Scattered Links – 8/21/2008

Lisa Spiro has posted a great recap of her presentation “Doing Digital Scholarship” at the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. The presentation “focuses on a project to practice digital scholarship by relying on electronic resources, experimenting with tools for analyzing and organizing digital information, and representing ideas through multimedia.” All in all, I think the blog post is a wonderful introduction to digital scholarship, both as an overview and a jumping off point for further ideas. Spiro really displays that crucial trait necessary for a digital humanist: a seemingly unlimited willingness to try new approaches.

Errol Morris has yet another interesting post about interpreting photography and identifying fakes, inspired by the faked photographs of Iran’s missile launch several weeks ago. Also, if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend his three-part series “Which Came First,” which details his attempt to uncover the truth behind Robert Fenton’s famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photograph of the infamous Light Brigade skirmish. What I liked most about it was his microscopic attention to detail and an open willingness to crowdsource, as over a thousand people responded and lent advice, tips, and clues. He even did a recap of these comments, which shows a real embrace of the power of collective intelligence and digital media.

GOOD Magazine has put up an extremely sleek and user-friendly interactive graphic titled “Wanderlust: GOOD traces the most famous trips in history.” Included among these are not only the standard fare of Lewis and Clark, Charles Lindbergh, and Marco Polo, but also fictional accounts such as Pequod from Moby Dick, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although I will point out that it’s phenomenally Euro/American-centric, I do applaud its interface and design. This rivals some of the NYTimes’ recent gold standard information graphics as far as usability, style, and depth.

Finally, if you’d like to get worked up and indignant, read Edward Luttwak’s “A Truman for our times.” His thesis is almost comical: “While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.” But what makes me downright irate is his complete hijacking of history. In a characterization that smacks of imperialism, ignorance, and borderline racism, he breezily describes eight hundred years of Chinese history in this pithy statement:

“That describes everything that the Chinese are not, and have never been. The Chinese empire was aggressive and expansionist under the Yuan dynasty and again under the Qing. But one dynasty was established by horseriding Mongols, the other by horseriding Manchus, both the products of foreign warrior cultures. The Han Chinese prefer other pursuits. Perhaps they will change, as cultures sometimes do.

Historical determinism and unprofessionalism at its worst. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he then pulled a Lawrence of Arabia and ended with “A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”

The Literacy Debate Rages On

As of right now, the most-emailed article on the is “Literacy Debate – Online, R U Reading?”, written by one of their publishing reporters, Motoko Rich. Like most articles of its sort, it touches a nerve with me.

Much like Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, the title of “R U Reading” carries an inherent value judgment. Meant to be a clever imitation of how these whippersnappers write without grammar nowadays, it is a direct appeal to older people who see this kind of digital lexicon as uneducated and, well, stupid.

To be fair, Rich does a passable job of presenting both sides. And the vast majority of the arguments on the anti-digital reading side made me irate. Some examples:

“Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories.”    – So, if I’m reading a series of online articles and exercises about quantum mechanics, it’s “empty calories”? And conversely, if I’m reading a trashy mystery novel, it’s a crucial learning process? Come on. All of that traditional book-learning doesn’t seem to have taught much about making generalizations.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”   -This one made me go off the wall. Three points: 1. McCullough is often chastised within academia for a lack of serious, in-depth historical analysis. There is an implied after thought of “great books – such as my own John Adams.”  2. You mean to tell me that someone who has made millions of dollars through book sales telling a group of young people they need to read (cough, buy) more books is not in the least bit conflicting? 3. This implies that anything you “learn” outside of a book is probably not really “learning.” Like, say, math. Or painting. Or music. Or foreign languages. Unbelievable. I lost a lot of respect for McCullough with this quote.

Rich took a particularly patronizing tone in her portrayal of fan-fiction as a poor substitute for reading. It would be like excerpting the vitriolic, racist sections of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to portray the entire canon of American political theory. It made me want to sic Henry Jenkins on her.

