Daniel Powell

Navigating Culture in an Age of Digital Abundance – Presentation

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[updated 19 November 2014]

Today I am giving an Ignite! talk at the Being Human Festival, based today at Senate House at the University of London. The overall theme of today is “Too Much Information,” and I am excited to be taking part! As an Ignite! presenter, I will have five minutes and twenty slides to present on my topic–Navigating Culture in an Age of Digital Abundance.” Each slide will be on screen for 15 seconds.

I’ve done similar things before, but usually as Pecha Kuchas, where you get 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, for a total of six minutes 20 seconds. Ignite is quite a bit shorter, necessitating some difficult choices with regards to images, talking points, and how best to get my point across.

In brief, my presentation argues that the best way to think about information overload in a digital age is to better think about how we can develop systems and networks to make information more usable. This information could be catalogue holdings, youtube videos, scanned books, music files, whatever. The important thing is that for this mass of content to be discoverable, usable, and enjoyable, it has to be organised and accessible. Trusting in crowdsourced networks to assess goods and media, to organise and catalogue, and to recommend content is perhaps the only effective way to grapple with the sheer numbers. As Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload–it’s filter failure.” And the best way to make filters is to join together in networks and do so as a community, a radical change from how culture and knowledge have been put forward in the past.

Given the time constraints, I’ve pasted my slides below in PNG format; those in the room might find it easier to revisit and/or follow along here than in real time!

[Edit: Since presenting, I have gone through and added text to these slides, giving a more accurate, though not word for word, account of the presentation and significance of each slide.]

 

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Hi everyone! I am here to present on Navigating Culture in and Age of Digital Abundance (With a little help from my friends).

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My name is Daniel Powell, and I am currently a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, as well as a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

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As the theme of this session suggests, we are overloaded with information. The British Library holds around 14 million books, out of a total of about 150 million items.

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They’re not alone; iTunes has over 43 million songs, 300,000 TV shows, and 85,000 films. Google Books has digitised about 30 million books out of their projected total of 129 million books published during human history.

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These kinds of numbers are not new. This is a cartoon and poem from Punch, published in 1850, showing a man overwhelmed by the catalogue of the British Museum Library. They tried to print a catalogue from 1841-1855 or so but gave up because it was too big.

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They’re hard at work to solve these types of problems though, the BL. They recently released, for example, over a million images on Flickr for public use and, perhaps more importantly, for open tagging and organisation.

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We do these kinds of things all the time, organising information and actively contributing to a culture of knowledge on the web. We contribute Amazon product reviews, for instance, on products like this one.

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We build knowledge in ways that even a decade ago were unimaginable, as in this page on the history of the Iraq War. This is knowledge, and history, made by you and me. I could go change this right now. So could you.

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The ways in which we make knowledge, and how we make and use culture, are changing. Knowledge and culture are moving from something some one does to something we do together.

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So you can go to Transcribe Bentham and help transcribe the manuscripts of philosopher and thinker Jeremy Bentham, hundreds of thousands of which have never been seen outside an archive. This project is based at UCL up the road.

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Or you can help record what restaurants in New York City were serving for the last hundred years. The NY Public Library has thousands upon thousands of these menus that are unknown and unusable. You can make them available again.

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Zooniverse at the University of Oxford has developed a number of projects, from identifying the shapes of galaxies to recording World War I diaries to tracing weather patterns using ships logs for research on climate change.

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You can even help build a scholarly edition, as with the Devonshire Project. This edition is mounted on Wikibooks and open to editing by you, me, and everyone. Anyone can intervene in this key document from the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.

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These projects point to the idea that the way we do knowledge is changing. It is less and less like this, with someone like me standing in front of a room lecturing to a crowd of rapt listeners.

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And culture overall is less and less a silent group of people crowded around a radio or television, receiving what someone else is sending out.

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More and more, culture and knowledge is moving from a one-to-one structure to a many-to-many structure, with us gathered around virtual tables, mixing boards, and canvasses.

 

 

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Instead of one to one transmission, we are increasingly parts of a network that is dense, complex, and above all active. That little white space in the middle could be me, it could by you, it could be anyone.

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So although we’re talking about too much information and information overload, the issue is not so much that there is too much information. It’s that we’re bad at getting what we need, at knowing what to use, at figuring out what to trust. Our filters are broken.

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Part of fixing our filters and successfully using knowledge and building culture is to embrace this shift to the idea of networks of social knowledge. Filters are best built by us, for each other, as needed. Information, and its use, is social, but it should be consciously social.

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Thanks for coming out!

 

DH 2014 – Roundup and Reflections

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It has been about two weeks since the end of Digital Humanities 2014. Taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland, the conference was a wonderful gathering of senior faculty, graduate students, #altac professionals, and the usual type of folks you find at a digital humanities conference or workshop. As my first DH (I missed Nebraska last year because of a scheduling conflict), I was suitably impressed at the range of topics on display, the projects that people were showcasing, and of course the keynotes.

