Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the digital medium

The digital medium presents unique opportunities and challenges for humanists. It offers new methods for research, analysis, and the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. At the same time, interaction with and utilization of the digital medium and emergent digital technologies compels humanists to reflect critically upon the ways these new methodologies alter, contribute to, or challenge humanist efforts to study and understand the human experience. Hypertextuality calls linear narrative into question while simultaneously proffering literary forms that are more interactive, immersive, and complex. Computing technologies enable the collection of immense data sets, yet require acceptance of and commitment to experimentation and collaboration in order for patterns to be represented in manners both meaningful and accurate. Digital visualizations open new avenues for examining information, structure, and theory but can pose serious problems when equated with interpretation and analysis. The challenges presented by the digital medium should not discourage humanists from actively engaging with the processes of creating and refining new forms of scholarly discovery and expression. A new medium requires the use of new methods and the adaptation of old ones. While the core goals of the humanities are unlikely to change as a result of interaction with the digital environment, methods of research, analysis, and communication should change if humanists are to take full advantage of the opportunities the digital medium offers.

Franco Moretti’s insight into the ways literary historians can utilize visual versions of theoretical structures to expand their focus beyond the interpretation of individual texts has many applications to the digital humanities more broadly. In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History Moretti does not specifically address the use of visualizations in the digital medium, but the ideas he sets forth are useful to any effort to examine a problem or question in a different light. In fact, most of his ideas are centered upon methodologies that produce new questions. He advocates “distant reading,” a manner of reading that encourages scholars to step back and take a broader view of their subject. Distant reading, Moretti argues, is deliberately reductive and abstract. It represents a “specific form of knowledge” that moves away from individual objects to reveal larger connections among collections of objects (Moretti, 1). Moretti advocates distant reading not as a replacement for the traditional, close reading of texts but rather as a supplement to literary historians’ current methodologies—one that can expand and enrich the discipline by shifting focus away from individual, extraordinary works of literature to “everyday,” ordinary works of literature and large masses of facts (Moretti, 3). He insists that although individual texts are the “real objects of literature…they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” because the close reading of individual texts tends to blind scholars to the historical processes and devices that shape literary form over time. Distant reading is therefore a useful way to move beyond the interpretation of individual texts and into analysis of the patterns and general structures that influence the evolution of literary form.

Moretti concentrates on graphs, maps, and trees as examples of visualizations that literary historians can use to examine theoretical structures. But he is careful to note that such visualizations are not models: they display data and can elicit new questions and problems but they are not interpretations of data. Interpretation and analysis must come from the scholar. This point should not be lost on digital humanists attempting to utilize visualizations in their work. The digital medium and digital technologies offer many unique opportunities to represent large amounts of information and examine patterns, and although visualizations can lead to insight they do not constitute insight in and of themselves. In Graphs, Maps, Trees Moretti consistently pairs the visualizations he uses with a written analysis explaining what the visualizations reveal and suggest. The use of visualizations in the digital medium ought to follow a similar pattern, particularly if digital scholarship is to gain recognition and validation. Whether print or digital, the use of visualizations is only justified when it adds something of value that cannot be expressed or represented with the written word. And in the digital medium, visualizations have great potential for offfering meaningful ways to engage reader-users in narrative and in the process of learning.

Moretti refers to graphs, maps, and trees as ways to “prepare a text for analysis,”(Moretti, 53) but visualizations can also open new pathways for individual reader-users to explore ideas, patterns, and arguments. This is particularly true in the digital medium, where visualizations can be made interactive and immersive. The futures of narrative and authorship in the digital are examined by Mereille Rosello in “The Screener’s Maps: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Wandersmänner’ and Paul Auster’s Hypertextual Detective,” Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Each author discusses the opportunities they see and the changes they believe will take place as scholars and other authors create and communicate in the digital environment. Visualizations are just one of many tools they mention that can aid narrative and the exposition of argument. Like Moretti, Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray deal primarily with literary theory, but their perspectives are useful for all humanists interested in working in the digital medium. They assert that a willingness to experiment with digital technologies and embrace changes to the form narrative takes is central to the future of the humanities.

Rosello and Murray are particularly insistent upon the need for greater academic willingness to consider the value of narrative in the digital. They dismiss the notion that e-narrative is somehow intrinsically inferior to print narrative, and argue that the form of narrative ought to change if the best possible use is to be made of the digital medium. Different mediums offer different ways of communicating, representing, and interacting with information. If narrative and argument are simply transplanted into the digital medium, with no critical thought given to the impact and potential of the medium for both the creator and the reader-user, no real engagement with the medium has taken place. And if this is the case, why utilize the medium at all? Rosello, Murray, and Aarseth each point to hypertextuality as one of the primary aspects of the Web that offers new opportunities for creativity and experimentation with narrative.

Hypertextuality, also called nonlinearity, enables a different type of interaction with narrative. Contrary to popular assumptions, nonlinearity is nothing new. One can already read a printed book nonlinearly by simply flipping through the pages or skimming through the text. And most books are actually designed to encourage nonlinear reading. They contain tables of contents, chapters, subsections, and indexes—all aimed at helping the reader more easily locate the information they are most interested in. Nonlinearity via hypertext streamlines this process. Digital narrative and argument can be engineered in such a way as to allow individual reader-users to follow aspects of ideas, themes, and evidence that are of particular interest to them. It can also call upon reader-users to be actively involved in the process of reading and learning. In the digital medium visualizations represent just one tool authors can utilize to make narrative and argument more interactive and immersive.

Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray each discuss the potential simulations, games, and multi-user domains (MUDs) hold for drawing reader-users into a story or a set of arguments in ways not possible with the written word alone. Aarseth’s definition of nonlinear literature expresses quite well the primary point behind using different forms of media—and the digital medium in particular—to convey ideas. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth, 41). In this sense, the digital medium is just one of many different mediums available to authors for the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. And, as Moretti makes clear, visualizations in the digital present further opportunities for authors and scholars to examine, recognize, and represent patterns—both for their own research and for the interests and engagement of reader-users. The process of creating narrative and argument in the digital environment may be unfamiliar, but the lack of strictures, established conventions, and the freedom to experiment with form and medium has the potential to lead to a great deal of creativity, discovery, and innovation.

The digital medium is quickly changing the scholarly landscape. Humanists need to participate in the process of change and assume an active role in the digital space if they are to influence the outcome of the transformations taking place in the digital age. Interaction with the digital environment for the purposes of scholarship should be undertaken with a willingness to collaborate, experiment, and fail. Change can be jarring, but it need not be disruptive. The goals of the humanities disciplines will undoubtedly remain the same over time, although methods of research, analysis, and communication should change in order for authors and scholars to be able to fully engage with and take advantage of the digital medium. As new forms of narrative are created and new ways of examining information and visualizing patterns emerge, humanists must reflect upon the implications of these developments for the humanist endeavor. Narrative and argument in the digital should be subject to the same level of critical inquiry and academic rigor as all scholarship and scholarly methods, but it is unacceptable to reject new methods and forms simply on the basis of their newness. The challenges posed and opportunities offered by the digital medium must be confronted.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

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