Back in December, The Globe published a review of The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age and From Literature to Biterature that caught our eye. Seeing that the reviewer, Adam Hammond, both had a book forthcoming and was currently at the UofG, we got in touch about doing an event. Hammond's book, Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction isn't due until 2015, so we put a pin it. Some time later, Hammond got back in touch about a roundtable discussion he was moderating about the health of literature in the digital age, with The Edge of the Precipice at its centre. The--take a breath--Michael Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities, Hammond commutes between Guelph and Toronto and we were able to squeeze in a bit of chat about digital humanities and the upsides of a digital climate that's so often accused of being literature's antagonist.
Explain Digital Humanities.
The old term for Digital Humanities was Humanities Computing, which was unsexy, which is why it's been replaced. But it does give you a better sense of what it was originally about. How you can use computers to analyze literature, or how you use computers to analyze history. The term was coined in 2004. Someone was editing a book and were like, "Ugh. Humanities Computing. This is not gonna sell. Let's do Digital Humanities." Because it's a broad term that doesn't mean just one thing, I think it's opened a lot of doors.
I just came from this talk by an historian, Ian Milligan from Waterloo. His argument is historians don't like using computers, and they don't like programming. But you can't do a history of, say, the 90's without being able to work with internet material, because there's so much of it. He works on GeoCities. Literally. Those GeoCities websites for him are a really important historical resource. And you can't just read every GeoCities website, so you need to come up with ways to crunch the numbers to find out what they're interested in, and searching through them to find some particular thing. For me it's an obvious thing. Of course people who are interested in the humanities will increasingly need to use computers.
A lot of the stuff I work on is modernist literature. Roughly 1880 to 1950, so that's not stuff that's being produced digitally. But once you have it digitized you can do more interesting stuff with it. For instance, I co-wrote this academic book called Modernism: Keywords. There we were looking at the words these writers were most interested in debating. We started out this project by sitting down and talking about what words these writers like to use the most, like maybe "avant garde," maybe "manifesto." And then we would try to find those words in the books, but we couldn't find them anywhere. Where are we going to find usages? So we went on different electronic archives. That's the nice thing about digitizing. You can easily search for words. And we would find that we couldn't find any text that used "avant garde," or "manifesto." One of the discoveries we made is that people in English didn't use those words in that period. We would have just thought we weren't looking hard enough, but we managed to show, in a definitive way, that those words weren't used. Or we were looking to find usages of the word "modernist," which we had a hunch wasn't used a lot in the period, that it was something scholars came up with retrospectively. And sure enough we didn't find many. But we did find an advertisement for towels in Cosmopolitan that was like, "Get these as a wedding gift. They're a sign of modernism and true refinement." That was amazing. We would never have found that if we didn't have this digitized archive. It was a good example to show that at that time the word don't mean what it means today. It's weird that I had this very word-based project, but it was a good digital humanities project in that we couldn't have done it right if we didn't have access to all these archives.
We have an idea for a second volume, and what I'd like to do for that is get this huge number of modernist texts, like a couple of terabits worth, and there's an algorithm that can go through that and tell you what are the clusters of interest. So instead of us coming up with the terms, it will be interesting to have them come up automatically, and see if we're looking for the right terms.
So is it fair to say that maybe literature isn't being killed by the digital age, but being recalibrated by it?
In Digital Humanities you have to already like and accept literature as an important thing before you can invest all this time. But will this kind of approach get people interested in literature?
I made an online edition of The Waste Land that broke it into voices, and for me that's something that could help someone understand that poem. You could read that poem and just be like, "I have no idea." But the key to enjoying it is understanding that it's a series of monologues that are pieced together. So maybe the website will make it more accessible.
Traditionally scholars have published in print journals and no one reads them. With digital, it's easier to get access to scholarly journals--doesn't mean a lot of everyday people are reading scholarly journals--but the fact that maybe scholars can reach a bigger audience of enthusiasts online... You might not have known that anyone out there actually liked the thing you're interested in, but then you find out that there are thousands of people, this weird niche. So I think it's helping to connect people who love literature.
Also, the tone of academic writing is starting to come down a little bit, I think. People are more interested in reaching an audience because they're starting to understand that the audience isn't just other scholars. I really like writing about literary subjects for a non-academic audience. And I think that's becoming a lot easier.
In hosting this discussion do you actually hope to get to the bottom of whether or not literature is dying?
I personally don't think that literature's dying. But who I am to say? I like the idea that people feel like maybe books, the carriers of literature, are somehow threatened now. That they're being replaced, that there's this other thing, these eReaders coming along. I just think that people appreciate them more, and are paying attention to books in ways that they have not. They're no longer something that's taken for granted. It's like, "They could be gone, so I'm really gonna focus on it."
When I started teaching this class called "The Digital Text" at U of T, I really thought all my undergraduate students were gonna be super into video games and new forms of interactive literature and do all their readings on iPads. As it turns out, you've never met a more conservative, book-loving group of people, who are vocally anti-digitial. I don't know if that was an anomaly, but for me it was an eye-opener. And for me, I really like books, kind of curmudgeonly. I knew wasn't going to like eReaders, for instance. But I got some anyway, just to do a little test, and I just don't like them. For me it reinforced how much I like books. I think it's had that effect on a lot of people.
Something I'm interested in talking about is whether literature's becoming more important. Is it more exciting to people these days, is it more cherished? Its become more of a special experience.
It's hard to imagine a seventeen year old kid who can barely grow a beard walking around with On the Road on an e-reader. Why read On the Road if you can't shove it into your back pocket and be seen reading it in your school cafeteria?
Yeah, it's a book that you need to be seen reading, in that slacker-y way. It's part of a whole complex.
I think it's easy to say that young people today don't like X, Y, and Z, but I'm constantly surprised, staring at the books people read. People are still reading, and they're reading cool books.
I wanted give the session that title to draw people out, but personally I don't think literature is dying. Of course, a lot of people would disagree with me. But even if the numbers of so-called serious readers are declining, I think something's more interesting, or self-conscious about what it means to read. Maybe since it's harder to concentrate, which I do think is happening--my own attention span is shortening and I'm finding it harder to focus on literature--something about that is still instructive. It might tell you about all the way that everyday life is trying to keep you distracted. If it's that hard, there must be something going on.
And this strife is so new, too. It's only been within the last twenty years that life has become such a gauntlet of distractions. Everyone's still acclimating to it, deciding whether or not this is how they want to live their lives.
I think so. And I think literature has become this go-to litmus test. If you're writing an article about how the internet is making people stupid, you always go to reading, how it's harder to read, how you can't concentrate for long times. Whether we're transitioning to this new way of thinking, I don't know. But there's something about literature where it's the activity that seems like you get the changes that are happening in the culture the most.
Check out, for free, "Is Literature Dying in the Digital Age" Thursday, March 27th, from 3 til 5 at the Library Academic Town Square. Panelists include Andrew Hood, Drew Nelles, Dorothy Odartey-Wellington, Michael Ridley, Paul Socken, and Alana Wilcox. And get this: Light refreshments provided. To prepare yourself, do swing by the store and pick up a copy of the Socken edited The Edge of the Precipice.