Despite recently moving to London to take up an Early Stage Researcher position to explore digital social editing and the scholarly edition, I found myself (as always) drawn to panels and papers basically professional in their nature. In other words, rather than more esoteric topics. Regardless, here are some of my favourite presentations and sessions from the conference: Read the rest of this entry »

The London Job – An Introduction to DiXiT and Social Editing

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[This post is cross-posted with the newly-created DiXiT Blog, on which all project participants will be posting about their research for the next three years.]

When one turns to the Pythia of our age, Google, and enters “textual editing” as a search term for images, an interesting set appear.

From left to right, they are

  • The logo of the Textual Editing Framework, a framework designed to create model editors for textual notations.
  • A still shot of a video of Elena Pierazzo, president of the Text Encoding Initiative Council, teaching a course on Digital Textual Editing at DH Summer School 2013 in Bern, Switzerland.
  • The cover of the book Electronic Textual Editing, an anthology edited by Lou Burnard, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, and John Unsworth.
  • A student with a Macbook laptop, an external monitor, and a towering microfilm reader (presumably editing some text).
  • A cropped medieval painting of a wizened old man, likely a monk, consulting a book placed on a pedestal in front of him.

These images, taken together, do a fairly good job of providing a snapshot of current debates, trends, arguments, and issues in what we broadly consider to be “digital scholarly editing.” After all, editors do something quite established (the monk & his book), often with cutting edge tools (the Textual Editing Framework, the laptop), sometimes with very old tools and materials (the microfilm reader), the results of which are often disseminated in seemingly dated forms (the scholarly collection on Electronic Textual Editing). Social_RedAt the same time, digital scholarly editing is a field of inquiry constantly in redefinition, in argument, and in propagation (the new media form of a video recording of a lecture devoted to changing ideas of what a scholarly edition is and can be). The manner of inquiry (querying Google) is also telling: it relies not on my personal knowledge of the field, but upon the collected “wisdom” of untold writers, image uploaders, programmers, software developers, scholars, and so on. The contours of textual editing as suggested by these images are fundamentally social.

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He’s Still Here

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The last few months have been, even for me, hectic. Usually, I make sure to carve out time to update this blog, keep my CV in order, and so on and so forth.

Since December or so, that’s all gone out the window. A combination of conference travel, job applications (and interviews and negotiations), several weddings across the continent, and a major grant for the Mellon foundation has not only kept me off the blogosphere, but also taken its toll on my academic writing (read: my dissertation), and my bank account.

A quick accounting:

January – MLA 2014 in Chicago, where I organized a panel of six graduate students on New Models for the Dissertation. It was well received, and even led to some press for some of our participants in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s hipper, more well-designed sister site Vitae. I managed to, amid the din and chaos, interview some folks for an ongoing research project looking into digital collaborations and community engagement.

February – INKE in Whistler, British Columbia. One of two yearly gatherings, this one centred on the future of scholarly publishing and featured an absolutely wonderful group of participants theorizing what the next few decades of academic publication might look like. I presented on the Renaissance Knowledge Network, an integrated research, analysis, and publication environment that we are currently laying the groundwork for in the ETCL. Leadership from Iter and the Advanced Research Consortium also had the chance to sit down with us to strategize next steps for the grant to start work on ReKN.

March – Digital Humanities Australasia 2014 in Perth, Australia, preceded by over a week of meetings, consultations, invited lectures, and general academic networking in Sydney, Australia. In Sydney, I presented on Digital Humanities Spaces and Microclimates, with particular attention paid to libraries, centres, and so on, as well as meeting with a variety of folks at the University of Western Sydney (my hosts & sponsors), the University of Sydney, and the University of Technology, Sydney. In Perth, I presented on regional networks of digital scholarship, with a particular emphasis on the Pacific Northwest. At the same conference, I participated in a debate on the necessity of literary visualizations pace Moretti, and give my 18 cents on a panel/workshop devoted to #altac careers. This was an amazing time, but draining.

April – Literally 24 hours after returning from Australia, via Hong Kong, my partner and I left for South Carolina for two weddings, one of which I helmed as best man to a dear old friend. We got back to British Columbia last week, on 8 April.

Throughout that, I’ve managed to revise a collaboratively written article that is about a year behind schedule, revise a course proposal for DHSI 2015 with Melissa Dalgleish, apply for an academic position at King’s College London, interview for that job, undertake multiple revisions to a major grant with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, serve as graduate representation on the Hiring Committee for a new departmental chair in English, attend a half dozen meetings of our university wide graduate student society, organize a panel for our university on current research in digital literary studies, and even, believe it or not, write some of my dissertation.

