tyrants tremble, media cartels disintegrate, and collaborative castles rise in the air

sure thing bro.

Weinberger is careful to assign the above titular mentality to a caricature of technodeterminism, or technological optimism. Through that statement, among others, he carefully positions himself as a techno-realist. It seems from “Too Big to Know,” however, that the internet and the new ecology of knowledge it is creating is so potent that even techno-realists are a little too naively optimistic for me.

For example when Weinberger says, “There was a time when we thought we were doing the common folk a favor by keeping the important knowledge out of their reach, (p. 179)” it seems the implication is that we are no longer keeping important knowledge out of the reach of common folk. He cites the persecution of John Wycliffe for his attempt to vulgarize the bible into English. Perhaps we are not so overtly denying the common folk access to information but denying them we still are, only through the more insidious means of institutional and systemic depravity and abject-eductionlessness.

Though perhaps not unaware of it himself, Weinberger’s text seems to lose sight of the important distinction between the Nets capacity for information democratization and its actuality.

When Weinberger says that the “new medium of knowledge . . . can’t keep information, communication, and sociality apart, (181)” he neglects to mention who, exactly, composes this new social community.

That community is still overwhelmingly male. According to the United Nations Broadband Commission Working Group, 200 million more men have access to the internet than women.

That community is still composed most entirely of the people of the Global North (the major exception being only China which, of course, due to the restrictions of its censoring system, does not genuinely participate in the knowledge ecosystem). Just take a look at this hexadesic cartogram. When looking at this graphic keep in mind that 85% of the world’s population lives in the Global Southinternet population and penetration


The internet is mostly in English. So if you don’t speak it, sorry, this new and revolutionary “global” knowledge generation and dissemination community is not for you.


The internet is also young, very young, accord to Pew Research Center. Which some people might consider a good thing, but I for one, American domestic politics and religion aside, bemoan the loss of entire generations worth of insight and perspective from the Net.

[[here are my notes from chapters 7-9]]

Wordsworth Word Cloud Inspired Poem

Remember that word cloud that Dr. Pandora handed out? Well, I’m  not sure if any of you wrote a poem (except one fellow student), but I encourage you to post it here if you did. Hope you enjoy what I’ve written.



Meadow breath hanging

over verdant ground’s belly,

in valley collapsing, slow,

with mood of ease,

lonely in its droop.


A pace, a bounty,

a motion of utter drift,

solitary in this motion,

feeding the starved scene,

quietly letting all that can be

become grand, become river.


Intent on standing, breath builds

cottage. A sincere testament to

tranquility, it hardens, canopy of

living green creasing, bleeding into



All that speaks doth require


That breath is of the meadow, that

body of solemnity; that effigy of

sun-purpose, that statuary taking any

shape it can, adapting to all stimuli, wilting when needed.

Global Digital Humanities: Qs for 3.26 class discussion

  • Propose 1-3 questions, based on the practicalities, goals, rationales, and/or challenges of global digital humanities and/or Dr. Gil’s own pathway and interventions on this score, in response to the course prep materials for this week. Links below.
  • Share those questions by adding them in the comments section to this blog post.
  • The questions should be ones that would be useful for us to discuss with Dr. Alex Gil, this week’s Intro to Digital Humanities visiting expert at 1:30 p.m. Thursday 3.26
  • We ask that you post them here by 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening 3.25 
Links: Course Prep for 3.24 & 3.26 (links on d2l as well):

Close and Distant Readings Commensurate with Close and Distant Writings


It occurs to me that one consideration regarding close and distant reading is that there are limitations of “zoom” based on the work itself. The closeness or distance with which a work can be read must be commensurate with the level of minute detail and symbolic density (for close reading) or abstract generalization (for distant reading) infused in the work by the author. That is to say, the reader cannot perform such a close reading that would involve attributing significance to individual words or phonemes or patterns of these constituent pieces if the author did not consider these minutiae when he or she composed the work. It would be like zooming in to an image to the point where the whole screen is a blur of individual pixels: while some inspired viewer might find some highly subjective interpretation of the pixellated blob, we can not say that that blob is representative of the larger, zoomed-out image in which the resolution befits content. Close readings thus work well with works whose authors, through attention to detail, have infused each component of that work, be it a phoneme or a brush stroke, with intention.

