Digital ? Environmental : Humanities


May 27, 2016 1:39 pm
Written by Leave your thoughts

Stéfan Sinclair & Stephanie Posthumus

A version of this article appears in the following collection (which is preferable to use for citations): The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann. London: Routledge, forthcoming.

We have deliberately chosen a title for this article that is at once understandable and defamiliarizing. If the words are relatively recognizable both individually and in combinations, the punctuation may seem a bit more arbitrary. Readers with some knowledge of computer programming may recognize this syntax as a ternary operator, a very compact way of formulating a conditional expression. Taken literally, at least by a computer, the title says something like “if digital is true then consider environmental, otherwise consider humanities. Except perhaps to the most creative and poetic minds, this statement may seem nonsensical (what programmers might call syntactically valid and semantically garbage), but we keep it here as it has the merit of drawing attention to the atomistic parts and prompts us to reflect on the various logical relationships that might relate them together. To really understand (or invalidate) the formulation we presumably need a solid understanding of what is the digital, what is environmental, and what are the humanities, terms that are of course complex and contextual from the start, and only grow in complexity as they are combined.

We can go beyond the individual word unit to consider compound forms like “digital humanities” and “environmental humanities,” two academic fields where introspective defining of boundaries and identities is characteristic of the scholarly literature. Indeed, this Routledge volume can be considered as exemplary of the effort to define the environmental humanities and its constitutive parts, an ongoing negotiation about such things as agents (human, animal, nature), scale (local, national, global), time (past, present, future), priorities (survival, justice, conservation), and forms of communication (film, literature, code, math). The interest in approaches that combine multiple humanities disciplines is more recent for the environmental humanities than for the digital humanities (see Figure 1), though of course fields such as environmental history and ecocriticism have a history reaching back to the 1970s.

NgramDH

Figure 1. A Google Ngram Viewer graph showing occurrences of “humanities computing”, “digital humanities” and (no) “environmental humanities” in the Google Books English corpus up to 2008 (the graph can be reproduced and modified at bit.ly/1NXIUKA). We are indebted to Jon Christensen for showing a variant of this at the Digital Environmental Humanities Workshop at McGill University in September 2013.

Humanities Computing (the term used for Digital Humanities prior to about 2000) has a much longer history as a metadiscipline, reaching back to the middle of the last century (see Hockey 2004 for a brief history); we see it register in the Google Books corpus a bit later with the establishment of the journal Computers and the Humanities in 1966. It may seem a bit curious to have conferences and publications that combine history and literature and music and many other disciplines, but for many years Humanities Computing represented a kind of refuge for scholars who felt largely marginalized from the traditional approaches of their disciplines. Moreover, Digital Humanities continues to provide a shared space for exploring methods and techniques that can apply to the messy and interpretive enterprise of studying cultural texts. In other words, Digital Humanities has partly consolidated around practical and technical questions of how to study objects of interest rather than what objects to study and what can be said about them specifically. This may be in contrast with the environmental humanities where the subject matter is the nexus (the environment as a qualifier and constraint on the much larger set of concerns in the humanities).

The Digital Humanities arguably lack thematic cohesion – the humanities are simply too expansive to be useful as an intellectual rallying point. The Environmental Humanities are thematically more coherent but perhaps lack methodological cohesion – how does one do environmental humanities? Perhaps more than anything else, this article is a proposal that the Digital Environmental Humanities potentially represent a sweet spot between conceptual and methodological concerns.


Figure 2. A schematic representation of the Digital Environmental Humanities (DEH).

We recognize that a diagram can simplify and reduce real complexities and challenges (in fact, that may be the principal vocation of diagrams), so in what follows we will provide more details on some of what we see happening at the confluence of the digital, the environmental, and the humanities. We are structuring these observations into four main branches (with multiple offshoots), though of course there are many other ways of structuring these phenomena. We are interested in part in tracing continuities between historical context (what might be called pre-DEH) and more recent activities.

