18 October 2013

Post-Digital Humanities

This post forms part of a panel discussion as a response to a lecture given by Professor Willard McCarty at Kings College London, at the event called "The Digital and the Human: Remembering the Future of the Digital Humanities" on 17th October 2013. 

Today we live in computational abundance whereby our everyday lives and the environment that surrounds us is suffused with digital technologies. This is a world of anticipatory technology and contextual computing that uses smart diffused computational processing to create a fine web of computational resources that are embedded into the material world. Thus, the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, to the extent that to talk about the digital presupposes a disjuncture in our experience that makes less and less sense. Indeed, in a similar way to which the "online" or "being online" has become anachronistic, with our always-on smart phones and tablets and widespread wireless networking technologies, so too, perhaps, the term "digital" assumes a world of the past.
Post-Digital Philips Transitions (lighting installation, 2007)

Cascone argued as long back as the year 2000 that "the revolutionary period of the digital information age has surely passed. The tendrils of digital technology have in some way touched everyone", coining the term post-digital as a means of thinking about it (Cascone 2000: 12). Indeed, the explosion of digital information and data, combined with contraction in the time available to deal with it, has created a tendency to understand the "digital" as a "spectatorial condition", whereby we assume that "the result is that we filter and graze, skim and forward" (Bishop 2012). In a similar way to that of the art world, whereby "mainstream contemporary art simultaneously disavows and depends on the digital revolution", today mainstream humanities research equally disavows and depends on the digital – to the extent that to ask the question of the distinction raised by the digital for the humanities, is a question that the digital humanities has sought to address (McCarty 2005, 2013).

The digital humanities, at its most straightforward, is the application of computational principles, processes and machinery to humanities texts – and here I use texts to refer to all forms of materialised cultural forms, such as images, books, articles, sound, film, video, and so on. Indeed, "the digital humanities try to take account of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point towards a new way of working with representation and mediation, what might be called the digital ‘folding’ of memory and archives, whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way" (Berry 2012: 2). Much of the early work of the digital humanities was focused on getting traditional humanities materials into a form whereby they could be subject to computational work, so through digitalisation projects, new digital archives and databases, and the "marking up" of texts to enable computational analysis. However, the digital humanities have also had to come to terms with new forms of digital collections and archives, such as the web itself and the archives made from it, e.g. the Internet Archive, and indeed of archives and databases that may be made up of data about data, so called metadata, and computational non-human-readable materials.

Thus, we enter a time of a new illegibility, whereby we might say that we can no longer read what we are writing – we increasingly rely on digital technology both to write and read for us as a form of algorithmic inscription. Not only the new forms of grammatization but we are entering a phase whereby the grammatization process produces symbols and discrete representational units which become opaque to us even us they are drawn from us through technical devices that monitor and track us. As Stiegler writes, digital technology engenders,
a process of the grammatization of flows, as a process of discretization – for example, of the flow of speech, or the flow of gestures of the worker’s body – [this] is what makes possible... technical reproducibility and thus... control, and therefore, by the same stroke, the organization of short circuits inside the long circuits constitutive of transindividuation (Stiegler 2009: 40).
This process of transindividuation, through practices such as a humanities education, create the psychic structures for the possibility of thinking at all. They are constitutive of the development of the "maturity" of the individual and the collective formation and education of intelligence and knowledge. It is through transindividuation that Stiegler argues that the ability to "think for oneself" is developed, and which he has used to outline what is a "life worth living", a concern to which the humanities have traditionally been linked (Stiegler 2013). It is here, in its destablising and deconstructing moment, that Stiegler argues that the digital as presently constructed, undermines the development of attention, memory, concentration and intelligence.

Indeed, the question the digital poses to the humanities is addressed directly at what Lakatos (1980) would have called the "hard-core" of the humanities, the unspoken assumptions and ontological foundations which support the "normal" research that humanities scholars undertake on an everyday basis – for example the notion of a hermeneutically accessible"text" as a constitutive and foundational concept. Digital humanities has attempted to address these issues with notions of "close" and "distant" reading, particular practices related to dealing with both small and larger numbers of texts. However, it remains somewhat ill-equiped to deal with the hermeneutic challenges of computer generated data which nonetheless contains some sense of internal structure, meaning and in some instances, narrative, but which is structured in "chains" that are not conducive to human memory and understanding. Indeed, it raises the question of what the research programmes relevant to a post-digital humanities might be – and this is a question of both research and practice, theoretical work and building things, technologically engaged work and critical technical practice.