And in June, my partner and I move to London for me to take up a position at King’s College as a DiXiT Early Career Researcher researching Social Editing. So now we have to packup our lives here in Victoria and get rid of everything we can’t fit in a suitcase.

This morning I was reading Melissa’s piece on Hook & Eye, one of my favourite websites (and run by Canadian academics! ), on self care and the risks of burnout. Because I’ve been so busy, as “briefly” outlined, it really resonated with me. I think academics in general, and especially academics who teeter on the edge of overengagement and overinvestment, are simply terrible at self-care. We also like to compete for the award of most busy, which is absurd (and within the context of which my above writing looks ridiculous, I know). I hate being busy. My dissertation has suffered tremendously, even while my professional profile has grown. I know more people than ever, but sometimes I feel I have less and less to say because I haven’t had any time to get in the archives and research, to read secondary literature, or to even roughly jot down my thoughts on the topics I’ve chosen to write a book on!

So like Mel, I’m trying to figure out what a work life balance looks like, and questioning whether or not the type of academic I hope to be–dynamic, personable, collaborative, rigorous–is compatible with the life I want day to day.

Figuring out that equation is hard, as is forcing yourself to take care of yourself-especially when it’s cold and rainy outside, as it is here in Victoria. On the other hand, the trees and meadows are vibrantly green, the flowers are blooming in most places, I have a supportive and incredible partner, and my professional life is fine. Sometimes I just need to remind myself of that.

Rocky Mountain MLA

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I’m writing this from a lovely little coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, Washington called Torque. The space is large and open, with a number of old dining room tables scattered about and a big, U-shaped bar in the middle. The shop lies at the foot of the I-5 bridge that crosses the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon, in an area that seems to have been mostly railyards or light industry. The building itself was obviously a garage of some kind, and they still have the original doors on. It’s great.  They serve the best espresso, roasted in house, that I have ever had. And I live in the Pacific Northwest, so we know coffee.

Torque is right across the street from the Hilton Hotel in Vancouver, location of the just completed Rocky Mountain Modern Languages Association conference. In its 67th year, RMMLA (pronounced ‘rim-la,’ I have learned) brings together a number of language and literature academics from (theoretically) the western regions of the United States and Canada; in practice, presenters arrived from as far away as South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and New York.
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Dispatch from the West Coast, or EMDA: A Retrospective

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A few weeks after returning from the Early Modern Digital Agendas Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I feel like I’ve settled back into my routine: get up, bus to campus, work on dissertation prospectus, take a walk at lunch, work some more. Repeat. What returning to this normal process has really underscored for me is how very different the EMDA experience was from my normal professional life.

As a doctoral student, I spend my time doing doctoral student things: reading, writing, emailing (my god, the emailing), applying to conferences, grants, etc. As a research assistant at the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria, I spend my hours emailing, building digital projects, writing (different) grants, writing (different) conference papers, etc. As President of the English Graduate Students Society at UVic, I keep track of TAs, help to plan social events, keep our department as honest as possible, and so on. At EMDA, I sat in a seminar room for eight hours a day, five days a week, discussing digital tools, early modern studies, cyberinfrastructure, graduate training, and Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare.  My daily routine in DC was metro, Folger, walk to Penn for lunch, Folger, metro home (or drinks :). All of which is to say that my experience at the Folger was a strangely wonderful alternate reality close to what I assumed (as a freshman in college) graduate school and the professoriate would be like. That’s not to insult my grad experience, which has been more or less great, but to underscore the very strange pocket universe Folger institutes seem to operate in. So it’s taken awhile to get my thoughts together

Those thoughts are, in list form:

Surprise I was even there.

  • Gratitude to the Folger and Institute crew for putting the whole thing on.
  • Perpetual recognition of how intelligent and knowledgeable literally everyone in the room was about something we were discussing.
  • A newfound focus on the media archaeology of early modern studies.
  • An interest in how linguistics (especially corpus linguistics) can prompt and/or support ‘traditional’ literary & cultural analysis.
  • The extent to which technological infrastructure (from the Renaissance to present) influences how we think of our disciplinary concerns.
  • An appreciate at the sheer number of article ideas, dissertation components, disciplinary concerns, and large scale project ideas that emerged from EMDA.
  • Mild surprise at how much professional networking, project genesis, and the like take place over alcohol. While this doesn’t bother me per se, the unofficial importance it seems to have in career development gives me pause.

