Category > Blog Essays

Citation: “Theses on the Epistemology of the Digital: Advice For the Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge.” Alan Liu, 14 August 2014. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/theses-on-the-epistemology-of-the-digital-page/

The following was written as a solicited follow-up to my participation in the second planning consultation session of the new Cambridge University Centre for Digital Knowledge. The session, held on 7 May 2014 at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), focused on “digital epistemology,” one of the two intended thematic strands of the Centre for Digital Knowledge. A previous planning consultation at CRASSH that I did not attend focused on the other intended strand of “digital society.”

My theses below are meant more as provocation than as prescription; and they do not take account of plans that may have been put in place for the Center for Digital Knowledge since the planning consultations.

Thesis 1: Enlightening the Digital

Establishing a Centre for Digital Knowledge oriented around the “epistemology of digital knowledge” will require a laser-sharp focus on making “knowledge” a productive framework for understanding the digital age. This framework must be robust enough to compete with such more common gestalts as “society,” “politics,” “culture,” and “economy” (represented in such phrases as “information society,” ‘”surveillance society,” “social media,” “online culture,” “information economy,” etc.). The proposed Centre for Digital Knowledge can generate its agenda by deliberately harnessing the tension between knowledge (including ideals of academic knowledge shaped by the German research university model and the Enlightenment) and social, cultural, and economic understandings of the digital age….

Citation: “‘Why I’m In It’ x 2 – Antiphonal Response to Stephan Ramsay on Digital Humanities and Cultural Criticism.” Alan Liu, 13 September 2013. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/why-im-in-it-x-2-antiphonal-response-to-stephan-ramsay-on-digital-humanities-and-cultural-criticism/

September 13, 2013

i. Prelude

On January 7, 2011, Stephen Ramsay and I both participated in the memorable panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles entitled “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities.” We both launched on that day controversial theses about the digital humanities by asking leading questions. Steve asked, “Do you have to know how to code [build, make]?”, and I asked, “Where is cultural criticism in the digital humanities?”

Now, two and a half years on, we have (virtually) converged again at the intersection between questions about the nature of the digital humanities field and questions about its relation to cultural criticism.  . . .

Citation: “The Digital Humanities and Identity Issues.” Alan Liu, 11 May 2013. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/the-digital-humanities-and-identity-issues/

11 May 2013

I think that the distinctive identity issue to address in considering “the intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability and the digital humanities” is the political economy of digital-human identity today. Such identity consists in a relational set of overlaps and differences between at least two [groups] of the digital human: those who stand in the position of producers or managers of the technologies and media that shape life in the information age, and those whose “power of identity” (to use Manuel Castells’s term from his trilogy about network society) is shaped by or against those technologies and media without having direct access to producing or managing them.  . . .

Citation: “Is Digital Humanities a Field? — An Answer From the Point of View of Language.” Alan Liu, 6 March 2013. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/is-digital-humanities-a-field-an-answer-from-the-point-of-view-of-language/

6 March 2013

Over the past few years, I have wrestled with a low-level set of usage and style problems when publishing essays related to digital-humanities issues. These may be put in the form of the two questions: is “digital humanities” singular or plural? and should we crown the phrase with the definite article (“the digital humanities”)?

Of course, these are prosaic questions. But the issues they represent have the unsettling habit of showing up in the most prominent places, such as in the title of an essay I have forthcoming in The Changing Profession section of PMLA. Where my manuscript originally read, “The Meaning of Digital Humanities,” my copy editor has revised to,”The Meaning of the Digital Humanities.” Nor is it just in prominent places that the issues appear. Usage problems of this sort are pervasive to the point that my manuscripts on [the] digital humanities tend to be sprinkled throughout with innumerable tiny problems at the low level of articles and subject-verb agreements. . . .

Citation: Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III, “Humanities in the Digital Age.” Inside Higher Ed — Views, 1 October 2012. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/10/01/essay-opportunities-humanities-programs-digital-era/

This was written for the 4Humanities.org “Humanities, Plain & Simple” initiative.

