Thursday, March 22, 2012

The New Globalist Is Homesick

My better half had an op ed piece in the New York Times today titled The New Globalist Is Homesick.  I'm very happy for her!  (And doubly so since there's a technology theme in the article).  Here's an excerpt:

Technology...seduces us into thinking that migration is painless. Ads from Skype suggest that “free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you’re not.” The comforting illusion of connection offered by technology makes moving seem less consequential, since one is always just a mouse click or a phone call away.

If they could truly vanquish homesickness and make us citizens of the world, Skype, Facebook, cellphones and e-mail would have cured a pain that has been around since “The Odyssey.”

....The immediacy that phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing and when it is happening. They give the illusion that one can be in two places at once but also highlight the impossibility of that proposition.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Codifying the Humanities, Humanizing Code

In a recent post titled Don't Circle The Wagons Bethanie Nowviskie observes that while the humanities tend to have a more theoretical orientation, coders tend to engage in a lot more praxis.  While one could nitpick Nowviskie about how much this observation really accords with reality (coders can spend a good deal of time honing tools before actually using them to produce anything useful) it does point to a semantic issue that lies at the core of the Digital Humanities.  DH, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has defined it, uses digital tools for humanities work but at the same time uses the frameworks of the humanities to make sense of digital technologies.  Louis Menand, in The MarketPlace of Ideas speaks of this duality too.  Although in his view it's not particular to the humanities but is instead a tension that exists more generally in universities that promote the liberal arts and more utilitarian disciplines:

Liberal education is enormously useful in its anti-utilitarianism. Almost any liberal arts field can be made non-liberal by turning it in the direction of some practical skill with which it is already associated. English departments can become writing programs, even publishing programs; pure mathematics can become applied mathematics, even engineering; sociology shades into social work; biology shades into medicine; political science and social theory lead to law and political administration; and so on. But conversely, and more importantly, any practical field can be made liberal simply by teaching it historically or theoretically. Many economics departments refuse to offer courses in accounting, despite student demand for them. It is felt that accounting is not a liberal art. Maybe not, but one must always remember the immortal dictum: Garbage is garbage, but the historyof garbage is scholarship. Accounting is a trade, but the history of accounting is a subject of disinterested inquiry—a liberal art. And the accountant who knows something about the history of accounting will be a better accountant. That knowledge pays off in the marketplace. Similarly, future lawyers benefit from learning about the philosophical aspects of the law, just as literature majors learn more about poetry by writing poems.

In embracing the university as a place that produces but also interprets, maybe one thing we need to do, as Digital Humanists take up the call to learn how to code, is to learn it in a way that embraces the dualities that Fitzpatrick and Menand describe.   Of course one can't learn to code simply through studying it's history.  But maybe,  when we teach and learn code we should spend more time dwelling on its origins.  As I begin to think how I'm going to teach an introductory course on Web programming next fall I wonder if there's room for the following video by Chuck Severance on the history and origins of Javascript:

My hope is that there's at least a little bit of room for history in these courses. If there is, we'll be in a better place to bring interpretive approaches to bear on technical subjects while also bringing technical know-how to more interpretive disciplines.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Unpacking Code, Composition, and Privilege: What Role can Dilbert and the Digital Humanities Play?

I ordinarily wait a little longer between blog posts and try to write with a bit more polish but I wanted to jot down two questions that emerged after writing last week’s post on Code Versus Composition.  Hopefully I'll get to these concerns over the next couple of months: 

In the Digital Humanities blogosphere and in books like Unlocking the Clubhouse: Woman In Computing there is much to learn about the way that coding culture may create and sustain groups of privilege. In turn, the methodologies of class, race and gender studies can help to lend insight into this culture.  Despite the fact that we like to think we live in a post-class, post-gender and post-racial society those categories aren't going away yet.  And until they do there's room for sequels to Unlocking the Clubhouse books.    Humanists, and digital humanists in particular, may be in a good position to use these methods of analysis since they've honed these methods in other disciplinary endeavors.  

The question I have, however, is whether class, race and gender are the only lenses through which privilege and the distribution of power can be tracked.  While they are powerful tools do their methods generate attention blindness that obscure other forms of privilege? To this point there are very insightful technological theorists who haven't placed the triad of class, race and gender at the core of their analysis.  For example, Neil Postman's short address "Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change" and his "second idea" in that essay provides a really useful way for uncovering how privilege (and deprivation) are realized during technological change:

" the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.....Who specifically benefits from the development of a new technology? Which groups, what type of person, what kind of industry will be favored? And, of course, which groups of people will thereby be harmed?"

While Postman's approach certainly prompts us to think about race, class and gender groups, it isn't constrained by it.  Other groups can also be considered.  For example, in our current N.E.H research my colleagues and I are examining how digital technology is shaping and reshaping cognition.  While it's certainly worthwhile to ask whether these changes privilege particular genders, classes or races, an equally salient question is whether it favors a type of person who is better able to multi-task.  In creating more and more digital distractions are coders generating the social conditions in which multi-taskers will prevail? And in my open source software advocacy work one should ask whether a particular form of coding collaborative work privileges groups with a particular political and economic ideology.  The same question applies to the study of growing global networks: are those networks privileging people who harbor sympathies to neo-liberalism and antipathies to more communitarian ideologies?  

