The dark side of the shadow of Digital Humanities

[While waiting to read the issue of difference discussing the “shadowy” digital humanities and their shadows,  I recovered from my previous blog this posts discussing the MLA panel on the dark side of DH that inspired the journal issue.]

During the launching event of Art/Works: Platform for the creative arts and industries, here in Cork, at Triskel, there was a performance of the Conflicted Theatre Company dramatizing the life of an aspiring… artist? journalist? writer? not sure… the protagonist wasn’t sure either, and ended up working as some sort of answering/calling “machine” all his life, with bleak and depressing consequences, as you might expect. It was a moving look at the dark side of a “creative” career, precisely the kind of thing that the rest of the day (and the various events that happened during it) was aiming at avoiding. First of all the panel that immediately followed, when a group of professional involved in the creative side of things gave advice about artistic and creative writing careers (especially on how to start one). One thing that I found intriguing was that several times the idea of ‘failure’ surfaced, not necessarily in negative terms. It seems to me, in fact, that in this kind of industry, failure is more than an option, is almost a necessity, in order to become a writer and an artist. We could almost speak of a “right to failure” that should be established openly (even by the industry, perhaps). The good thing about failing in arts and creative writing is that there are no real consequences (apart from the career of the one who failed, of course), compared to other profession where the consequences can be very serious.
During the discussion, it also emerged the possibility that new media (that is to say the staple food of a digital humanist diet) can be seen as something very promising that opened up unexpected possibilities in the creative field, also creating a space for experiments in which the risk of failure could be less damaging, career-wise.
Failure, of course, is part of the dark side of things, and this reminded me of a panel I attended at the recent MLA about The dark side of the digital humanities, which was in fact addressing a similar issue. But what if the dark side is actually the bright side? If new media, more than a solution, is a problem? This was the main point of the first speaker at the MLA panel, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, when he said that the dark side of DH is actually its bright side, that is to say “its alleged promise to save the humanities by making them and their graduates relevant, by giving their graduates technical skills that will allow them to thrive in a difficult and precarious job market”. In his view this bright side was actually a way of giving up to a “bureaucratic technocratic logic[…] an enframing that has made publishing a question of quantity rather than quality, so that we spew forth MPUs or minimum publishable units.” The issue here is of course the way in which the humanities job market work, and how DH is NOT solving the problem. Nothing is said about the intrinsic value and potential of DH work.
The risk, however, even in cases of technically well-shaped digital work, is to “shine a flashlight under a streetlamp”. What is important is in fact what is hidden from view because of the shining light. What should be endorsed instead is precisely the dark side, “the side of passion”. Humanities, for instance, should play a role in big data “because we can see what big data ignores”. The dark side of things, in fact. Hence the importance of things such as TransfomDH, or anything that focus on Diverse and Open Digital Humanities.
Another speaker, Patrick Jagoda, considered “gamification”, that is to say “the use of game mechanics in traditionally non-games activities”, as the dark side of DH. Thanks to gamification, “the structure and logic of games creeps into consumerism, crowdsourcing, and social media applications”, like in the case of the Chore Wars website, an “house chore management system”, meant “to help you track how much housework people are doing – and to inspire everyone to do more” (McGonigal 2011: 120). According to him this trend will increase, especially in educational settings, where the use of badges is becoming more and more popular. In spite of the fact that “adopters of gamification across different fields, including education, regularly proclaim it to be an unparalleled organizational technique”, says Jagoda, “there has been some resistance to this concept and its widespread application”:

Curiously, much of the criticism has come from game designers. Gamification has been condemned, in these circles, for adopting only the least artistic aspects of contemporary digital games — namely, their repetitive grinding and achievement-oriented operant conditioning. […] My own visceral reaction to the phenomenon has often been one of deep skepticism. Game-based badges or experience points motivate people to perform repetitive tasks but not necessarily to engage closely with texts or to undertake projects at a more complex level.

This is not to say, however, that games are evil. In fact Pagoda himself designed games that

offer players interactive contexts for thinking through and experimenting with complex problems in a hands-on fashion. Digital games enable multiple learning styles and engage players at several levels simultaneously through text, graphics, animation, audio, algorithms, and haptic feedback. They spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, and do many other things that exceed the addictiveness of point accumulation and victory that characterizes gamification.

Still, we need to “navigate the darkness” of gamification, and in order to do it Jagoda, at the end of the talk, posed three questions

  • How should we think about games in the historical present when gamification is arguably not merely a local phenomenon (for instance, in business, marketing, or education) but increasingly the form that economic and social reality takes in our world? […]
  • Do the benefits of gamified “badges” outweigh their potential to operate as a reductive form of behaviorism? Should we incorporate badges into our pedagogy? Can we imagine badges that move beyond the superficial level of short-term behavioral modification? […]
  • How might we imagine what are called “serious games” or “countergames” as complicating gamification? […]

For those of you who are interested in the Dark Side, this is the first of (at least) a series of posts I am planning to write on the subject.


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