Citation: “The Humanities and Tomorrow’s Discoveries.” 4Humanities, 25 July 2012. http://4humanities.org/2012/07/alan-liu-the-humanities-and-tomorrows-discoveries/

25 July 2012

I think that the distinctive identity issue to address in Today, we use words like invention, innovation, and breakthrough to describe the most hopeful visions for the future of humanity. We pin our hopes on technological and other breakthroughs that might switch on whole new levels of economic, social, and personal well-being–or, just as important, help ward off threats to well-being. We even have a name for the greatest human challenges whose breakthrough solutions–not yet in sight–will require sustained innovation by large numbers of researchers across many fields. We call these “grand challenges.” As identified by the U.S. President’s Office, the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and other public and private agencies, the grand challenges for the 21st century will be global in scale and require collaborative, interdisciplinary solutions on multiple fronts: scientific, engineering, biomedical, agricultural, social, economic, cultural, ethical, and educational. World energy, world climate, world hunger and thirst, world disease, world security. These are some of the grand challenges of the 21st century.

Yet not one of the words invention, innovation, and breakthrough are as powerful as the word that encompasses them all and gives them their full human meaning. That word is discovery, for which a society’s preparedness in the humanities is as vital as in any other field. Discovery is what happens when an invention, innovation, or breakthrough occurs in a fully human horizon of understanding that radically multiplies its value, discovering connections to whole worlds of human meaning and possibility.  . . .

Citation: “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu, 7 January 2011. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/

7 January 2011

Original full text of paper presented at the panel on “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities,” Modern Language Association convention, Los Angeles, 7 January 2011. (The paper was delivered in truncated, improvised form at the actual event due to time constraints.) An expanded version of this paper (full text) was later published under the same title in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): 490-509.

This is the occasion to announce the new initiative titled 4Humanities: Advocating for the Humanities, which is subtitled “Powered by the International Digital Humanities Community.” The site, which I and a collective of digital humanists in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia started in November 2010 in the wake of discussion on the Humanist List about whether the digital humanities had become too “industrialised” and about the budget “cuts” in the United Kingdom, is a platform for advocacy statements for the humanities and other forms of showcasing the value of the humanities. The premise of the site is that the digital humanities have a special role to play today in helping the humanities communicate in contemporary media networks. . . .

Citation: “A New Metaphor for Reading.” Invited contribution to “Room for Debate” forum on “Does the Brain Like E-Books?” New York Times, 14 October 2009. http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/

This is one of the earliest “blog” essays I wrote–so early that it preceded the era of blogs.

Citation: “Should We Link to the Unabomber? An Essay on Practical Web Ethics.” English Department, UC Santa Barbara, 9 October 1995. http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/research/whyuna.htm

Date: 9 October 1995

Background: The Emergence of the Unabomber Manifesto on the Net

Shortly after the publication of the Unabomber’s “Manifesto on Industrial Society and its Future” in the New York Times and Washington Post on Sept. 19, 1995, Time-Warner mounted the Manifesto on its Web server and made it available as a subpage (titled “Unabomber: Tightening the Net”) from its Pathfinder home page. The link to the full text of the Manifesto is accompanied on the “Tightening the Net” page by links to a variety of mainstream media stories and commentary as well as by updates on the FBI’s manhunt. Copies of the Manifesto have subsequently also appeared on other servers on the net.

The Issue: To Link or Not to Link From a Scholarly Research Page

The Manifesto, its context, and its reception are events of major interest to scholars in such fields as science-technology-and-culture, sociology, journalism, etc. This is all the more so because the distinctly academic style of argumentation and language in the Manifesto (which comes complete with the bomber’s endnotes) establishes an intense feedback loop or “reverb” with the academic institutions whose faculty and staff have been among the bomber’s favorite targets–and casualties.

Given the nature of the Manifesto’s original publication history, however (i.e., violently coerced), the ethics of participating to any degree in the further dissemination of the document is problematic. This is certainly the case if one were considering mounting a duplicate of the whole document on one’s server. But it is also the case, however attenuated and primarily symbolic, if one is merely considering creating a link to the document as it exists on someone else’s server.

In the broadest perspective, the Unabomber incident is a uniquely compelling test of the ethics of pure research. . . .