Minor Field Readings, Part 2: Perspectives on New Media

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This weeks readings on “Perspectives of New Media” discussed from varying viewpoints how new media is and has changed the ways scholarship is produced and conceptualized. The readings contemplate what new media tools and technologies change for how we think about, produce, and evaluate information.  Out of these readings came a consistent concern with scale, linearity, and how digital technologies and tools will affect narrative, or for my purposes, a historical argument.  The assumption has long been that reputable scholarship, at least for historians, is written, linear, and is composed in a narrative.  That’s what our profession values.  However, this is (hopefully) beginning to change due to new media and how it has fundamentally changed “how we think.”

As I worked through the reading for this week I was continually thinking about what a digital dissertation on physical culture (my research interest) would look like.  How do you structure and develop an argument on the Internet and can you make a historical argument in a format that isn’t traditional written (and linear) narrative?  What does a digital dissertation need to do and take into account, especially if we expect that it’ll be recognized as scholarship by our peers? I don’t have an answer for this and I’m still working on conceptualizing the scope and direction of my dissertation but I think several things emerge from these readings that are relevant and useful as I continue to think this through.  I just want to briefly outline two points that I’ve been thinking about in relation to narrative and new digital technologies.

Landow’s _Hyper/Text/Theory _provided useful insight into how scholars at the time, mostly scholars of literature, were concerned with the ways in which hypertext changed authorship, narrative structure, participation, linearity, and interaction with a text. Rather than having to start at “point a” and end at “point b” in a fashion required by linear narrative, hypertext allows users to navigate through the text with no defined path.  Hypertext is composed almost spatially with each page being linked to another in a web-like fashion. However, more interesting to me than the ways hypertext changes interaction is the scale that it potentially allows.

Since the publication of _Hyper/Text/Theory _databases have become the standard technology behind most of the web.  The massive size and the non-linear format of databases present new challenges to how we interpret and evaluate material on the web.  Landow discusses how hypertext allows for scale how it has threatened to change the ways scholars (or critics) relate to text.  In a cybertext, Landow explains, “critics can never read _all _the text and then represent themselves as masters of the text as do critics in print text…Large hypertexts and cybertexts simply offer too many lexias for critics to ever read.  Quantity removes mastery and authority, for one can only sample, not master, a text.”[1. Landow, 35.]  A similar fear exists,I think, in relation to databases.

In _How We Think _Katherine Hayles also discusses scale and argues that it “changes not only the quantities of texts that can be interrogated but also the contexts and contents of the questions”.  The presence of databases on the web and the increasing amount of data stored in them allows a database to constantly expand and to tell multiple stories with no one answer.  While databases allow for an exponential scale that often makes scholars uncomfortable databases also threaten the form that underpins our scholarship, narrative.

Manovich has called narrative and databases “natural enemies” claiming that the database’s unstructured list of items is at odds with the narrative’s focus on “cause-and-effect” trajectory. Narrative and databases are each “competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.”[2. Manovich] However as Hayles discusses, the flexibility of the database allows it to grow and expand without limitation.  Databases, she argues, «tend toward inclusivity, narratives toward selectivity”.  In contrast to Manovich’s statement, Hayles argues that the while the narrative might not be able to tell _the _story in the age of big data, databases facilitate the proliferation of narratives or different perspectives based on the data.

I think Liu’s article “When was Linearity” also makes an important contribution to the discussion of how new media transforms scholarship and the ways scholars compose their arguments.  Liu asks “what is the relationship of linear (written) to graphical (digital) knowledge today?  Which is freer?”.  Liu skillfully shows that linearity is a historical phenomenon that never really existed.  Instead he argues, linearity “was always only  a critical way or ideology of thinking _about _what was.”  He suggests that perhaps in the world of Web 2.0 we need to consider that linearity is simply being reconfigured in the modern age of information technology and is reappearing in the form of graphical hypermedia.  He argues that

neither in the past nor now is graphical knowledge the opposite of linear, discursive knowledge. …The graphical is a methodological, critical, and ideological reflection upon the linear, and vice versa. Graphical and linear are each other's self-consciousness.

Liu, I think, makes an important point about the role of narrative for historians. His discussion of narrative makes us question why it is necessary to turn history into a narrative and why it can’t take another form.

What does this all mean for a digital dissertation?  I think it provides some groundwork and a theoretical basis for thinking about how to structure narrative and make a historical argument on the Internet.  I don’t really have very many answers as to what this means for my digital dissertation yet.  However, I do think the digital allows for the representation of different perspectives and simultaneity in ways that narrative can’t.  The digital allows the construction of an argument that maybe isn’t formatted in a way that is familiar and safe for historians, but I think a multi-linear construction of a historical argument allows us to show data-driven, interactive, and complicated arguments.  Rather than focusing on just one area, I can use scale to more effectively communicate the range of experiences and the varying shades of those experiences.  I don’t know what that looks like but I think its an interesting possibility and one that will develop further as the born-digital generation of historians who already think through and alongside digital technology further develop their careers.