing digital humanities, or a traditional academic in denial, or just curious about the impact of digital technology in the humanities, How We Think has arrived at the right time.