The same principle holds true for trying to scale your perspective of a work above and beyond what the author designed. In the same way that poets often design their works to be scoured microscopically, novelists often generate their works with grander messages, meanings, or morals intended to emerge out of and beyond the literal meaning of the individual words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. These works, in this sense, lend themselves to being read in ways greater than the sum of their parts. It is this function, to keep with the example of the novel, that enables satire and other forms of socio-political commentary. While some media and works, by design, lend themselves to very distant readings, as with microscopic readings, the cultural-consumer can be telescoping in their reading of a text. Readers can slather grander meanings onto texts never intended by the author, and can use these readings of texts for their own philosophical or political agendas.

As with too close a reading of a text, too distant a reading can allow the reader to infuse/impose meaning into a text that, though unintended by the author, can be actually meaningful to the reader. When this is done frivolously or in a way that doesn’t impact others, these hyper-readings can be beneficial, allowing the reading to subjectively experience greater meaning than otherwise might have been possible from a given text.

Close and Distant Reading: A Look Into the Future

One of the core values of the humanities, especially the part that focuses on literature is “close reading”.  Close reading is a careful interpretation of text with emphasis on particular details such as individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. This practice helps the reader get a better understanding of the meaning of a text. But how should one analyze all the writings of an author or all the books written in a specific time period? There is not enough time to carefully read that much text. Digital humanist have made efforts to enable the understanding of literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of textual data. Search engines and various digital tools give us the ability to learn more about literature by letting the computer process the texts. This practice is called “distant reading” and it is sometimes criticized for distancing the human from the reading. Distant reading can’t interpret the semantics of a verse in a sonnet like a human would, but it can measure the occurrence of certain words or phrases in over a million sonnets in an instant.  Distant reading is not completely distancing the human because it still needs humans to make sense of the computer’s work. The second criticism to distant reading is its reliability and bias. Context is everything and current text mining tools still need to work on that aspect of data analysis. According to Ted Underwood, text mining is a “focused form that only shows you what you already know to expect.” I believe that we need distant reading because we can’t read all the books in the world but we also need to develop better technologies that will allow us to make distant reading more intuitive and human-like. We need artificial intelligence (AI).

AI technology would merge close and distant reading. Imagine we teach a machine to think like a human. It would read a sonet and understand its meaning, metaphors, themes. It would appreciate its beauty and language. Most importantly it would do all of this in a split second and be able to actually “close read” all the sonnets in human history before a human would finish reading even one. The distant reading of the future would not distance the human from the reading. It would put the human – its creator – at the very center of it. This would only be possible if the AI is given a human-like consciousness, where it’s self-improving and developing, learning (mimicking) from others – like a human but much faster with no physical constraints of a fragile human being. Of course, having real AI technology raises a whole new set of issues (see The Terminator). Stephen Hawking said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. We can, however, use the concept of AI to improve our current distant reading technology and make distant reading less distant but equally or even more efficient. This is already happening. Last year inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil joined Google to breathe intelligence into Google Search. He is leading a project aimed at creating software capable of understanding text as well as humans can. More information about this project can be found on the MIT Technology Review or on The Guardian.

Close and Distant

In my attempts to assess the benefits/drawbacks of close and distant reading I’ve found that I tend to limit my view of each method by reducing them to two examples, each from an individual’s perspective while employing the methods during research. The first, the example of close reading, involves an individual analyzing a small selection of work, doing so with care in repeated reading of the entirety of a text, highlighting as he/she reads, ultimately interpreting the work using a personal filter or specific lens. This form of reading, the reading most of us are familiar with, is reading for the purpose of understanding the form (structure) and function (intended effect) of the text, with special attention being paid to context and the “meaning” or impact of the works content. As individuals we bring our life-experience to the table when we attempt to analyze, in this way we are better at understanding the humanity in a body of work. However, though we excel (at times) at relating to the text we also excel at ignoring, rejecting, or overlooking potentially important information. Because we are limited both by how much we can read and our comprehension/retention of that which has been read, we aren’t great at recognizing patterns present within a corpus. Our focus on a specific work or area limits us to a “canonical fraction” of the larger body of work it belongs to.

