hacktivist digital humanities and bots of conviction

Hi all– I’m writing at the tail end of a 14 hour day, so I hope you’ll forgive any incoherence!

This week I took a look at Elizabeth Losh’s Debates in the Digital Humanities chapter on “Hacktivism and the Humanities.” In it, Losh makes a distinction between mainstream, seemingly apolitical digital humanities (focused on hacking) and digital projects, like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, that put politics front and center (the hacktivist digital humanities). Her discussion foregrounds the often precariously position of activist digital scholarship within institutions (as well as its importance). [Of course, with the firing of Prof. Salaita, this is something we’re quite familiar with on our own campus.]  A key question that Losh’s piece brings up for me is: To what extent is it possible situate activist practices within institutions like the modern university? To what extent is it possible to really operate outside of institutionalized power relations? (Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things strikes me as incredibly relevant to this line of thinking about hacktivist dh.)

Thinking back on last week, I was reminded of some of Mark Sample’s writing (which I mentioned briefly last week) on building protest bots and was struck by some of the parallels with Losh’s article. Like Losh, Sample draws a distinction between mainstream bots – those that are becoming part of a ‘bot canon’ are often those that are “are surreal, absurd, purposeless for the sake of purposelessness” (i.e. @Horse_ebooks). Contrast that with protest bots, which he also refers to as “bots of conviction” and which often have an expressly political motivation (i.e. @ClearCongress). (These bots supposed to be social critics, expressly engaged in politics in a way that demands that observers also engage these issues.)  Like the hacktivist digital humanities that occupy oft-precarious institutional spaces, Sample argues that these bots are likely to be left out of the canon.

To finish (on a slightly different note), I want to highlight a line from Losh’s conclusion (emphasis mine).

In considering the need for supporting a truly hacktivist digital humanities, perhaps we can imagine the forms of activism that they both could undertake and the publics who might respond to their collaborations.

This question of “potentially responsive publics,” of audience, is something that has already come up several times in our discussions. As we discussed in class last week, often times the fact that an object is digital all to easily lends itself to the assumption that it is intended for the broadest possible audience. Indeed, most discussion around the value of the Internet and how it operates (including various discourses around memes and openness) is framed around an audience that is similarly presumed to be universal.

Although a lot of digital humanities projects describe themselves in similar terms –especially when it comes to openness– many of them actually function primarily for a specific audience, whether it is highly localized in space or providing a resource for a really specialized community of scholars. It is likely that in some cases, the true audience for a project is very small – perhaps composed only of the person(s) working on it. For example, in the case of a “conventional” Twitter bot, a case could be made that a lot of its value comes in the process of building it. [I’m reminded here of the video presentation by Matt Ratto about the Critical Making Lab that we looked at on Day 1, in which he stresses the importance of process over end product in the work they do.] In my opinion, that all of those alternatives are OK. However, in undertaking projects of our own, it is important that we consider our own potential audience rather than allowing the digitality of the objects we create assume one for us.

One more thing – sometimes the audience for this work is rather unexpected & digital humanities, especially where it overlaps with other ‘big data’ enterprises often occupies an ambiguous space. To that end, Bethany Nowviskie has an interesting piece on her blog this week where she reflects on co-authoring a chapter in a textbook on big data for national security, presented here without much additional comment except to say that the question of “to what extent” seems especially pertinent here as well.

Till (very) soon!  – Sveta

Save the Humanities Bot

Hi all! Sveta here. For my review assignment, I chose to take a look at Mark Sample’s Save the Humanities Bot.

Save the Humanities (@SaveHumanities) is a Twitter bot that, according to its bio, provides “Daily tips on how to stop the crisis in the humanities. Real solutions!” Here are several sample tweets from the past couple of weeks (the first one being the most recent post). Every tweet begins “To save the humanities we need” and finishes with the second half of an “I need” statement culled at random from a different public Twitter feed. (I am pretty sure, but not 100% certain that that is the source material for the second half of each post.) This produces results that are mostly ridiculous, but occasionally hint at something more profound. Often times, they inadvertently reference current events – as is the case with the second example below, which is referring to the Brian Williams scandal.

The bot is a response to the numerous think pieces about the relevance of the humanities (and perhaps also to the rhetoric around digital humanities as a solution to a crisis in the humanities). At the time of writing, Save the Humanities bot has 876 Twitter followers. Unsurprisingly, the majority of them seem to be  graduate students with a professed interest in digital humanities or related fields.

This being a bot, tweets are generated and sent automatically, according to an algorithm established by the bot’s creator. In this case, that person is Mark Sample, Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College (North Carolina). Sample makes a lot of Twitter bots – he’s also behind @FavThingsBot, @WhitmanFML, @blackboughbot and others. The practice of bot-making, which Sample characterizes as “creative coding” seems to be a considerable part of his broader academic project. He has written about the practice of creating bots as a path into theorizing digital media (here’s a blog post on this). Because Sample is a tenured professor and this work is part of his scholarship, his labor in relation to such projects is compensated as a part of his formal job description. I would venture to guess, although I can’t say for certain, that he has more freedom to focus on these extra-textual forms of scholarship now that he is based in a department of Digital Studies (as opposed to a prior appointment in English).

There is not a formal editorial process behind @SaveHumanities, as the content is generated at random. However, the content of the bot’s tweets are not necessarily how its success is measured. Rather, its utility lies in the process of “creative coding” and the way that process contributes to Sample’s theory-making. Additionally, in recent essay on protest bots (where he makes an analogy between protest bots and protest songs), Sample argues that the success of certain kinds of bots lies in their ability to, quoting Adorno, “present society a bill it cannot pay.” That is, that (protest) bots can potentially act as social critics. Although the extent to which this is true is certainly up for debate, @SaveHumanities and the practice of “creative coding” certainly offers a kind of cultural technique, or model for further inquiry. In fact, Sample is not the only academic whose scholarship incorporates the practice.

I cannot imagine something like the @SaveHumanities bot making a substantive contribution in LIS scholarship in the traditional sense. Unlike in a field like Digital Studies, I don’t necessarily see bot-making leading into theory-making. (Although, never say never, I guess.) I do however, see a place for this kind of work into the kind of digital pedagogies some in LIS are engaged with, especially around digital literac[ies]. Making Twitter bots –even utterly silly ones – is a way to get hands-on coding experience. Because they re-purpose something that was originally created for a different purpose (automated customer service, targeted advertising, etc.) the process of making one’s own bot could be a lens through which to reflect on computational culture more broadly. Although making a bot that collects and aggregates information in real time (like @SaveHumanities) is more complicated, building a Twitter bot based on a predetermined corpus is actually relatively simple.  To start, take a look at this tutorial post from Robin Davis, an Emerging Technologies Librarian at CUNY.