Digital Humanities Communities of Practice Author Perspectives

Tick-technology / Tock-humanities: Digital Humanities Communities of Practice

Blog post from guest editor Aaron Mauro

“Since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that share cultural practices reflecting their collective learning: from a tribe around a cave fire, to a medieval guild, to a group of nurses in a ward, to a street gang, to a community of engineers interested in brake design. Participating in these ‘communities of practice’ is essential to our learning. It is at the very core of what makes us human beings capable of meaningful knowing.”

—Etienne Wenger, “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems” 2000

How is it that a loosely knit group of San Francisco hippies, a photograph from space, and mail-order catalogue reshaped the humanities? Emerging from a countercultural ethos in the late 1960s Bay area, the still infant Internet was being used by free thinking, entrepreneurial network of people interested in, quite simply, sharing.

We see this ethos manifest today in what is commonly known as the “sharing economy.” Have you ever used Airbnb instead of a hotel or called an Uber instead of a taxi? You’ve just participated in the urbanized 21st century version of communal living. In the late 60s, as Fred Turner describes in his account of the period, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the commune movement served as an experiment for how people can work and live together. While the communes failed for a wide range of reasons, the basic economic and social structure of shared resources and entrepreneurialism survived into the 21st century. We will likely continue to see the sharing economy transform long standardized industries. The open source development model has driven innovation in technology and culture. Creative Commons copyright has given a framework through which a range of media types can be shared online while maintaining appropriate attribution. Open access publishing has removed paywalls and costly subscriptions to research and scholarship. Openness has transformed the way we work and the way we discover new ideas in nearly every field of human endeavor. This ethos has become so pervasive that it is now possible to assume it is a natural extension of online technologies. There is, however, nothing inherently open about the Internet.

Openness has a history and philosophy that we can understand. It is a sensibility that lies at the heart of digital humanities and has shaped how we collaborate and build communities. This is the focus of the Cogent Arts and Humanities open access special issue on digital humanities that Ray Siemens and myself are guest editing. We saw a need to collect articles on community formation and scholarly communication as it relates to digital humanities specifically, and Cogent OA seemed like an ideal venue to share research that reflects on issues related to “communities of practice” and scholarly communication.

As digital humanities continues to inform and influence many humanities disciplines, it’s valuable to reflect on the history of the technologies that guide our critical decisions. It is, after all, a history that aligns humanistic research with Turner’s unusual history of cyberculture. This open and communal thinking was first mapped onto a virtual network by Stewart and Lois Brand, who, in 1968, self-published the mimeographed Whole Earth Catalogue. It was a paper based clearing house of culture and tools for living on Earth. It paired farming and home construction with computing and software development. It was part message board and part product review. This seemly odd assemblage of interests was, for the early readers, perfectly suited to the late 60s culture in the Bay area. Technology and science sat side by side with the environment and sustainability. At this moment, the local and global seemed easily reconcilable. Steward Brand was fascinated by the need for a global human awareness and ran an early analogue social media campaign in 1966 to petition the spacefaring nations—then the nuclear equipped US and USSR—to photograph the “Whole Earth.” He did this by selling and giving awaybuttons that said, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?”

His question, as it happened, was answered by NASA in just a few years. Taken by the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, the most famous “Earthrise” photograph shows our vibrant blue planet over the cold gray lunar surface. It redefined our place in the universe, sparked a new global identity, and fueled the growing environmental movement. If the possessive adjective can be applied to the globe, then surely it can be applied to other things! This sense of ownership transferred to the online incarnation of The Whole Earth Catalogue called the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or WELL). The WELL began as a bulletin board system that evolved to include chat rooms (conferences) and personal web pages to support the sense of a virtual community, which survives to this day. Membership has never grown to more than a few thousand, but the WELL is often credited as being the model for online collaboration and community building.

The WELL, when it went online in the mid-80s, was dependent on an evolutionary dead end on the early Internet called EIES (pronounced “eyes”) or the Electronic Information Exchange System. This was not the Internet as we know it, and EIES was not ready for broad cultural adoption. When AT&T famously failed to purchase the commercial rights to the ARPANET’s transfer protocols (known collectively as TCP/IP) from the US military, the foundational systems for the Internet entered the public domain. From one perspective, the non-proprietary and open Internet began when a telephone giant failed to see the future of communications. From another perspective, a publicly funded research scientist a CERN made the modern Internet possible by publishing a standard that everyone could use. When he published the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) standard to a forum in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee opened the web to anyone with a computer and a connection. It is in this compressed version of the history of the Internet that we have the groundwork for how communities form and how knowledge is communicated for students and researchers in all disciplines. This account also defines a revolution that was cultural as well as technological. Digital humanities is continuous with this legacy. In a quirk of history, a species of communalism came to revive the elitism of the university along with so many staid institutions before it; it democratized access and opened original research to new audiences.