At the same time, and from a different direction, digital technologies have undermined and reconfigured the very texts that humanities and digital humanities scholars have taken as their research objects, and re-presented them as fragmentary forms, often realigned and interleaved with fragments from other texts. This interdiscursivity and intertextuality of the digital has, of course, been much remarked upon and even used creatively in the writing of new forms of digital and e-literature. However, in a new way, this process has, to follow Stiegler, begun to undermine the "long circuits" of culture, such that we no longer describe a method, such as the production of concordances within digital humanities, but actually a logic of computational media from which no "long chains" are reconstructed from their shorter counterparts. This, Stiegler diagnoses as a serious danger to societies as they deconstruct the very structures of education and learning on which they are built. Indeed he calls for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.

In which case, in the particular constellation of concepts and ideas represented by our increasingly computational societies, which Weiner described as a "social experiment" over twenty years ago (Weiner 1994: xv), should we ask about a post-digital humanities that is adequate to begin to address this problem?

In other words, in a time of computational abundance might it therefore be better to begin to raise the question of the "post-digital", in as much as we are rapidly entering a moment when the difficulty will be found in encountering culture outside of digital media. Indeed as Cramer argues, "in a post-digital age, the question of whether or not something is digital is no longer really important – just as the ubiquity of print, soon after Gutenberg, rendered obsolete all debates (besides historical ones) about the ‘print revolution’" (Cramer 2012: 162). This is to move away from a comparative notion of the digital, contrasted with other material forms such as paper, celluloid or photopaper, and instead begin to think about how the digital is modulated within various materialities.

Thus, the post-digital is represented by and indicative of a moment when the computational has become hegemonic. The digital is then understood as an historic moment defined in opposition to the analogue. We might no longer talk about digital versus analogue, but instead modulations of the digital or different intensities of the computational. We should therefore critically analyse the way in which cadences of the computational are made and materialised.

The post-digital humanities would then be attentive to our massively computational world and culture, but nonetheless attend to the ways in which culture is materialised and fixed in forms specific to digital material culture. That is, how culture is inscribed not just in moments of culture created by human actors, but also in the technical devices, recording systems, trackers, web bugs and beacons of the digital age, together with the giant databases they fill with narratives and documentaries about the great and the mundane, the event and the everyday. Attentive, that is, to the way in which human culture writ large, is also written digitally, in an open-ended arrangement of diverse practices and parts. A digital humanities with cultural critique, as called for by Liu (2012), is a necessary precondition for asking the kinds of questions that the post-digital raises in relation to questions of power, domination, myth and exploitation, but also in relation to the historical, social, political and cultural contexts that cadences of the digital makes possible today.


Berry, D. M. (2012) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Bishop, C. (2012) Digital Divide, Artforum, September 2012.

Cascone, K. (2000) The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, in Computer Music Journal, 24:4, pp. 12-18.

Cramer, F. (2012) Afterword, in Ludovico, A. Post-Digital Publishing, Onomatopee 77: Cabinet Project.

Lakatos, I. (1980), Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, A. (2012) Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?, Gold, M. K. (ed.) Debates in the Digital Humanities, accessed 11/1/2013, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20

Ludovico, A. (2012) Post-Digital Publishing, Onomatopee 77: Cabinet Project.

McCarty, W. (2005) Humanities Computing, London: Palgrave.

McCarty, W. (2013) Getting there from here: Remembering the future of digital humanities, 2013 Roberto Busa Award lecture, DH2013, University of Nebraska (Lincoln).

Stiegler, B. (2009) Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network, Theory Culture Society, 26, pp. 33-45.

Stiegler, B. (2013) What is a Life Worth living, London: Polity.

Weiner, L. R. (1994) Digital Woes. New York: Addison Wesley.

