Opacity, Spectators and Tools:

As I’m still absorbing and making sense of the ideas of this week and last week’s readings, plus our class discussion, I realize (again and again) how writing is a constant challenge and a tool for thinking. Ramsay and Rockwell (2012) compared coding and writing and asked if those could be considered intellectual pursuits or theorizing enterprises. Writing, according to them, is a technology or methodology that “lies between model and result in humanistic discourse”. However, the mere “act of putting words on a page” cannot be considered a “scholarly act”. But I wonder if those two actions -coding and writing- could in fact be comparable (or, rather, to what extend) and therefore, if “building” in DH could ever become a technique as transparent as writing seems nowadays.

Writing, this old method polished throughout millennia by different societies, helps that “thinking occurs in the first place” (Ramsay & Rockwell); it is both the medium and the tool. It took humanity some time to sort of collectively arrive there, and it meant a parallel process of delegitimization of other kinds of knowledge that resembled the act of writing but do not use an alphabet or a grammatical system for its production (for example sewing symbols and transmitting knowledge and stories through textile fabrication, as some indigenous groups do, i.e: the Kogis). But I would say that after all that effort to make alphabetize the masses there is in fact a certain degree of transparency when we use writing as the method to theorize. One can elucidate implicit and explicit meaning in a text and position the writing in a broader context that might reveal intentions, place of enunciation, interest, etc. One can read the subtext of a text. But I don’t know if that could be achieve in coding or in digital tools and for the general public. The authors themselves point to this problem, which is perhaps imbedded in the way technology was conceived in the first place: “it is the purpose of that tool (and this is particular the case with Digital Tools) to abstract the user away from the mechanisms that would facilitate that process” that is, the process of learning how to use the tool. There’s a constant separation between producer and user, back and front end, because that’s where the “mysticism” of technology lies upon.

And so, opacity in DH seems to be at odds with the critical humanistic tradition. But, it appears again in Kelly Baker Josephs piece for a completely different reason. She writes: “I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity” in classes. This need is a conclusion she reflects upon from the course Digital Caribbean, she ponders on its content and outcomes but most importantly on the role of her students in the class. Here opacity appears as something necessary, a condition to make a classroom safe and have a safe learning experience. Opacity could be part of an ethic practice when teaching with digital tools but especially when dealing with scholarly production that directly challenges and destabilizes our identities, like the students from minority groups in her class interacting with the Caribbean digital. And so, she concludes that there needs to be a mediation between visibility for scholarly production in our digital era of maximum exposure (“livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures”) and invisibility (privacy?) for safe learning practices. I find her conclusion very valuable and her inquiries extremely interesting. Her reflections make me wonder if in our current digital world and for most of the population both the medium and the tool have exceeded us -the coding and the interface- they seem so beyond our control and our understanding yet so ubiquitous. Even when we have access to internet and digital mediums that does not mean we actually have them as tools, as Josephs puts it, “access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement”

So what would full engagement look like for everyone? What would be necessary to have the “opacity” in digital tools be turned to our favor? Would that make “building” more like writing? And why some authors propose the need to move away from discourse when using the tool (Davis Baird)? Why is it that less discourse seems more like a good thing or a “fancy” solution for the linguistic bias in academic theory as for the tech realms; why does this feel like a sort of suppression of the capacity to do deep intense analysis, why does this feel like part of the process of making everything a “ready to use” product that is unquestionable and mystic since it appears to us completely out of context just like the tech products themselves, coming out of the blue.. the “cloud”…when in fact they are not. There’s infrastructure, invisible work and extractivist practices operating all the time in technology creation. I wish DH could make that less opaque.

I also wonder, especially looking at the examples (provided by Todd Presner) of some DH projects that had a very critical and engaging outcome, what is the role of the “consumer”. When he explains the projects by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable (which I guess is part of the intention of the project anyways). The lives of two very vulnerable populations, women in prison and a group of heroin addicts, becomes audible to others. Listeners that are most likely in a safe “social, material, and cultural circumstance of listening” and although this probably creates very empathetic feelings and challenges the hegemonic way of viewing this marginalized populations, I don’t think it alters the very vulnerable conditions of their existence. So, maybe to say this is a cliché, but part of me feels like the projects are intended for a society of spectators, those of us who have the comfortable conditions to listen, view or read. On the other side there are the people providing the data that gives life, sense, and structure to the project. And in another those that do the building.

Nonetheless, the possibilities that open up when DH projects engage in the “speculative making” seem fascinating, and perhaps in doing so the tool becomes more accesible to new audiences. I guess this is what Presner suggest at the end: “imagining a new move from within the order of things” and “changing the rules of the game”. Perhaps opacity and transparency could be part of those moves? and what is at risk for doing so?

1 thought on “Opacity, Spectators and Tools:

Comments are closed.