What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities 

by Miriam Posner

Miriam Posner raises the concept of data visualization, data extraction and audience consideration in her keynote address at the Digital Humanities Conference (University of Pennsylvania in 2015). While she talk discusses the broadening of gender and race categories when it comes to the digital humanities, I was more taken with the ideas that she addresses with regard to data rich information and how we may use it. The example that Posner gave discusses the photographer Curtis, who has photographed the decline in Native American culture through his photographs. The writer David Kim, investigating Curtis’ work decided to flip the data available from the photographs and instead used Curtis own categorization of the information to visualize the information. The result spoke more to the ideals and understandings that Curtis had of the Native American tribes that he photographed, over the information he collected in his images.

In a similar way we too document our daily life through photography. This data that we naively believe to be simple and unobtrusive, has richness and value far beyond it’s simple image. Our current digital environment is constantly collecting and correlating information about us. Photographs that we now take on our phones are data rich. They can determine the identities of people within the photo using facial recognition software. Something we may have considered quite futuristic when watching Star trek 15 years ago. The problem with this idea is that again it is the corporations that are collecting this information and documenting it. They effectively own the data. To those predisposed to conspiracy theories this is a nightmare. Will this facial recognition software, location tagging and collected data be used against us in the future by rogue governments or corporations looking to manipulate us and relieve us of our hard earned money?

The old adage ‘that knowledge is power’ has never been truer. Us social media consumers happily divulge all aspects of our day, employment, likes and dislikes to a faceless entity that collects and sells this marketing gold to businesses. Social Media is free, but what is the price of free? We are happy to feed into the madness as long as we can continue to share how great our lives are on social media. In return we strive for peer approval in the form of Likes, Hearts etc. We are selling our souls to an unknown while we build online personas for people that we possibly walk past in the street.

Posner also discusses the need for information to be user friendly and readily available. Social Media sites have mastered the ease of use approach to broaden their demographic of users. Now grandparents in there 80’s and 90’s are active members on Facebook. This age group may not have previously have had their information so rigorously collected. Their age and lifestyle in society would most likely not be seen as worth collecting. Companies may have felt that their sedated lifestyle and set income was not worth targeting. Now, however in their virtual setting online their information suddenly has the same value applied and it is collected at the same rate as their family and friends.

I watched a sci-fi series ((Black Mirror see link below) recently. The first episode that I saw both worried and intrigued me. The concept was that your social and professional standing within your physical community was based on a ranking system. Your peers actively ranked your every interaction with them as well as your social media presence. The sole goal was to achieve the highest possible ranking out of 5. This was only achievable by living a full yet very pure lifestyle, where negative emotions, and poor relationships were not tolerated. In fact, showing negative emotions resulted in the person being actively rated in a negative way when in turn reduced their overall rating. Service sector worker ratings received, while welcomed would never allow the ratings seeker to achieve a high overall rating. This higher rating could only be achieved by interacting with high rated members of society, receiving a 5 star rating from them. But those high ranking members in turn were not so willing to rank those of lower ranking as it reduced their ranking marginally and they were seen to be socializing with a lower class of society. The new society class system basically required popularity to take over from wealth or status. It was amusing to watch, but in a dark way. It was so relevant to how our present world is now operating. ‘Instagramers’ with more followers receive payment for advertising and promotion of product. They have a fan base enviable by their peers and they stand as a new high society. As I mentioned above, we now look to like and hearts to measure our friendship s and relationships’ value. Our self worth is impacted when that photo or article that we have posted doesn’t get sufficient peer approval and we feel less as a person because of it. This sci-fi episode while far fetched really hits home the direction in which we are going and how far along that road we actually are.

Black Mirror – Nosedive   Season 3 Episode 1