Osmotic Networks and the Ekphrastic Death of Archive Fever

The Digital Humanities Summer Institute kicked off this morning in an auditorium chockablock with wide-eyed geeks. Not long into the welcoming remarks, one of the event organizers explained, quite plainly, that what you take away from the Institute is only 12% what you learn in the course you’ve chosen. The other 88%, he said, is about the people sitting around you. What followed in this opening ceremony was a series of Harry Potter analogies employed to describe the various objectives of the different courses (the “dark art” of databases, the unconference sessions in the “room of requirement,” the “muggle-oriented” multimedia design) and a deep sense, in reading even the smallest gestural cues in the room, that the week is truly not about learning but perhaps more importantly about excitement.

In the middle of the opening remarks, a member of the audience stood up to ask that we all thank and recognize the First Nations people who have allowed us to learn on their land. This, followed by a prompt apology for not having started the ceremony with this, was not an admonition but a reminder. And it seemed perfectly timed to remind me and everyone that Victoria, with its snow-capped mountains you can see over the beach at Smuggler’s Cave and the sweet smell of the trees someone called to my attention on my ride from the airport last night, is a space so precious, old, and fragile; it reminds us to remember, as often as we can, that even the “human” we place at the center of the digital humanities is not the only thing we care for. When I was walking to my seat after lunch for a keynote lecture, I felt overwhelmed by anxiety when I saw a caterpillar crawling across the rug, camouflaged and so awaiting an inevitable demise. And as I walked outside with it on a small piece of paper, I realized there might be something unique about Victoria itself that allows us to ever-widen our intellectual and affective lenses.

How fitting, then, that George Dyson, the first keynote speaker of the conference, implored us to do just that. In his swift but rigorous history of computing – from the financial records of the 13th century in “stock” sticks given to the King to the many, many basements where our first computers lived and are now documented – he suggested that we resist the impulse to start a new project before we have a full understanding of the ones that came before us. And yet, how hard. Just as he scrolled through the moments of utter doubt scribbled in the usage logs of the EDVAC computer at Princeton – “I am finished” – we were soon to find ourselves dizzied by juggling the nuts and bolts of Max MSP‘s various objects while trying to imagine their combinatorial potential.

This we did in our Physical Computing and Desktop Fabrication for Humanists class. In our morning discussion, we talked broadly about the kinds of things physical computing makes possible. As we listed more and more things about interaction design – sensors tripping Arduinos tripping LEDs – the more it occurred to me that maybe physical computing and desktop fabrication might also make possible was is precisely not interactive. What if we could print lost objects from the historical records based on descriptions from texts? What if we could reimagine what it was like to hold something we simply have no trace of today? This, as it turns out, is precisely what one of our instructors, Devon Elliott, does in his work on the history of stage magic. As I stood around to talk with Edward Jones-Imhotep and Kari Kraus, we spitballed that maybe, in fact, ekphrasis might lead us to the end of the archive fever if we can get 3D printing done right in the humanities. Maybe the death drive itself is conquered by the computational power of 3D modeling.

Or maybe we’re just a little excited on our first day.

I came to DHSI fully knowing how little I might gain from the week by way of instruction. Which is not to say that the instruction is lacking. It’s to say that inspiration is abundant. It’s in the osmotic inspiration, the kind that slips through you and reminds you of all the exciting stuff you haven’t done yet. It’s an excitement you can’t always get at home, especially when you’re not always surrounded by people with such brilliantly new and yet totally familiar projects.

It smells so great here. Like fresh cut grass and plastic.

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Culture Lab @ ASC.

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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