1. Critical Perspectives on Technologically Mediated Experiences of Nature

We find critical reflections of the impacts of technologies on human existence nearly throughout recorded cultural history. For instance, Socrates relates the story of how Thamus gently reprimanded Theuth about his enthusiasm for the new technology of writing, which would not lead to more knowledge, as Theuth the inventor believed, but rather to the mere semblance of knowledge, and indeed to more forgetfulness (from Plato’s Phaedrus). Modern echoes of this debate can be found in Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (2008) and Chad Wellmon’s response (2012). Writing, even in non-digital forms, is certainly significant for representing real and imagined natures, transporting the reader to experience Walden’s Pond or Hogwart’s Forbidden Forest. Similar phenomena are at play in other media (though each also has its particularities), such as photography, film, animation, and video games; see for example Mossner’s contribution about film to this collection, Heise’s “Plasmatic Nature” on anime (2014), Alexander Wilson’s The Culture of Nature on documentaries (1991), and Melissa Bianchia’s work on digital game ecologies (2014).

A common thread throughout these works (and the many more of which they are only a sample), is the ways in which technologies, both analog and digital, have led to seeing and experiencing nature differently than would be otherwise possible. This ranges from enhancing a real experience (glasses, telescopes, microscopes, etc.), to capturing and representing nature (painting, film, etc.), to simulating imaginary natures (animation, video games, etc.). DEH needs to be constantly aware of the mediating effects and potential of technologies on perceptions of and access to nature, forefronting the technologies not for their own sake, but so as to notice their effects on how we understand ourselves and our surroundings. Finn Arne Jørgensen’s article “The Armchair Traveler’s Guide to Digital Environmental Humanities” (2014) is exemplary of this, drawing parallels between Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s work on how railroads shaped perceptions of landscape and how new media can do the same for an armchair nature traveller, combining texts, images, maps, GPS data, video, sound, and social media.

2. Environmental Impacts of Digital Technologies

This second branch of DEH traces the multiple material ways in which the use of digital technologies affects the environment. To some extent, the roots of this branch go much deeper if we consider more generally the ways in which technology has transformed the geological and atmospheric state of the planet. Paul Crutzen has popularized the term Anthropocene to describe the extent to which human activity has affected earth systems since the invention of the steam engine and the advent of the industrial age. Humans have of course been modifying their environment long before the 1800s but the intensity of this modification has increased exponentially since what has been called the Great Acceleration (the 1950s or so).

It is no surprise that digital technologies have played an important role in the increasing energy demands in the West. According to a recent study, the digital economy uses a tenth of the world’s electricity (Walsh). The problem with the information-communications-technologies (ICT) ecosystem is that it is becoming more and more extensive; where a typical middle-class North American family may have had one desktop computer in the 1990s, they now have several tablets, smartphones and laptops (not to mention the ever-increasing demand for cellphones around the world). Even if a company like Apple claims that its data centers are run 100% on renewable energy sources, it continues to produce an increasing number of gadgets for consumption, each year releasing new versions of the iPhone, the iPad or a new object like the  Apple Watch.

Critiquing the environmental impacts of digital technologies such as the ecological footprint of cloud computing, servers, and e-waste is an important aspect of DEH. A recent example of this work is Allison Carruth’s “The Digital Cloud and the Micropolitics of Energy” (2014). This DEH branch also examines and exposes social justice issues that arise in relation to digital technologies. Beyond the obvious examples of labour conditions in electronics factories in developing countries, there is the problem of phenomenon like crowdsourcing that appeals to the large community of internet users to accomplish repetitive or tedious tasks (for example, Mechanical Turk).[1] While crowdsourcing may help social justice organizations raise funds for new projects, it is plagued by the same problems as other forms of out-sourced work that reduces the market value of professional services..

The environmental humanities have much to contribute to the analysis of social and environmental justice issues related to the creation, use, and disposal of digital technologies. While this is a relatively recent development, it is one to which digital humanists are also committed. During her plenary talk “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” (2014), Bethany Nowviskie underscores the need to “attend to the environmental and human costs of DH—from our complicity with device manufacturers and social media manipulators, to the carbon footprint and price tag of conferences like this—and ask ourselves seriously what we might change, or grow to be.” It is these kinds of self-critical questions about our use of digital technologies (within the environmental humanities as much as within the digital humanities) that characterize this developing branch of DEH.

