Culture Report: Digital Humanities Is the Field You Didn’t Know You Needed
The role of data in the way humans develop relationships with the arts and humanities is at the helm of understanding modern, digital cultural literacy.
Erin Glass, digital scholarship librarian at the UC San Diego Library and founder of KNIT — a non-proprietary academic “digital commons” style social network for San Diego — first unintentionally embarked on her career when she went off the grid. She moved to an entirely rural, unplugged lifestyle: working on small, organic farms and writing and reading in the evenings.
“Turns out, however, life without technology isn’t as peaceful and intellectually dreamy as I had hoped,” Glass said. Instead, she felt isolated. “Digital technology, I realized, wasn’t likely an evil in and of itself; what mattered more was the interests it served, and who had the power to shape it.”
Data + Culture
Digital humanities is an area of research and study that applies humanities methodology to tech and, in a bit of a chicken vs. egg situation, applies technology to the humanities methods, Glass said.
One approach, said Robert Twomey, a postdoctoral researcher at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, is to use data-driven techniques like computational analysis to study and process existing works of art — which could quantify or track anything from process or materials to engagement. Another approach is to use the digital tools to make art, whether it’s work inspired by tech or an actual automation.
This sense of data-driven artistic generation is bigger than just programming a bot to write like Shakespeare. It’s the ways in which analytics and algorithms influence or dictate the work that’s created next. In a ratings, awards and hype-obsessed culture, that isn’t particularly new.
‘Datafication of Society’
“We, as humans, cannot perceive the contents and shape of vast digital collections, which means we need computational analysis and visualization tools,” said Twomey, which requires data scientists as well as public data literacy.
“We wanted to create a space where folks from across the arts and humanities could consider the cultural implications of data. As the datafication of society increases, it’s vital that we amplify diverse perspectives on its consequences and opportunities,” said Glass.
The frontiers of technology are increasingly within consumer reach: smartphones, smart home tech, social media, photo manipulation apps, digital assistants we’re on a first-name basis with, etc.
“I became particularly interested in the way that our everyday digital technology normalizes — or teaches us — to accept certain digital power dynamics as natural and inevitable,” Glass said, pointing out that the surveillance and forfeiting of control do not need to be necessary elements to smart technology’s influence in daily life.
Surveillance and Balance
Storage, access and surveillance complicate data use, and surveillance in turn can shape the very digital culture it is watching. Glass said that people feel powerless about stopping, changing or consenting to unchecked monitoring of social or creative practices.
“As we’ve seen play out in the headlines, this has led to concerns over the future of everything from human privacy to the democratic project,” Glass said. But she adds that data science and analysis have the potential to solve major global problems.
Twomey is also fascinated by both sides of the surveillance coin, and advocates for more robust data literacy to protect the privacy and autonomy of communities from constant digital surveillance. Still, he approaches his work with curiosity.
“There is a long history of machines as surrogates or computers as interlocutors as a way to elicit new understandings about ourselves,” he said.
Part of the work of digital librarians is balancing the ways in which communities archive their own cultural artifacts as well as the mundane, like emails, chats and photos. “There are very real questions about who decides what is and isn’t archived as culture — what counts, literally — as well as who controls access, licensing, etc. for those new cultural archives,” said Twomey.
“My goal is to get folks working in the arts and humanities to see that the crisis we face now is not technological, but a crisis of the imagination,” Glass said.
What is being done to achieve this? In founding KNIT, the non-commercial, non-predatory social network for academics, Glass hopes that UC San Diego — and arts-oriented people — can lead the way in developing these alternatives. Glass and Twomey are also currently working with the campus to develop and host a new “Cultured Data” symposium to study and share innovations in February.
“If we are to build a digital world that truly serves democracy, creativity and the well-being of all, we need the arts and humanities to help us imagine what that might look like,” said Glass.
Blood Ponies: Mythology, Deception and … Sunshine?
San Diego two-piece band Blood Ponies serves up fresh disorder and dystopia, and lucky for your doom-filled hearts, their first full-length, “Hoax,” comes out on Friday.
Hoaxes — and mythology in general — are integral to the album. Drummer Candice Renee said things like spirit photography and chain letters share common ground with their music.
“We’re so willing to believe! Even when our rational selves know better. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We’re willing to buy into something supernatural or conspiratorial when most of the time there’s a much simpler truth,” she said.
“Hoax” interplays the occasional primal scream (perfect for your commute) with highly stylized sonic layers. The vocal melodies sometimes evoke Joy Division or Nick Cave, but often feel a bit harder to pin down: a little punk, a little rock, a dash of brooding, and it ends up feeling relatable and listenable. And, like a hoax, a little bit untrustworthy.
“Most of our songs are some combination of spooky stories you’d tell after dark and reflections on real things happening right now,” said guitarist and vocalist Jeff Cesare. “‘The Body’ could be about faking your own death or it could be about grooming a political candidate. ‘Hostile Takeover’ could be about vampires or it could be about capitalism.”