The second example, the example of distant reading, sees an individual involved in research requiring the ability to search within a corpus to find patterns and thematic or canonical connections. You’ll notice my description of this example is quite short, the length reflects my understanding of it. I’ve never really researched using distant reading methods, and until this course hadn’t really been exposed to it as a concept, and even after reading the assigned material find that it is difficult for me to wrap my head around. I recognize the potential in distant reading, it allows us to do what we never could, we can ask questions before unanswerable and establish more quickly connections and patterns within a vast collection of work. We can even find connections between corpora, something of tremendous impact for historians as it can take what might have been considered unrelated works and find links that perhaps we never could. I fear that this method, however, is detached and cursory. Where close reading involves a relationship between the humanity of the work and the reader, it strikes me that the same connection isn’t present in distant reading, because it isn’t reading in the traditional sense.

Using both close and distant reading while researching, I think, is an exciting prospect. The inherent negative aspects of the respective methods seem to balance out when the methods combine.

Of course, there is still the issue of the politics of curation, but I’ll save that topic for in-class discussion.


While searching for information about distant reading I came across this article, which I think you all may find interesting: http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2014/10/close-reading-distant-reading-should-archival-appraisal-adjust/





In Defense of Digital Moderation

Technology is ever-increasing the ways in which we can view and research cultural artifacts, but is this a good thing? Before the widespread proliferation of the printing word, scholars could study near everything with relative ease. Books were expensive, and there wasn’t many of them. However, after book production exploded, it was far easier for scholars to focus their study towards a highly curated pool of ‘acceptable’ materials. It was hard, perhaps even impossible, to study everything, so, instead, expert filters were established in order to cull what was worthy from that which was not, but these filters were little more than a stopgap. As is now incredibly evident, filters are quickly failing. There’s too much interesting of everything to study, and without filters, we’re forced to study everything so we can filter everything ourselves. As technology has advanced, so have tools which enable a more distant, mass reading of material, but, as mentioned before, is this a good thing?

There is definitely merit in distant reading, don’t get me wrong. I think new techniques broaden perspectives and bring usually-needed variation to the echo-chambers of academic disciplines. In fact, I’d encourage anything which incites such broadening. I do, however, have a fear. We’re swimming in a sea of studiable material, and not only is it daunting, it also is stressful. Academics and scholars are those who should know things others do not, and there is pressure, be it professionally, socially, or psychologically, to know one’s devoted field of study completely. Often times one’s career hinges on the fact that one knows more, or at least as much as, everyone else in that field, and as the surfeit of useful material quickly rises, so lessens the ability of scholars to maintain their study.

It’s unsurprising that digital tools and techniques have been developed to aid in this task. If I can’t read all the books, maybe a computer can help paraphrase, and, to a limited extent, this has worked. With the mass digitization efforts such as those of Google, and a litany of others that I’m most assuredly unaware of, the problem is solved, right? Computers have saved us. The sea has been dammed. Paradigms have shifted, and this novel new world, as shiny as it might seem, makes me iffy.

Helpful as digital technologies are, there’s real risk that, if over relied upon, they’ll  encourage people to minimize close reading, as those of the past were forced to do. As already stated, the broadening of perspectives resultant from a multitude of methodologies is the true value in developing new forms of learning, seeing, and researching, but what’s the point if we simply trade one form for another? Every form has inadequacies, and it behooves us to not only utilize, but also encourage, nurture, and support all methodologies in order to best understand our world, ourselves, and our past. Developments in scholarship need to eliminate inadequacies, not supplant one for another.

Personally, I think digital tools need to be used with some conscious mediation. Just because the wheel was developed millennia ago doesn’t mean people stopped, or valued, walking. In the same way, scholars needs to value both new and old forms of scholarship. Both have their place, and both should be practiced well into the future.

The Internet as a Smart Network of Information

‘The result of the new filtering in the front is an increasingly smart network, with more hooks and ties by which we can find our way through it and make sense of what we find.’ –David Weinberger

The innovation of digital information storage and access has changed the way we understand the body of knowledge we have access to. It has always been the case that the world of data and information out there is too big to know. Viewing information on the internet has made it so that the information is at our fingertips or a click away.

On the internet there is a democratic or mobocratic manner in which information is made accessible. All information is linked and available any online user. Search engines like Google will not filter out the information to make it digestible for the online user as there are no limitations on storage space as the case maybe in a physical library. Information is rather filter forward based on the number of hits the page may get or the number of pages that link a webpage to other pages.