3. Digital Technologies and Activating Publics

Whereas the first two branches we described are focused on critical perspectives of technologies, this branch is more interested in experimenting with digital technologies to express and argue differently, and to reach broader publics (of course critical perspectives and technological experimentation are not mutually exclusive). Characteristic of this branch is a motivation to raise public awareness of environmental issues and in some cases to mobilize action.

For instance, Maya Lin’s artistic web project “What is Missing?” experiments with digital media to represent and explore species extinction. Lin’s work affords the user the opportunity to navigate interactively between local and global contexts, between past, present and speculative future, between personal and curated documentation, and between different media. “What is Missing?” provides information to be explored but also invites user contributions (“Add a Memory”) and solicits action (“What You Can Do”). The site clearly has an activist intent for its use of technology: “by creating innovative artworks that utilize sound, media, and science, people will connect with both the species and places that have disappeared or will most likely disappear if we do not act to protect them” (“About the Project”). From coverage in CNN and The New York Times to the Huffington Post and Fast Company, the project (sponsored by Bloomberg) has succeeded in garnering media attention. It has also inspired other projects, such as a group of students working in a class with co-author Sinclair on the project Losing52.org, with an attempt to reach local university-aged students with additional infographics and videos about species extinction.

Another example in this vein is a project led by Jon Christensen called City Nature which compiles and visualizes green spaces in about three dozen cities in the U.S.A. (the availability of data in different regions of the world is of course an important factor in determining what can be done). The project has a research agenda, but again, it also has an activist impetus, as Christensen (cited by Lalasz 2013) says: “The hope […] is that urban planners and activists can use City Nature’s data to eventually pinpoint the neighborhoods that have the greatest “nature need” — and take action.” In some ways, DEH is uniquely positioned to leverage digital technologies to give more visibility and prominence to the humanities: just as the 4humanities group pursues advocacy of the humanities by harnessing the digital humanities (4humanities.org/mission/), this branch of DEH leverages digital technologies to reach broader publics.

4. Digital Scholarly Tools, Environmental Content

This final branch of DEH represents the closest form of collaboration between the digital humanities and the environmental humanities as academic disciplines. It involves applying and creating tools from the digital humanities to analyze the environmental humanities, on the one hand, and developing new networks, portals, and curated interactive objects to disseminate research in the environmental humanities, on the other. In terms of this second type of use of digital scholarly tools, environmental history has been a leader. The Rachel Carson Center in Munich has been developing the Environment & Society Portal that includes many wonderful examples of digital scholarly tools (timelines, curated exhibits, etc.) to bring research in environmental history to a wider public. The Portal’s collectively edited blog, Ant Spider Bee, expressly aims “to engage academics and practitioners in exploration, discussion, and reflection about digital practices, methodologies, and applications in environmental humanities work.” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) is another excellent example from environmental history of how digital technologies (blogs, podcasts, etc.) can be successfully used to disseminate environmental content within a scholarly community.

Outside of the field of environmental history, other environmental humanities scholars have been collaborating with digital humanists to look at the possibilities of adopting and adapting digital tools. For example, literary scholar Ursula Heise and DH technician Elijah Meeks analyze large amounts of data from IUCN Red Lists to determine the kinds of narrative templates used to frame species extinction. The co-authors of the present article have also harnessed the possibilities of (not-so) big data, using text mining, topic modelling and Gephi visualizations, to analyze themes in the environmental humanities (Posthumus, Sinclair and Poplawksi, forthcoming). In addition to digital text analysis, this fourth branch of DEH uses mapping tools to critique and explore human perceptions of place and space. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are being integrated in the environmental humanities to create more complex mappings of cities, to track public awareness of environmental issues, and to critique dominant discourses about the non-human world.[2] What these different examples illustrate is that digital humanities tools can be used at varying scales from individual texts to larger data sets.

This brings us to an important point about DEH. A commonly held misconception about the digital humanities (DH) is that they advocate solely for quantitative methods of analysis and large data sets. Moreover, they are at times stereotyped as the “big, bad (scientific-methods or capitalist-driven or administration-loved) wolf” looking to take over the humanities (for an example of the genre, see Stephen Marche’s “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” 2012). In reality, the digital humanities involve many different approaches that are rooted in traditional humanities scholarship (that include such practices as interpretation, critique, exploration, and communication). A DH corpus may be textual, visual, auditory, etc. and it can include one object of study or many. What sets DH scholarship apart from traditional scholarship in philosophy, literature, and history, for example, is not its desire to take over the humanities (as if such a thing were even possible), but the importance of collaboration. While single-authored work can still be found in DH, most DH projects typically involve at least two scholars working alongside programmers, technicians, designers, students, librarians, and non-academics. In our own DEH endeavours, we have been indebted to the contributions of undergraduate students who have developed essential digital skills while working on our research projects. DEH then becomes a site for bridging the gap between academics and non-academics, students and scholars.

Four Branches of the Same Tree?

While our own work in this field is primarily representative of the fourth branch, there are lessons we have learnt that are relevant for describing DEH as a whole.

First, the importance of play, exploration, and interaction. DEH offers an opportunity for humanities scholars to take a more experimental stance with respect to their object of study, as they engage with methods they may not have been aware of before. This was the case for our project that used Neatline to map the geospatial information and the main character’s movements in a French contemporary novel (Michel Houellebecq’s La possibilité d’une île). This project was an exercise in exploration and play. Working closely with a research assistant, we transformed the novel into an interactive object that students could use to complement their reading of the text. This GIS visualization of the book’s narrative also led to some interesting discoveries about the novel that a more traditional reading had not suggested. In short, playing with and exploring the digital tools became part of the hermeneutic process (for a more in-depth explanation of this work, see Posthumus and Sinclair, 2014).

DH opens up the possibility for EH scholars to approach their object of study differently, to schedule time for play without needing to learn to program in Rails or Javascript (although this can be fun, too). Our Neatline exhibit was born from an initial curiosity about the tool and its possible applications to literary texts (it had previously been used for more environmental history projects), but had no pre-conceived research agenda. Working with a research assistant who was also an artist – Amy Goh – created a space for creativity and interaction that led to an innovative use of icons, something that Neatline designers themselves had not yet explored in full. A well-known aspect of DH, this process is one of creation and discovery, but also frustration, asking, why can’t the tool do this or that?

A second lesson learned in working on DEH projects is the importance of dissemination, curation, and critique. The publish or perish model has a stranglehold on many (untenured) humanities scholars. DH has succeeded in moving the humanities towards alternative modes of scholarship by advocating for peer evaluations that include blog posts, tweets, and digital tool development (though more remains to be done; see for example the MLA “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media”). Given the massive amounts of information available online about environmental issues, DEH has an important role to play in curating and critiquing. Again, DH provides a useful model with sites like DHNow and publications like Debates in DH that favour a publish first, review after model of scholarly dissemination (see also the PressForward.org project). While also using tweets, blogs and wikis to disseminate EH research, DEH can help filter and organize what is most relevant information for different kinds of publics (see, for example, our website dig-eh.org).

// Conclusion
for (Digital; Environmental; Humanities)

Academic disciplines progress both incrementally and cyclically. This section’s title could theoretically be parsed by a computer as something like a loop where the initial condition is digital, the loop would continue while environmental is true, and the value of humanities would increment at each cycle. As an expression of the Digital Environmental Humanities, this arguably makes slightly more sense than the article’s title, but the point again is to draw attention to the constitutive parts and the various ways in which they might logically relate.

We have tried to valorize the Digital Environmental Humanities as a generative confluence of the digital humanities and the environmental humanities, a nexus where shared methodologies are called into service for common thematic concerns (we first wrote about this interaction in a 2003 article “Ecology and Technology: Dialogue de sourds?”). We’ve structured an overview of some relevant activities around more critical perspectives (1. mediating technologies, 2. impacts of technology) and more applied approaches (3. activating publics, 4. digital scholarly tools), though of course many activities are multivalent and other structures are possible.