On a more humorous level, the Dilbert cartoons also illuminate.  But his lens, more often than not revolves around the tensions between technicians and managers:

Certainly class, race and gender help to inform who is privileged as technicians and managers negotiate technological change.  But maybe technicians and managers can be considered groups as well.  Which of these groups is more favored as coding's presence grows?

Finally, while coding and the product of what coders produce is certainly subject to class, race and gender studies critique, and more largely the critique of Neil Postman, we shouldn't forget that coding, in creating privilege and division, can also often be a bridging activity that brings together and harmonizes cultures that conventionally are portrayed as at odds.  On our campus the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Applied Sciences and Technology don't mix that much.  It's a division that is reminiscent of the one C.P. Snow popularized 50 years ago.  But coding doesn't have to be this way nor is it always this way now.  It can bring different cultures together. Speaking metaphorically, it's not always Code versus Composition but sometimes very much Code and Composition. That I think, is at least one hope of the Digital Humanities.  That hope shouldn't be forgotten even as we engage in class, race and gender critiques and it raises a concomitant question:   In recent years how much has this hope been satisfied and what more work needs to be done in order to have this hope fulfilled?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Code Versus Composition

In recent months voices in the media that have been encouraging lay people to learn to code.  First, Douglas Rushkoff published a piece on CNN title "Learn to Code" which is many ways just a coda to Program or be Programmed.  And second, CodeAcademy was launched which presents itself as a quick and easy way to learn to code online. 

Given how ubiquitous code is becoming in life (to wit: as I write this, code is processing my typing and is also providing the medium through which you read this) it seems plausible to think of code as a possible new basic literacy that gives definition to the ideal of an educated person.  Since I'm about to begin teaching code in the fall I welcome this interest: it adds to the marketability of my teaching as well as that of my colleagues.  And it's nice to see it portrayed for what it is: an activity that in addition to being intrinsically fun also leads to exciting rumunerative careers.  But is it really a basic literacy?

I'm of two minds about it.  On the one hand, it is plausible to think of it as a literacy which everyone should have:

For one thing, code, like the printed word, is everywhere.  In a culture that doesn't read or write composition doesn't have much use.  It isn't a basic literacy.  But once reading and writing become entrenched in everyday activities it does become a basic literacy.  Given how widely code has spread, it would seem like the same logic would apply here too.  Code is everywhere so everyone needs to understand code. 

For another thing, like the activity of writing, the activity of coding trains our minds to think in ways that give order to a world that  probably could use a little more ordering (pace Max Weber fears of the world as an over-rationalized iron cage).  Composition illuminates.  Coding also illuminates.  Ergo, code and composition are (or at least have become) basic literacies.

Finally, code increasingly has become the way we interface with tools.  Why is this important?  More so than any other species, we are our tools. As Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and then they shape us."  Similarly, we shape our tools and then they shape us.  But to keep that reshaping a two-way street, and to make sure we don't just devolve into whatever machines want us to become, we have to shape our tools.  And if you want to be directly part of the shaping, these days you have to know how to code.

On the other hand, in spite of the above rationales, I'm not quite ready to accept coding as a literacy that is as basic as composition:

For one thing, while code is everywhere, it's embedded and hidden in our machines.  It doesn't pop up unmediated on a street sign, or on a Hallmark card or in an email or in a newspaper editorial.  Even programmers don't ordinarily use code to navigate through a new town, to write a valentine, or to refine a political position. 

For another thing, code is primarily used to communicate with machines.  You don't use it (without ancillary devices) to connect and bond and lead an initiative with other people.  The CNN piece reports that Mayor Bloomberg has taken up the challenge to code.  Who knows, maybe he actually went through with it.  But I doubt his coding skills have brought much more civic order to New York.  Code ( to follow an Aristotelian paradigm )  is a language which gives order to our material lives.  But, (at least until the programmers take over our spiritual and political lives) it isn't the language we use to sermonize or legislate about political matters. 

For a final thing it may be true that our tools shape our humanity and that in turn, our code shapes our tools.  But that doesn't mean we can't shape the programmers who code our tools.  In effect, we're not fated to have our destiny controlled by machines just because we don't personally code.  We can control out destiny and shape our tools by hiring a programmer.

Ok.  So where does that leave us?  If you are  Mayor Bloomberg, or  Audrey Watters (a technology commentator who has dived into CodeAcademy) or Miriam Posner or the legion of other people who've taken up Rushkoff or CodeAcademy's call to code:  Take heart! It's fun! And yes, coders are changing the world and our definition of what it means to be human.  But that task isn't the province of coders alone.  Nor, despite their best efforts, is it ever likely to be.