The Network is Everting: the Death of Cyberspace and the Emergence of the Digital Humanities

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Steven Edward Jones

    Loyola University, Chicago

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This paper (with slides) is drawn from a book in progress (under contract at Routledge) about an important cultural context for the digital humanities. It argues that the emergence of DH in its newly prominent forms during the past decade is closely connected to a larger shift in the collective imagination of the network. This context helps us understand the public role that DH might play in exploring multiple connections between digital and physical materialities out in the world.
“Cyberspace is everting,” as William Gibson has said, turning inside out and leaking out into the physical world (2007; 2001). Cyberspace was always a notional nonspace, a consensual hallucination. a metaphor for our relationship to the global network. But it was a powerful metaphor that made a material difference in both technology and culture. In 2007, Gibson overwrote his own metaphor in Spook Country, thirty years after he coined the term cyberspace (1984). As he now notes, the term cyberspace is fading from use as the network everts, turns itself inside out. More than a literary metaphor, this eversion of cyberspace marks a profound shift in our collective understanding of the digital network—from an online world apart to a pervasive part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to a ubiquitous grid of data we move through every day.
We can even roughly date the shift to 2005-2006, when a number of important developments occurred: the quintessential virtual world Second Life began to decline; Nintendo’s motion-control Wii was introduced and helped to usher in the era of casual gaming; so-called “Web 2.0” social networks and mobile platforms, first introduced in 2004-2005, came into their own and gained a mass user base; the Google Maps API was launched in 2005; the iPhone was previewed in 2006 and introduced in January 2007; again, Gibson’s Spook Country was published early in 2007, its story based on augmented reality and locative art and media. More recently, this same shift in the collective imagination has been tracked by proponents of the so-called New Aesthetic (2012), which notes the increasing appearances of glitches, pixel art, and so on, as signs of “the irruption of the digital into the physical.” These and other emerging expressions are part of a larger cultural change whose effects we are still experiencing, a multi-platform shift in the nature of our relation to technology, corresponding to what N. Katherine Hayles has called a fourth phase in the history of cybernetics, a phase of “mixed reality” in terms of cultural perception and material technology (148).
At about that same historical moment, the digital humanities gained public attention, emerging out of the longer tradition of humanities computing, marked by the rise of the term “digital humanities”—which was coined in 2001 but reached public consciousness and institutional weight between 2004-2007—with an emphasis on data analysis, distant reading, the maker movement, and the spatial turn, as well as a sometimes unacknowledged debt to video games and game theory.
These juxtaposed events have nothing to do with an argument for technological determinism. They’re just meant to suggest that the emergence of the new digital humanities isn’t an isolated academic phenomenon. The institutional and disciplinary changes are part of a larger cultural shift, a rapid cycle of emergence an convergence in technology and culture. The new DH is both a response to and a contributing cause of the ongoing eversion. Seen in context, the newer forms of supposedly practical or instrumental DH were produced in the first place by younger scholars working with a keen awareness of the developments I’m grouping under the concept of the eversion, and a sense of what these meant at the time for various technology platforms of interest to humanists (Gold). In the era of social networks, casual gaming, distributed cognition, augmented reality, the internet of things, the geospatial turn, one segment of new digital humanities work took a hands-on, practical turn, yes (“more hack, less yack”), but arguably based on theoretical insight, as a kind of deliberate rhetorical gesture—a dialectical counter-move to the still-prevailing idealisms associated with the cyberculture studies of the 1990s. Much of the practical DH work during the decade that followed was undertaken not in avoidance of theory or in pursuit of scientistic instrumentalism, but against disembodiment, against the ideology of cyberspace. The new DH was deliberately figured as digital not just digitized, moving from a perceived separation between the stuff of the humanities—books, manuscripts, artifacts, works of art—and the digital medium, to more of a mixed-reality model, characterized by two-way transactions between the two realms, crossing multiple materialities (Kirschenbaum; Svensson; Gold).
This kind of mixed-reality reciprocal interaction between data and artifacts, algorithm and world, has been effectively modeled for decades in video games. My paper will triangulate (1) the eversion of the network and the (2) rise of the new digital humanities by way of (3) the increasing role of video games in the contemporary media landscape. If possible, I’ll demonstrate the games live as part of the slide presentation, as examples of interdimensional transit and play across the boundaries of different materialities, citing Fez, an independent platformer with a toggling 2D/3D game world that includes QR codes incorporated in it; Wii U games and 3DS AR Games—which experiment with augmented and mixed reality in console gaming; and Skylanders, with collectible fantasy figurines, prototyped using 3D printers, containing RFID and NFC chips that create a “Hertzian field” (Dunne) within which to translate characters into and back out of the game world. As part of establishing context, I’ll also cite recent fiction about the interdimensional relation of games and the world by Neal Stephenson, Ernest Cline, and China Mieville. In conclusion I’ll suggest that games offer ways to think about the active role of DH in the ongoing eversion of the network, and about the engagement of humanities research with developments in the wider world.
Cline, E. (2011). Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers.
Dunne, A. (2005). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; rept. 2008.
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Gibson, W. (2011). Interviewed by David Wallace-Wells in The Paris Review, 197 (Summer 2011), 107-149.
Gibson, W. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.
Gibson, W. Spook Country. New York: Putnam, 2007.
Gold, M. K. (ed). (2012). Debates in the The Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gordon, E. and A. de Souza-Silva (2011). Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.
Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
Hayles, N. K. (2010). Cybernetics. In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Mitchell, W. J. T., and M. B. N. Hansen (eds.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 145-56.
Kirschenbaum, M. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mieville, C. (2009). The City and the City. New York: Del Ray.
Sterling, B. (2005). Shaping Things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Stephenson, N. (2011). Reamde. New York: William Morrow.
Svensson, P. (2009). Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities. DHQ 3.3

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO