Digital Humanities: Double the Entendres, Thrice the Parable

I’ve had trouble explaining some of the core tenants of the Digital Humanities directly, so here’s a parable of one of its ideas:

This is Newsman 1. He knows a lot about A. There are a lot of letters in the alphabet, though. 26, to be exact! That’s a lot of letters to pay attention to at once, especially since A splits off into Aa, Ab, Ac…

Now, there are plenty more letters than that, and the combinations get pretty divergent. But, Newsman 1 knows that the people reading him are really only interested in Aa. He knows a lot about that, and there are enough people in the world that want to read about Aa that he can continue writing about it specifically. So, he does. He gets quite a following, which invests him with authority when speaking about Aa.

Now, there are also the people that listen to Newsman 1 because he can explain the news precisely and concisely. He speaks clearly and organizes his thoughts very well. And these people need someone like that, because the amount of information available to the average news-reader has increased exponentially. The number of things they have to know about is insane, especially if you consider that some of them are experts on B-Z. So, they rely on informed individuals to explain the complex nuances of things like Aa and Ab.

That’s a pretty efficient system for sharing information, but it has considerations that must be addressed. For instance, a lot of people who listen to Newsman 1’s  opinions about Aa also write about A or Aa. So, now Newsman 1’s opinions and ideas reach much farther than they did before. Some people credit him, some people don’t. That doesn’t matter for our purposes here; you can’t stop the signal.

This can be a good thing, if Newsman 1 is well-informed and even-handed. But, no one can know all things, even about something as specific as Aaa, let alone anything as generalized as A. That’s fair, though. We can’t expect people to be more than people, especially when they get to something they’re unfamiliar with. Or, when someone comes up with a new idea, like Aab.

Aab is kind of radical. Or maybe it’s counter-intuitive. Or maybe Newsman 1 just isn’t a fan of Aab. Either way, he says Aab is stupid and Aaa is obviously the superior idea. The people that listen to him take that negative impression into consideration when they’re talking about Aab. Now, Aab is always addressed from the angle of being compared to Aaa, which it might not have anything in common with, besides their shallow resemblances or context.

But, how could Newsman 1 know that? He writes what he knows and approaches that as thoughtfully as he can. Maybe he’ll change his mind, who knows? Maybe it’s a political idea, and he’s more on the fence than he lets on, but he has to have an opinion when he reports it. Whatever the reason for his disinterest in, or ignorance of, Aab, he is merely a dot in the chain of the spread of information. Whether he changes his mind or not, that perspective has spread through the web based on his authority on Aaa.

You might be thinking, “Yes, but aren’t there many different Newsmen. Surely, there are people who will provide coverage on the perspectives that Newsman 1 misses.” Absolutely true! But, what do you think the ratio is between people who interpret, then report, on A and those who read about it? It’s minuscule. The ideas of the many are being funneled through the visions of the few.

We rely on those people to be even-handed and informed, to report in an unbiased manner, but they’re already starting from a perspective. Unbiased reporting is a dream; good reporting takes bias into account as much as possible, but it will never try to convince you that it’s objective. Unless the reporters are lying to convince you of their opinions.

This parable represents a type of group-think on a scale that we could have never imagined before. Remember, in a world as chaotic and filled with information as this one, being even a little bit salient is a massive leg-up. It’s also a big responsibility. And it can be hard to know what information you’re actually spreading, some of it’s pretty tacit.

For instance, I used “Newsman” this entire parable. But, there are Newswomen. And, if I wanted to be truly thoughtful, I should say “Newsperson,” because I see the Gender Binary as an emergent, but artificial, social construct. But, if we ever get Androids to do the news or a member of an alien race, then “Newsperson” becomes a thoughtless generalization. And here’s where it gets tricky, if I say “Newsperson,” then will you ever imagine an alien doing it?

And if you never think of it, if it stays a strange, foreign idea, and you’re opposed to it, then how will you ever grow comfortable with it? Or even be exposed to it?

In a world as complex and chaotic as ours, as full of possibility and diversity as the bottom of the sea or the farthest star, the information people don’t address is just as meaningful as the stuff they do. A drowning man thinks only of the air-pocket, but ignores the ocean at his own risk.

So, that’s it: my triple parable. I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas I put forth. And maybe later, I’ll realize I was being a newb and reconsider. But, for now, this makes sense to me.

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