Digital Humanities- what’s that?

I’m  at the end of the first semester of my MA in Digital Arts and Humanities at UCC so it seems like a good time to sit back and reflect on what I’m doing here, where its going and what exactly Digital Humanities is. Much time seems to be spent in a debate about this and whilst debate keeps things vibrant it can become a bit exasperating  at times to be working in such an all encompassing field. The title Digital Humanist seems to mean different things to different people.

The fundamental concept is about connecting the Arts and Humanities with Technology. Its also about how we use technology and how technology uses us, about making best use of digital tools for humanities based projects and asking questions about this very process. Its about transformation, democratisation, activism. It begs for definition and at the same time rejects it. The Digital Humanities Manifesto is a frustrating and confusing document with multiple contributors that challenges our conventional way of reading and defining. Whilst being limited in its design – it appears very amateurish , like desk top publishing from the nineties – its refusal to conform to a standard is beginning to make more sense to me the longer I engage with DH.

Can DH really be all things to all people? According to a useful blog I came across by Dr. Amanda Visconti, who writes under the  pseudonym Literature Geek the answer to the question ‘Am I DH? ‘ is simply : ‘Yes, if you want to be.’ Her clear and interesting  post ‘What, where and how of Digital Humanities’ helped me to move towards some kind of definition of DH.

Word diagram which reads :What is DH? Research, Teaching & Learning about history, the arts (the humanities) in digital ways ( building & using software, websites, datsets..) & humanities thinking applied to the digital , all in the context of community and values
‘What is DH?’ slide taken from Literature Geek blog post

Over the last few weeks there have been some lightbulb moments, like the announcement in one of our lectures that creativity is fundamental to DH and fresh opinion is valued; Bloom’s taxonomy of learning is turned on its head and Create rather than Remember becomes the guiding principle of teaching and learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy Turned on its Head

Another one was waking up to the concept of accessibility in the digital sphere. As an able bodied person I have often considered the issue of access from a buildings perspective but never thought about what I could put in place on myn own website or digital contributions to make my site more universally acceptable. As it happens, embracing a form of universal design and installing a simple word press plug-in WP Accessibility , can kickstart this process quickly. I’m trying it out on this site and now have side toolbar toggles that can alter the text size and background , as well as skip-lines and prompts that remind me to write in Alt text for images. I’m awake to ideas about how I might present my material differently and am considering whether there is a way I could present song in a form that can be enjoyed by deaf people.

The scope of possibility for transformation and activism through DH is another area that interests me , even simply the potential to link up easily with those working on similar or complementary projects. It is inspiring to find that we can link under a banner such as #TransformDH or that I will continue to discover banners, groupings and hashtags that are relevant to my work such as #soundingthefeminists and #theworldislistening.

I have been exposed to a dizzying array of  ideas , projects and themes that constitute Digital Humanities. What has jumped out ?

On reflection  I  realise that I have already learnt a lot about what DH is -what I’ve referred to here only scratches the surface. I am now in a position to appreciate the freedom of not being confined or constrained by rigid definitions  and to enjoy a sense of possibility and expansion within and without this discipline.

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Songwriting Women Part 1 : Ciara O’Flynn

I’m hosting a weekly radio show on Thursdays at 12pm on  UCC Campus Radio 98.3fm . I’ll be shining the light on women and songwriting and in particular on some local Cork women’s voices. Here’s the first of my interviews with Ciara O’Flynn from the band Pinhole.

Ciara reminisces about  growing up around the Cork contemporary  music scene and reflects on her influences and chosen playlist which includes Sheela na Gig by PJ Harvey and Cathy Davey’s Snitch. She talks about her songwriting process and themes and we get a pre-listen of some brand new songs from the band’s upcoming album . The show kicks off on a different theme as I play a few jazz numbers inspired by the recent Cork jazz festival.

She’s looking a bit nervous here but you’d never know it from the interview.
Songwriter Ciara O'Flynn looking a little cheeky and nervous as she cosies up to the microphone in the studio at Campus Radio
Singer-songwriter Ciara O’Flynn

Why don’t you ? Time Well Spent & Switching Tack in Silicon Valley

When I was a kid there was a programme on tv called Why Don’t you ? , the catchphrase being: “Why don’t you just switch off your televison set and go and do something less boring instead ? ”

A great idea from some well meaning  and morally motivated producers in the BBC, but did it work ? Not in my experience , because even then in its now laughably infant form , television was addictive and parents would despair at the long hours their children languished in front of them. They lamented their declining literacy skills. As Willy Wonka said in Charlie in The Chocolate Factory ” What did children do before television? They used to read ! ”

So plus ca change and plus la meme chose we might say . Perhaps, except in those days in the 198o’s television was only broadcast at certain times of day. It was limited in its availability : there was a nine o’clock watershed , a cut off at midnight and nothing except soccer, snooker and cricket on Saturday afternoons. Guess what ? I used to close the curtains on sunny afternoons and watch cricket and snooker. I drew the line at soccer.

We now live in a world where stimulation through our multiple devices is unlimited its availability. that is ‘switched on’ and connected all the time . A world where we are permanently distracted and perpetually overloaded with information and seduced by advertising. Most adults find it difficult to control our addiction so how can we expect this of our children? The impact on social relationships and family communication is evident, without any study to prove it.  So I was interested to read this week about something of a counter revolution taking place in Silicon Valley led by some of the creators of highly addictive and popular smartphone and social media  features : the ‘pull to refresh mechanism’ and the  Facebook ‘like’ button.

A number of high achieving technological innovators now turned ‘refusenik’ were interviewed in The Guardian article : Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia  

Essentially some of these men are experiencing a disaffection with the addictive power of smartphones and feedback loops such as the ‘like ‘ button, so much so that they are disconnecting from the internet, attempting to limit their own 24 hour access – even using other apps to do so. Some even regret their own inventions. Tech industry critic and former Google employee Tristan Harris compares the pull to refresh mechanism to a slot machine:’Each time you’re swiping down …….You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes its a beautiful photo. Sometimes its just an ad’. Loren Brichter who invented the feature regrets the way he is constantly distracted from his family by the allure of his smartphone and wonders whether ‘anything I’ve done has made a  net positive impact on society or humanity at all’. He wouldn’t be the first person to regret his invention. Einstein apparently regretted his part in the creation of the atom bomb.

According to the  website of the advocacy group Time Well Spent  that Harris set up with former fellow Google employee James Williams: ‘In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen time. ‘ It isn’t surprising that they also claim that ‘ Advertising-fueled technology platforms are caught in a race to grab our attention.’ but this is not making us happier or improving our wellbeing . What Time Well Spent is seeking to do is to persuade designers to use technology differently, in order to enhance our lives.They offer a challenge and practical design solutions as to how technology can be redesigned to put our best interests first. They also identify insights and apps that allow each of us to make choices about how and when we use our devices. Its a little like Why Don’t You ?