New Methods, New Data: Manovich and Hayles on today’s research and writing

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the keynote addresses at the Digital Cultures in the Age of Big Data institute at Bowling Green State University.  Lev Manovich skyped in on Monday morning for a talk on methods for studying contemporary interactive media, and N. Katherine Hayles spoke this morning, sharing with the audience her digital companion repository that pairs with her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis.  A few words here about my take-aways and the questions that arose as I listened to each talk.

Manovich made an extended argument that research in the digital humanities needs to turn away from digitizing and analyzing documents alone, but instead that researchers need to be looking toward cultural activities as data, meaning the processes and performances that occur when a user interacts with software.  Practically, he was advocating for more attention to users and what’s going on with them when they use a technology and less attention to the technologies themselves.  While I agree that these methods could be a useful line of inquiry for humanities scholars, I have been mulling over some of the claims and assumptions that Manovich made with respect to “old” and “new” media: old media as non-interactive or less interactive, new media as fundamentally different, and thus more interactive. It is true that users do interact with newer forms of media in shifted ways, but users also interacted with older forms of media–the scroll, the book, the pencil–but perhaps in ways not as visible as mouse clicks are today.  Perhaps research methods of old could also have been shifted to pay more attention to interaction, then, too.  I’m also left with questions about how to put Manovich’s ideas to practical use: how can we even begin to record and analyze user experiences on a big data level?  Maybe the starting place is to begin small, working up to the big data inquiry that Manovich argued we need.

Hayles spent her talk describing and showing her own digital humanities project, the digital companion to her book, How We Think.  Hayles created this companion site in part to make the data she used when composing her book available to more scholars.  Using the repository, other users can come to their own conclusions and the data can generate new and different questions.  I’d be interested to hear if Hayles has any information about if the site is being used, and if so, by whom.  Also interesting was that the repository gave access to full recordings of interviews that Hayles conducted with prominent scholars in digital humanities as part of her book research.  The recordings are tagged with key themes, so that a user can go directly to the portion of the data that is of interest.  While the audio quality of the interviews isn’t superb, and navigating through the material isn’t the easiest with the controls provided, the raw data is available to others and visible in a way that research data usually is not.

Overall, both talks got me thinking about methods, research, data, and how the digital offers different opportunities for developing, asking, and answering questions about texts and users of texts.  As Hayles mentioned, these concerns are becoming more and more relevant to the academy, and soon, they will be the concerns.