We’ll conclude by considering some of the DEH characteristics of this article (introspection or nombrilism, depending on perspective). In many ways this is a very conventional publication: primarily text-based, destined mostly for a specialized academic audience (and not open access – not all that public), and with relatively little opportunity for in-situ discussion and feedback. It will be frozen into a static state by the time it is published, and hardly lends itself to interactivity and exploration. It decidedly does not draw attention to its own medium of expression as a technology (except perhaps because of the disconnect with what is described). As a humanities publication it is noteworthy (though not rare) as a co-authored piece (it is the only one in the current collection), and the simultaneous authoring capabilities of Google Docs undoubtedly had an effect on the process and product. On the other hand, a pair of scholars is perhaps not as radically collaborative as one might hope (we can’t help but daydream about how this article might have looked with the collaboration of other scholars interested in the intersections of our fields). Nor have we tracked the energy consumption of our two laptops during the writing of this article or the network and server infrastructure needed to support the online work. Ultimately, we are resigned to the fact that this article is about DEH, it is not DEH (though we’ve drawn attention to some projects we think are more exemplary). In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the DEH-ness we will post a digital version of this article that will be more conducive to exploration, commentary, outreach and the integration of other tools (dig-eh.org/deh-routledge/). You can join the conversation there or tweet at #whatifDEH.

References:

Bianchi, Melissa, “Rhetoric and recapture: theorising digital game ecologies through EA’s The Sims series,” Green Letters, vol. 18.3 (2014).

Carletti, Laura, Derek McAuley, Dominic Price, Gabriella Giannachi, and Steve Benford. “Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration,” Annual Conference of Museums and the Web, Portland, Oregon, August, 2013.

Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” The Atlantic, July/August, 2008.

Carruth, Allison. “The Digital Cloud and the Micropolitics of Energy,” Public Culture, vol. 26.2 (2014).

Christensen, Jon et al., City Nature, online, accessed August 2015, citynature.stanford.edu.

Heise, Ursula, “Plasmatic Nature: Environmentalism and Animated Film,” Public Culture, vol. 26.2 (2014).

Hockey, Susan, “The History of Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Jørgensen, Finn Arne, “The Armchair Traveler’s Guide to Digital Environmental Humanities,” Environmental Humanities, vol. 4 (2014).

Lalasz, Bob, “Jon Christensen: Why Nature’s on the Margins in U.S. Cities–and That Could Be a Good Thing,” The Nature Conservatory, April 18, 2013.

Lin, Maya, “What is Missing?” online, accessed August, 2015, whatismissing.net.

Marche, Stephen, “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 28, 2012.

Mossner, Alexandra, “Touching the Senses: Environments and Technologies at the Movies” (current volume).

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene,” Plenary Talk, Digital Humanities Conference 2014.

Posthumus, Stephanie and Stéfan Sinclair, “Reading Environment(s): Digital Humanities and Ecocriticism.” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, vol. 18.3 (2014).

Posthumus, Stephanie, Stéfan Sinclair and Veronica Poplawski, “Digital Environmental Humanities: Strong Networks, Innovative Tools, Interactive Objects,” Resilience, A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, forthcoming.

Sinclair, Stéfan and Stephanie Posthumus. “Technology and Ecology: Dialogue de Sourds?” Culture and State: Landscape and Ecology, vol. 1 (2003).

Wellmon, Chad, “Why Google Isn’t Making Us Stupid…or Smart,” The Hedgehog Review, vol 14.1 (2012).

Walsh, Bryan, “The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy,” Time Magazine, August 14, 2013.

Wilson, Alexander, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, Between the Lines, 1991.

Notes:

[1] The digital humanities have used crowdsourcing in big data projects where transcription and correction, tagging and classification, of digitized content is an essential step before analysis can begin (Carletti et al.)

[2] See the work of the Digital Environmental Humanities research group at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland (led by Charles Travis), the Participatory Geoweb project (led by Renée Sieber at McGill University), the smartphone applications “(Mis)Guide to Alpine Plants” (created by Jill Didur and her research assistant Ian Arawajo at Concordia University).

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