14 October 2013

Digital Breadcrumbs

In April 2013, the world population was 7,057,065, 162 (Hunt 2013). This is a population that increasing accesses and uses communications and digital media, and creates huge quantities of real-time and archived data, although it remains divided in its access to digital technology (Berry 2011). We often talk about the vast increase in data creation and transmission but it is sometimes difficult to find recent and useful quantitative measures of the current contours of digital media. Indeed, the internet as we tend to think of it, has become increasingly colonised by massive corporate technology stacks. These companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, are called collectively “the Stacks” (Berry 2013). Helpfully, the CIA's chief technology officer, Ira Hunt (2013), has listed the general data numbers for the "stacks" and gave some useful comparative numbers in relation to telecoms and SMS messaging (see figure 1).

Data Provider

Quantitative Measures

Google (2009 Stats from SEC filing)
More than 100 petabytes of data.
One trillion indexed URLS. 
Three million servers. 
7.2 billion page-views per day.

Facebook (August 2012)

More than one billion users in August 2012.
300 petabytes of data. more than 500 terrabytes per day. 
Holds 35% of the world's photographs.

Youtube (2013)

More than 1000 petabytes of data (1 exabyte).
More than 72 hours of video uploaded per minute. 
37 million hours per year. 
4 billion views per day.

Twitter (2013)

More than 124 billion tweets per year.
390 million tweets per day or ~4500 tweets per second.

Global Text Messaging (2013)

More than 6.1 trillion text messages per year. 
193,000 messages sent per second 
or 876 per person per year

US Cell Calls (2013)
More than 2.2 trillion minutes per year. 
19 minutes per person per day. 
Uncompressed telephone data is smaller in 
size than Youtube data in a year.

figure 1: Growth in Data Collections and Archives (adapted from Hunt 2013)

The CIA have a particular interest in big data and growth in the "digital breadcrumbs" left by digital devices. Indeed, they are tasked with security of the United States and have always had an interest in data collection and analysis, but it is fascinating to see how increasingly the value of data comes to shape the collection of SIGINT which is digital and subject to computational analysis. Hunt argued,
"The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time... Since you can't connect dots you don't have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever" (Sledge 2013)
It is also interesting to note the implicit computationality that shapes and frames the way in which intelligence is expected to develop due to the trends in data and information growth. Nevertheless, these desires shape not just the CIA or other security services, but any organisation that is interested in using archival and real-time data to undertake analysis and prediction based on data – which is increasingly all organisations in a computational age.

Information has time value, and soon can lose its potency. This drives the growth of not just big data, but real-time analysis – particularly where real-time and archival or databases can be compared and processed in real-time. Currently real-time is a huge challenge for computational systems and pushes at the limits of current computal systems and data analytic tools. Unsurprisingly, new levels of expertise are called for, usually grouped under the notion of "data science", a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach sometimes understood as the movement from "search" to "correlation". Indeed, as Hunt argues,
"It is really very nearly within our grasp to be able to compute on all human generated information," Hunt said. After that mark is reached, Hunt said, the [CIA] agency would also like to be able to save and analyze all of the digital breadcrumbs people don't even know they are creating (Sledge 2013).
In a technical sense the desire in these "really big data" applications is the move from what is called "batch map/reduce", such as represented by Hadoop and related computational systems to "real-time map/reduce" whereby real-time analytics are made possible, represented currently by technologies like Google's Dremel (Melnik et al 2010), Caffeine (Higgenbotham 2010), Impala (Brust 2012), Apache Drill (Vaughan-Nichols 2013), Spanner (Iqbal 2013), etc. This is the use of real-time stream processing combined with complex analytics and the ability to manage large historical data sets. The challenges for the hardware are considerable, requiring peta-scale RAM architectures so that the data can be held in memory, but also the construction of huge distributed memory systems enabling in-memory analytics (Hunt 2013).

Traditional Computer Processing

Real-Time Analytics/Big Data
Data on storage area network (SAN) Data at processor
Move data to question Move question to data
Backup Replication Management
Vertical Scaling Horizontal Scaling
Capacity after demand Capacity ahead of demand
Disaster recovery Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP)
Size to peak load Dynamic/elastic provisioning
Tape storage area network (SAN)
storage area network (SAN) disk
disk solid-state disk
RAM limited Peta-scale RAM

figure 2: Tectonic Technology Shifts (adapted from Hunt 2013)

These institutional demands are driving the development of new computing architectures, which have principles associated with them, such as: data close to compute, power at the edge, optical computing/optical bus, the end of the motherboard and the use of shared pools of everything, new softwarized hardware systems that allow compute, storage, networking, and even the entire data centre to be subject to software control and management (Hunt 2013). This is the final realisation of the importance of the network, and shows the limitations of current network technologies such that they become one of the constraints on future softwarized system growth.