Within physical library systems, the volumes that are available are selected by a small group of people so that they can be made available to the public. In this system you will find that expert knowledge is given preference, works that are published in a publishing house are given preference, and works that have the most peer review are preferred. Other information is essentially filtered out because it is not immediately accessible through the library.

On the internet the links between information creates a smarter network than before. The user can access information at the click of a button. As a user goes further into researching they will find a many contradictions in knowledge as well as have access to an array of opinions on a subject. When information is filtered forward it is also not always expert information that is given preference in the hierarchy of what is viewed first.

The internet as a body of knowledge.

In David Weinberger’s, Too Big to Know, beginning on page 44 he states:
We are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. In field after field we’ve witnessed the idea of a “canon” falling. The idea that there is such a thing as “the news” that could possibly fit into a daily newspaper or newscast, that there are agreed-upon Great Works of Literature that make one literate, that there’s a reasonable way to pare an encyclopedia down to a mere 65,000 entries, that we even know what constitutes a civilization– all of these notions have been under attack for a couple of generations now. The Internet is sealing the deal.

On page 46, he expounds on this point:
The Internet simply doesn’t have what it takes to create a body of knowledge: No editors and curators who get to decide what is in or out. No agreed-upon walls to let us know that knowledge begins here, while outside uncertainty reigns– at least none that everyone accepts. There is little to none of the permanence, stability, and community fealty that a body of knowledge requires and implies.

Aside from these quotes, Weinberger makes the point over and over again that the corpus of knowledge contained in the internet is redefining our vision of how human knowledge should be organized. Our image of knowledge as an encompassing structure that, if complete, has the ability to answer all the questions in the universe is eroding simply because it is being shown to us that it was never there in the first place. We first thought that knowledge was like a puzzle, it had edges corners, and if we had all the pieces, with the right ability, we could put it together and see the whole picture.
The immense amount of facts now contained on the internet can be used to both prove and disprove a point. This shows that humans will never be able to create such a perfect system. Some of the facts we once thought were edges and corners of this puzzle were really just the front and back covers of books. Now that knowledge is on the internet, there are no such covers. Not only is it growing astronomically, but it is becoming more and more interconnected. There is so much information that even though the picture seems like there isn’t much more to add, in fact, the connections growing from within are filling the insides up so fast that it is pushing the body of knowledge ever outward from the inside.


” We don’t have to choose between them. Both have value. The Circle is a lump of qualified, sober experts. The Facebook page is a big, throbbing lump of people who want to talk about Heidegger for whatever reason. The two together form a loosely connected network of people who care about Heidegger. The participants collectively know more, they find answers faster, their curiosity is more stimulated, they are made aware of more facets of their topic, and they are involved in more discussion about those facets. The multi-way nature of the Net enables smart experts to be smarter than ever, although it’s clear that the Net can also enable us to go down wrong paths with ever more certainty.”

— Weinberger, Too Big to Know, p. 63-34

The paragraph  quoted above caught my eye as it seems to translate well into a commentary on the current state and future of education in the “digital age”. Below I’ve placed a condensed collection of notes I wrote while reading chapters 1-4 of Too Big to Know. I tried to clean it up to make the thoughts more coherent, in the process I may have made them more convoluted. Sorry for that.

The death of obsolete or plain misguided pedagogical methodologies is (and has, for some time, been) coming. The internet is not the bullet in the gun, it is one of many nails in the coffin, and as far as I can tell, not the final. Knowledge, with its various definitions, is as much affected by the new shape(s) of the information available as it is by our means of discussing and navigating that information. David Wheeler, of Plymouth University, UK, in his presentation on learning in the digital age, put it well when he wrote “For the first time we are preparing students for a future we cannot clearly describe.” That future, I think, will rely on networks of thought, networks spreading the obligation of expertise rather than attempting to contain it within a Teacher or single room. If I’m right, or at least not completely wrong, then in an age where the overload of information has been overloaded, where one’s ability to navigate the networks of knowledge is as much a struggle as the attempt to understand the information, we must adapt and create rooms that speak with rooms. Creating a network of classrooms, classrooms wherein teachers share the stage with other experts, where students understand their power to filter and contribute, is no easy feat, but it may just be the future of learning, a future we can’t clearly describe because we are still in the process of building it.