San Diego’s local dark music world — once a seedy subculture — is now a burgeoning and accepted scene. “We had a lot of surfy garage rock stuff for a while, and I think the music community was just ready for something a little less sunny,” said Cesare. Renee thinks there’s more to it. “I think that typically laid-back San Diego attitude also has a positive effect on the artistic community, because there’s less of a sense of the elitist gatekeeping that can sometimes come with goth culture,” she said.
Their record release show, this Saturday at Vinyl Junkies Record Shack in South Park, will also feature the art of local photographer Becky DiGiglio (known for her spirit photography-esque style of capturing local musicians), DJs and an actual medium.
Mediums and spirit photography are not just party favors for Blood Ponies.
“Whether it’s political fraud, financial fraud or just social fraud and the performative versions of ourselves that we post online, we’re all creating and interacting with our technology to create cultural folklores in essentially the same way throughout history,” said Renee.
Watch the video for their latest single, “Submit/Surrender,” directed by San Diego’s Evan McGinnis.
More Arts and Culture News and Events
- At the La Jolla Athenaeum, every few years they air out their “Recent Acquisitions,” and will display art and books they’ve acquired since 2016, now through the end of the year.
- An attainable chance to start a collection of local art instead of buying cheap IKEA art, the San Diego Art Institute’s annual C-NOTE sale is this weekend.
- Free research archives tours, Balboa Park strolls and more at the San Diego History Center’s “History Outside Our Walls” program this weekend.
- File under: VISUAL ART. A Brief History of San Diego Stadium Renderings is an art project by Scott Lewis.
Literature and Film
- The author of “The Night Circus,” Erin Morgenstern will celebrate her new book “The Starless Sea,” Wednesday at the downtown library.
- Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler appears at Bread & Salt on Thursday with a screening of local Randall Christopher’s (incredible) animated short film “The Driver is Red.”
- San Diegan Marisa Crane’s debut poetry collection (that I told you to read in June) “Our Debatable Bodies,” is on this list of the 15 Best Queer Debuts of 2019, alongside such greats as T Kira Madden and Tegan and Sara (!). Check out Marisa’s work (and next time, listen to me). (Literary Hub)
- From a 19-year-old filmmaker, “Burning Cane” earned several accolades at Tribeca and shows through Thursday at Digital Gym.
- The San Diego Asian Film Festival continues through Saturday.
- The band Hours, which is another project of Hexa’s Carrie Gillespie Feller, doesn’t perform very often but they play Wednesday at the Whistle Stop.
- For just $5 (or free for members) you can catch the San Diego Opera performing some Bouguereau-inspired French songs at SDMA on Friday
- Rufus Wainwright. The San Diego Symphony. Yes please.
- San Diego Master Chorale joins Voices of Our City Choir founder Steph Johnson and a bunch of kids on Saturday for a rousing singalong of favorite tunes.
- Violinist Nuvi Mehta will perform Bach, Chopin, Ravel and Gerschwin alongside pianist Bryan Verhoye at the Timken Museum on Sunday. Mehta, who I spoke with recently, will also give a lecture.
Theater and Dance
- This weekend and next, UCSD Theatre presents Balm in Gilead.
- On Wednesday, Nov. 20, Blind Spot Collective performs its latest site-specific work, “Connecting Flights,” at — where else? — the airport. (U-T)
Miscellany and More
- John Brady’s photography exhibit, “Tijuana Punk Through the Lens” takes place Saturday at Heartwork Coffee Bar with performances by Tijuana’s Violencia and San Diego’s Headcount. FYI, Heartwork also has a very good vegan affogato.
- As a die-hard Mission Trails fan, I am pleased that the first holiday marketplace to grace this year’s Culture Report is one at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center, this Sunday.
- The Last Five Years (“actually a kind of physics experiment”) closes at Cygnet on Sunday. (U-T)
- The Library Shop’s Matchbook Story Contest runs through Nov. 15.
- California suspended nearly 400 weed businesses last week for noncompliance, with nine in San Diego, including SDRC. The suspension may be temporary. (KPBS)
- “Garnish with a toasted marshmallow.” If there is such a thing as an average cocktail anymore, this one sounds a bit above average. (San Diego Magazine)
- The founder of Farm to Fork San Diego shares how to eat locally in a 1.2 mile radius of downtown. (San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles)
- Meet the woman who is the CEO and cofounder of Pizza Port Brewing Company. (West Coaster)
What’s Inspiring Me Right Now
- “Can a Woman Who Is an Artist Ever Just Be an Artist?” I love Rachel Cusk’s writing, and I love this question. “But of any woman creator an explanation is required of whether, or how, she dispensed with her femininity and its limitations, with her female biological destiny; of where — so to speak — she buried the body.” As a writer I’ve made no secret that the creative desperation and existential void of motherhood gave my writing urgency and inevitability, but motherhood (or the female biology) doesn’t define womanhood for all artists or art for all women. Gorgeous but unsettling read. (New York Times)
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