It is no longer a controversial claim to say that online environments have redefined the pace, scale, and type of work being done by humanists. However, a new conceptual framework is still needed to understand the social and cultural changes that are occurring in scholarly communication and how this communication is increasingly public, outward facing, and socially engaged. We are witnessing a moment when our communities of practice are growing methodologically, but we are also witnessing a moment in which our knowledge stakeholders are expanding along with the reach of the web. There is a kind of tick-tock shift along historical and social directions. This discursive expansion echoes the development of computing on the one hand, and a social and cultural development on the other. In other words, we tick-technology and we tock-humanities.

Many humanists now find themselves bridging multiple learning communities and knowledge stakeholders that span along local and global scales. There is a way of looking at the world that is habituated to our institutions and our local communities that needs to be expressed to a much larger community online. Etienne Wenger describes the various kinds of bridging necessary in this way. The modes of belonging include engagement, imagination, and alignment. Digital humanities is already very good engagement, which pertains to way DHers “do things together.” Doing DH is,as many have noted, collaborative because no one can possess all the technical skill required to build digital archives or build a useful text analysis tool. DHers are also very good at this “imagination” phase, which pertains to the metadiscussion of the field. “Constructing an image of ourselves, of our communities, and of the world, in order to orient ourselves, to reflect on our situation, and to explore possibilities,” as Wenger defines it. The “what is DH?” genre has been so well established at this point that Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte have collected an anthology—Defining Digital Humanities—to preserve this particular developmental moment within the DH community.

This volume, I suspect, will be an important marker in future years. It will be a snapshot of our technological context as well as the evolution of concerns facing the field. Wenger’s final category is instructive because it is where DH is heading and it is the topic of the call for papers I want to describe. We need to become more aware of our that our local research activities are aligned with local and global communities interested and invested in the information we share.

The risks of failing to bridge communities of practice is the failure of research to be received by academic and non-academic groups with other processes so that they can be effective beyond our own engagement. Wenger suggests that the scientific method is the unifying process that allows for knowledge to be aligned across fields. In the humanities, we have several levels of “alignment” that need to occur and some forces that should not be aligned. Open access is an ethical standard as well as an publishing one. Open access allows for less wealthy colleagues to perform world class research. It allows for students to have access regardless of institutional resources, and it allows the general public to be informed about the most recent developments in areas that matter most to them. Open access undermines the classist boundaries to knowledge favored by traditional publishing models, while still acknowledging that there is a price to sharing information. While technical systems to not immediately follow on the humanistic sense of ethics and progressive politics, digital humanities is poised to help these new technologies emerge with a political awareness that meets the theoretical demands from the 20th century of justice and equality.

It is this final point regarding the alignment of publishing and scholarly communication that resonates most deeply for this upcoming issue. The online collections, tools, and exhibits we build define us as a community. The people who use these artifacts, for whom these artifacts are meaningful, shape our place within local communities. Our broader cultural relevance is predicated on our inclusion of non-academic communities of practice. As a result, many questions arise that we hope our authors can answer: Can we mobilize our research to help human experience in a direct way? Can we pair teaching with community engagement on a local and global scale? Can we challenge our students to be cultural entrepreneurs capable of leveraging the power of their own collaboration to shape social forces? Has the promised democratization of society and culture of the Internet occurred in our institutions? How has language shaped access to technology? How has access shaped how gender, class, and race are expressed? How can we trouble simple and singular cultural sites like the city, state, or institution and imagine more diverse co-locations of scholarly activity? What communities are developing through a shared set of methodological practices? Is it possible to be a community of practice that is aligned through common concerns and values that emerge fromdoing something?

These are open questions that have yet to be adequately addressed. It is our hope that digital humanists can now align our local and global communities and understand how our communities of practice within a shared technological history. 

Dr. Aaron Mauro is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and English at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He is the director of the Penn State Digital Humanities Lab and teaches on topics relating to digital culture, computational text analysis, and scholarly communication. His articles on U.S. literature and culture have appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Mosaic, and Symploke among others. He has also published on issues relating to digital humanities in both Digital Studies and Digital Humanities Quarterly.

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