Janet Murray book

In Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, author Janet H. Murray states:

“One of the most important characteristics of humanistic inquiry is that it accommodates multiple frameworks of interpretation…and is strengthened by an expanded palette of possibilities” (1).

Indeed, the humanities lend themselves to multifaceted interpretation. As we are learning this semester, digital approaches expand the possibilities of interpretation and conveyance exponentially more.

However, digital approaches are still in their infancy according to Murray, and those in the humanities who opt to utilize digital tools “are dealing with an immature medium, which is much more diffuse and has much cruder building blocks at its disposal than a mature medium like print” (3).

Murray, a Georgia Tech professor of digital media, is undoubtedly correct in this regard. However, as crude as the immature medium may be, the digital fluency of most scholars—even those younger scholars regarded as ‘digital natives’—is far more crude.

In beginning my own digital projects, I have encountered several issues which take much time to work through. Granted, it is always possible to learn and figure out the answers to problems encountered, but the point is that creating something digitally is indeed more difficult than putting pen to paper.

However, as Murray notes, the digital medium offers benefits that print simply cannot, such as stimulation, interaction, visualization, immersion, etc. Going further, Murray argues that “inventing a medium is a collective process as old as human culture,” drawing parallels between digital humanities projects and the “representational drawings or symbolic markings on tally sticks or engraved stones” found is many ancient cultures (13, 15). In other words, exploring the potential for new forms of cultural expression (and, indeed, historical recording) is an intrinsic part of being human. It is fitting, then, that the charge toward digital mediums is led by humanists.

According to Murray, digital humanists must work to understand and convey the vast potential that digital tools offer. Just as “wood…affords carving and burning; blackboards afford writing and erasing…the door handle affords pulling,” digital tools afford real and tangible uses and outcomes (60). However, as mentioned, many simply do not know these uses and outcomes, and are thusly tentative about engaging with them altogether. “We need to know now only the results of a command but also the causal relationship: such as why a digital music player has chosen a particular song, a search engine has prioritized certain sites over others, or a computer operating system has suddenly caused all my working windows to disappear” (60,61).

The take away for me is that despite whatever trepidations I may have regarding digitization—trepidations born not out of disregard or contempt but rather confusion and a sort of ‘digital fear’—I have to buck up and jump in headfirst, as do all humanists. Still, this immersion must be adjoined by coursework that focuses not only on the doing but the how as well. How else are humanists to be expected to learn about the causal relationships Murray describes—knowing why a music player chose a particular song is heavily algorithmic and may be completely foreign to most humanists (certainly to me, anyway).

However, simply saying that something is difficult to understand is not justification for bypassing a medium altogether.

My thought is that the more humanists engage with digital mediums, the more they will understand and develop projects. This frequency in project production will prompt younger scholars to demand coursework that broadens their studies from strictly humanities, to humanities and, say, coding or algorithm-centered mathematics. After all, humans did not know how to carve in wood without first experimenting and teaching. Furthermore, if the STEM push holds up and the so-called “attack on humanities” persists, then digital humanities is further guaranteed to be the path humanists need to travel (if it isn’t already). Imagine a world of historians who can program and code, can design and create, and can convey and interpret a selected history—the merger of two schools of thought is the fruition of Murray’s vision. The medium would then be invented and developed.

For the purposes of this course and my own project, I have to continue my mantra of “one step at a time.” First (and quickly) designate a topic that is both archival according to the standards set by UCF and the course. Next, choose a digital tool. Lastly, develop a coherent project.

During the process, I hope to at least begin the kind of causal understanding Murray references. While I doubt I will leave the course as an algorithm whiz, I am certain that I will begin to understand why certain commands to what – and that’s a good start.

Best,

Garrett

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