I mean, I am a doctoral student just entering my third year. To be in a room with folks like Joe Loewenstein, Lynne Magnusson, Jacqueline Wernimont, Brett Hirsch and pretty much every other participant was humbling. I’m not being falsely modest when I say that these folks were regularly throwing out authors, plays, poetry, and entire cultural movements in literature that I had never even heard of. At the same time, I (think) I brought a rather more hardcore digital humanities and media studies vantage point to the group. Next to that, folks like Dan Shore  often gave me, and the group, pause by dropping what I liked to think of as “philosophy bombs” into the middle of our discussions. Jacob Heil seemed to always base his contributions in his very real, and current, large digital project management experience. I could write a sentence like that for every person at EMDA (and said most of them out loud during our final night of banqueting & drinks until I wandered home with friends and partner along the Mall).

Overall, the most valuable takeaway for me personally is a new sense of community, one centred on a group of early modern digital humanities all explicitly concerned with asking the types of question and pursuing the types of projects I’ve come to think of as ‘my type’ of research. Which is of course nonsense, since it is obviously *our* type of research. And that’s no small thing.

Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #4, or What is transcription, really?

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Evolving from our discussions of XML and TEI on Monday, during Tuesday’s session the EMDA Institute we moved to a consideration of what it would actually mean to be in charge of projects geared towards the production of such XML documents. Using Heather Wolfe’s idea of an “Early Modern Manuscripts Online” (and the grant to fund the production of such a beast), our group moved through a sort of thought experiment on what a project would entail, from the ground up. In other words, what does it take to produce a useful (and, possibly, accurate) model of early modern manuscripts? What needs to happen behind the scenes to ensure that such a resource is usable by scholars, students, and the like?

To ground our inquiry, we were presented with a group of manuscripts, collected by Heather Wolfe, to transcribe and begin encoding using any schema or tagset we felt appropriate–not following TEI standards, in other words. Drawing from this group of digitized manuscripts in Luna, the Folger’s digital workspace, Scott Trudell and I began to work with a single page of a single document:

Folger Manuscript in Luna; V.a.281, 1v || 2r

Folger Manuscript in Luna; V.a.281, 1v || 2r

(See the document in Luna here)

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Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #3, or XML and TEI are Scary

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Here at Early Modern Digital Agendas, we are chugging right along. This week we switched gears rather dramatically; for the last few days of last week, we focused almost exclusively on Early English Books Online (EEBO), issues of facsimile, large corpora analysis, and the building of large collections of early modern materials. And although my title is slightly tongue in cheek, I really do get intimidated by TEI XML; despite a long association with it and using it in several contexts, I’ve never had a dedicated project of my own during which I dealt with XML day in-day out.

Today, Alan Galey, Julia Flanders, and Heather Wolfe joined our hardy band for a discussion on practical editing, diplomatic transcriptions, and the creation of XML encodings of early modern texts in accordance with TEI guidelines. As our group is fairly diverse, some individuals were quite well versed in editorial theory; others felt at home with TEI, while others had very certain theoretical engagements with both groups of practice. This in itself was interesting, since it seemed that no single one of us felt completely at ease engaging with early modern texts, textual editing, critical theory, and the technological methodologies of TEI conformant XML. Read the rest of this entry »

Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #2, or EEBO and the Infinite Weirdness

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Today at #emda13 (as Early Modern Digital Agendas has become, bowing to the necessity of a convenient hashtag), we discussed Early English Books Online and the English Short Title Catalogue with Ian Gadd (of Bath Spa University) and Deborah Leslie (Folger Shakespeare Library). Although our discussion began with the English Short Title Catalogue and EEBO as a jumping off point, we quickly went down the rabbit hole of both EEBO history and the very odd corners both scholarly resources contains.

EEBO and the ESTC both have complex and tangles histories (and sometimes an entangled history as well) that was so complex I’m sure I missed half of it. Perhaps most intriguingly, when we consult about the seemingly very digital ESTC, we are actually consulting a resource that began with Edward Arber’s 1875 Transcript of the Register of the Company of Stationers of London; this project morphed into the Catalogue of Books in the Library of the British Museum (1884), which eventually turned into Pollard & Redgrave’s Short Title Catalogue printed in 1926–since revised later in the 20th century. This STC was followed when University Microfilm International (UMI) began photographing early modern texts in the 1930s and 1940s, in the face of World War II. Eventually, the STC morphed in to the ESTC (which originally stood for *Eighteenth* century STC) in the late 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »

Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #1

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As I posted above, I’m here in hot & muggy Washington DC for Early Modern Digital Agendas, an NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities. Writing on lunch break on the second day, reflecting on the first.

The initial hours of the institute can fairly be summed up with one word: orientation. As a new reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I had to have myself photographed, fill out forms, learn how to use the (seemingly innocuous but quite complicated) combination locks in the cloak room, learn my way around the maze of multiple levels, how to request books, etc and so on.

The group–a list of whom you can find here–started off with a consideration of Turner-prize winning artist Grayson Perry’s multimodal art project The Vanity of Small Differences. Read the rest of this entry »

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