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Saturday, 10 May 2008


The two areas which have absorbed my attentions for the last two months (outside the shambles that passes for my personal life) has been my teaching and my writing. This entry is about the writing part of my life, research in particular. That is, I don't want to say something about the content of my studies but about the technological processes I’ve applied to my writing workflow.

At the present moment, the cutting edge of what is variously referred to as humanities computing seems to be happening in information distrubution and the library sciences. I subscribe to a few weblogs by people well-known and well-regarded in the field of humanities computing and am dismayed by the fact that almost none of the topics discussed registers in the working experience of my colleagues here in the trenches of an English Department in the Midwest. There is almost zero connection between what humanites computing folk are doing and what real-life scholars in my branch of humanities are doing. I'm also surprised that social networking seems to be the next big thing in humanities computing. Call me a Luddite.

The disconnect between the concerns of cutting edge humanities computing and plain ol' everyday scholars is undoubtedly due to the esoteric nature of some of the technologies studied by the digital jet set (e.g. server-based technologies to facilitate the interrelation of information across databases) and the fact that the dominant model of humanities scholarship does not stand to greatly improve through the application of advanced computing techniques. When reading and understanding the intricacies of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus is an important stage in the development of a scholarly career, surplus petaflops for reorganizing semantic database structures seems a bit wide of the mark.

In fact, I’m somewhat in astonished awe at the recent push for supercomputing in the humanties. Don’t get me wrong; I think that supercomputing power applied to humanties-oriented applications will yield innumerable treasures, helping scholars discover as-yet-unimaginable correspondences between word frequencies, textual representation, and aesthetic structure. Even so, I’m fairly convinced almost none of it will be useful to humanities scholars except in the way that infrared remote controls are useful to Joe Sixpack as the spinoff technology of aerospace research. Naturally, I'm prepared to be wrong, but my present guess is that the work information researchers in the humanites at present do will be more readily adaptible to work done by governmental agencies building databases that contain large chunks of natural languge data than to the work of scholars trying to understand the linkages between the failure to carry of an Equal Rights Amendment and misogynistic representation in 1970s television sitcoms, for example.

Given the seductiveness of the multi-million dollar technological gadgets and widgets being thrown at our best and brightest humanites computing specialists, more attention needs to be paid by us less-capable cyberfolk to the state of everyday computing in the humanities. You know, the day-in-day-out interaction we have with the tools that comprise our fundamental humanist computing tool set. This area of research is so boring that it doesn't deserve so distinguishing a name as "humanities computing." In fact, it's so dull I am going to call this area banalities computing, the computing of the everyday, the pedestrian, the humdrum, the actual lived-in-front-of-keyboard-monitor-and-mouse experience you and I have every single day of our scholarly and pedagogical lives.

Yeah, I'm pretty pissed that computing in 2008 is nowhere near as sexy as Neuromancer promised it would be.

Most of us use a "word processor." We read email, use Blackboard, save to USB thumb drives, and place stickies beneath our keyboards. At least since McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, we have understood that the tools and techniques we use to conduct our research are not distinct from the modes of scholarship in which we are engaged, whatever that means. I think it means that our scholarship is not only shaped by our ideological investments and professional aspirations. Our scholarship is also unavoidably (and irrevocably) conditioned by our computing banalities, by the day-in-day-out, for example, of being forced to use the EBSCOHost web frontend to get information out of the MLA International database. If anything sucks, the EBSCOHost web interface surely does. I guess the bright side is that at least it sucks hard.

I’ll end by saying that in the coming months, I will offer descriptions of (as opposed to screeds against) what I perceive to be my lived share of banalities computing. As of this writing, I intend to produce a series of hands-on tutorials and demonstrations about my workflow with the primary aim of stimulating the generation of ideas about how computing can be made more effective for humanities scholars who are not computer programmers but who are somewhat technically adept (persistence is a workable substitute).

A few things to keep in mind, especially if you decide to follow along.

  1. I use OS X. I understand other operating systems exist, but they are not part of my banalities computing experience.
  2. I use closed source software.
  3. I use open source software.
  4. I am not responsible for any harm or damage that may occur to your data, your hardware, your livelihood, your loved ones, or your reputation should you try anything described on this website.
  5. I suck as a computer programmer and am open to suggestions.
  6. Unless you give me money, I will not fix your computer.
  7. And even then.
  8. Heck, forget the computer. Just give me money.
  9. Thanks. end of article

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