This continues the move towards context as the key technical imaginary shaping the new real-time streaming digital environment (see Berry 2012), with principles such as "Schema on Read", which enables the data returned to be shaped in relation to the context of the question asked, "user assembled analytics", which requires answers to be given for a set of research questions, and the importance of elastic computing, which enables computing power to be utilised in reference to a query or processing demand in real-time, similar to the way electricity is drawn from in greater proportions from the mains as it is required.

These forces are combining in ways that are accelerating the pace of data collection, whether from data exhausts left by users, or through open-source intelligence that literally vacuums the data from the fibre-optic cables that straddle the globe. As such, they also raise important questions related to the form of critical technical practices that are relevant to them and how we can ensure that citizens remain informed in relation to them. To take one small example, the mobile phone is now packed with real-time sensors which is constantly monitoring and processing contextual information about its location, use and the activities of its user. This data is not always under the control of the user, and in many cases is easily leaked, hacked or collected by third parties without the understanding or consent of the user (Berry 2012).

The notion that we leave behind "digital breadcrumbs", not just on the internet, but across the whole of society, the economy, culture and even everyday life is an issue that societies are just coming to terms with. Notwithstanding the recent Snowdon revelations (see Poitras et al 2013), new computational techniques, as outlined in this article, demonstrate the disconnect between people's everyday understanding of technology, and its penetration of life and the reality of total surveillance. Not just the lives of others are at stake here, but the very shape of public culture and the ability for individuals to make a "public use of reason" (Kant 1784) without being subject to the chilling effects of state and corporate monitoring of our public activities. Indeed, computal technologies such as these described have little respect for the public/private distinction that our political systems have naturalised as part of a condition of possibility for political life at all. This makes it ever more imperative that we provide citizens with the ability to undertake critical technical practices, both in order to choose how to manage the digital breadcrumbs they leave as trails in public spaces, but also to pull down the blinds on the post-digital gaze of state and corporate interests through the use of cryptography and critical encryption practices.


Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M (2012) The social epistemologies of software, Social Epistemology, 26 (3-4), pp. 379-398. ISSN 0269-1728

Berry, D. M. (2013) Signposts for the Future of Computal Media, Stunlaw, accessed 14/10/2013, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/signposts-for-future-of-computal-media.html

Brust, (2012) Cloudera’s Impala brings Hadoop to SQL and BI, accessed 14/10/2013, http://www.zdnet.com/clouderas-impala-brings-hadoop-to-sql-and-bi-7000006413/

Higgenbotham, S. (2013) How Caffeine Is Giving Google a Turbo Boost, accessed 14/10/2013, http://gigaom.com/2010/06/11/behind-caffeine-may-be-software-to-inspire-hadoop-2-0/

Hunt, I. (2013) The CIA's "Grand Challenges" with Big Data, accessed 14/10/2013,  http://new.livestream.com/gigaom/structuredata/videos/14306067

Iqbal, M. T. (2013) Google Spanner : The Future Of NoSQL, accessed 14/10/2013,  http://www.datasciencecentral.com/profiles/blogs/google-spanner-the-future-of-nosql

Kant, I. (1784) What Is Enlightenment?, accessed 14/10/2013, http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

Melnik, S., Gubarev, A., Long, J. J., Romer, G., Shivakumar, S., Tolton, M. and Vassilakis, T. (2010) Dremel: Interactive Analysis of Web-Scale DatasetsProc. of the 36th Int'l Conf on Very Large Data Bases (2010), pp. 330-339.

Poitras, L., Rosenbach, M., Schmid, F., Stark, H. and Stock, J. (2013) How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe, Spiegel, accessed 02/07/2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/secret-documents-nsa-targeted-germany-and-eu-buildings-a-908609.html

Sledge, M. (2013) CIA's Gus Hunt On Big Data: We 'Try To Collect Everything And Hang On To It Forever', accessed 14/10/2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/20/cia-gus-hunt-big-data_n_2917842.html

Vaughan-Nichols, S. J. (2013) Drilling into Big Data with Apache Drill, accessed 14/10/2013, http://blog.smartbear.com/open-source/drilling-into-big-data-with-apache-drill/

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