“What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,”   – Again, traditionalists seem to take it for granted that a “sustained, focused, linear” style of learning is the apotheosis of scholarship. The early 21st-century world couldn’t be LESS “sustained, focused, linear.” As Rich acknowledges at one point, enthusiasts of digital literacy rarely, if ever, deny that the traditional method of reading and learning is not important – it is just that the digital kind is rapidly growing in importance.

Finally, Rich barely touches upon the real potential for digital literacy. She quotes some perspectives that champion the ability to gather and synthesize information more quickly, but basically glosses over the enormous intellectual power of things like collective intelligence, collaboration, and innovation. Just like reading is not all about Dr. Seuss or Anne Rice novels, digital reading is not all about gossip blogs and Facebook. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. Traditional and digital literacy can and should coexist as fundamental skills necessary for navigating today’s world.

More Stupider

While driving today, I caught part of a discussion on the Diane Rehm show about how a “climate of distraction” is eroding our society and political system. (Audio here). The two guests were Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” and Rick Shenkman, author of “Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter.” Jackson talks about how people are distracted through a world of “hypermobility” and “McThinking” that is breeding a generation of Americans who don’t know how to critically think, evaluate information, and delve in-depth into issues. Meanwhile, Shenkman, is largely in agreement and bemoans the fact that the American populace is growing dumber and less engaged, especially with politics and civics. The entire show also mirrored an article I just read by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly, titled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”

Jackson, Shenkman, and Carr, to varying degrees, all sound a frustratingly reactionary alarm against a digital age. I acknowledge the validity of some of their concerns, but my basic complaint comes down to one of what and how we value as “intelligence.” It is less that I disagree with the value they place on traditional forms of intelligence, but that they refuse to recognize (with the exception of Jackson) a new form of intelligence. There remains a deeply entrenched idea of traditional scholasticism within the academic community – an idea that remains somewhat stuck in an analog age. Quite simply, a lot of people don’t consider the ability to move quickly and critically within the digital realm, to locate and evaluate sources of information on the internet, as a legitimate form of intelligence.

Carr writes that “there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation” on the Internet. I completely disagree. If I had the choice between sitting down for three hours and reading a book on a historical topic, versus spending those three hours researching the topic online, I could make a strong case that I would be able to get a much richer, balanced, and in-depth understanding of the topic through Firefox than if I would through Oxford Press. Blogging in general, the give and take of reading, evaluating, and reacting to other people’s thoughts, is decidedly a form of “fuzzy contemplation.” While I wouldn’t discount the value of a traditional monograph, I believe that alternative and new forms of scholasticism and intellectual inquiry are too often dismissed.

Meanwhile, Shenkman focuses on politics, and while he makes some decent points about the uninformed nature of the American electorate (the continuing myth of a 9/11-Iraq connection, for one), I think he overemphasizes the dangers without recognizing the benefits. This is surprising to me, as I greatly respect what he has done in the field of digital history, specifically founding the History News Network. Nonetheless, I found myself disagreeing with him during this show. Specifically, he mentions the “myth of the people” that has become solidified since Reagan, in which politicians celebrate “the voice of the people as the voice of God.” This spurred some particularly narrow-sighted callers, all of which skated blindly and contentedly into the realm of blatant elitism. Being a history major, it reminded me of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, with Shenkman and the callers largely falling into the worst traps of the Federalists. Would giving voting rights to all free males give way to violent, chaotic mob rule? Wouldn’t a propertied, monied class of citizens be better fit to act as caretakers of the young republic? While I don’t think they would agree with these statements, a lot of what was said on the program smacked of a modern-day form of this elitism.

The problem is not the internet. The problem is what our educational system values as learning. We are largely educated in an increasingly archaic system that doesn’t teach us how to properly use digital technology. Just as I believe that history is anything but memorizing the details of wars, kings, and explorers, I believe that the internet is anything but skimming gossip headlines, Youtube videos, or profile pages. Approaching history and the internet actually require and facilitate many of the same basic skills – a critical evaluation of sources, connecting disparate ideas, and identifying broader themes and patterns. The more I write, the more I realize this topic touches on so many others – gated academic communities vs. open-access, evaluating history curriculums, the digital participation gap, a technological generation divide, etc. I look forward to delving into more of these areas in the future.