On Technology and the Arts: Poets, Performers, and Computer Programs (FNM231)

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My own research, comparing relative frequency of the types of metrical verses in the poem Beowulf. It wouldn’t have been possible without digital humanities! Or, rather, it would have been possible, but it would have taken a long time.

The intersection between arts and technology is a messy one. I think this is primarily because we humans like to believe about ourselves that there is some kind of uniqueness about consciousness that can only be captured in the human experience. We like to think that digital art isn’t “true” art, that computers can’t possibly write poetry, that we alone are capable of aesthetic. I, for one, do not think that technology violates the integrity of performance art or literature, and I readily welcome the aid of new media in the access and consumption of the old.

My Digital Humanities board was naturally inspired by my research with the Wheaton College Lexomics group. While there, I learned that elements of “writing style” and “voice” could be made into quantifiable data points and could be used to compare the writings of multiple authors, and I had the epiphany that art and poetry are perhaps not as exclusively human as I would have liked to believe. However, digital analysis is not just about shattering the illusions about the nature of intelligent life. It’s also about making literature readily available to a wide number of people by digitizing it and adding searchable tags. Gone are the days when you need to wait weeks for the corpus of Percy Shelley because someone checked it out at the library. Once the records are properly categorized, they can be used to analyze the data and find general patterns that would otherwise have been difficult to find.

I searched for a variety of opinions on the topic, and I did in fact come across a few articles that were openly against digital humanities. The arguments raised in these pieces were mainly coming from the perspective of humanists who think that art is a raw human thing or bitter historians who are angry that their life’s work can now be done in a few minutes by a computer. It’s no secret that I don’t agree with these articles, but I thought I should include them, because once I know what reasons the opposition gives, I know how to argue back.

My New Media in the Performing Arts board was inspired by going to see Charlotte Meehan’s 27 Tips for Banishing the Blues, which used large screens for some of the characters and forced live actors to interact with prerecorded video. I expected only to find articles about people using technology for needlessly elaborate avant-garde tasks for no other reason than to bother traditionalists. What I ended up finding were actually ways that technology makes performing arts and humanities more accessible to a wider number of people. For instance, the Subtitle Glasses, the closed-captioned LED screens at live theaters, and the recording of productions for those who would not otherwise be able to access them. To be sure, I did find many examples of just incorporating technology into theatre for the sake of Doing Something New™, but it is also sort of a necessary part of engaging the audience that is otherwise bored with passive media consumption. Livetweeting and encouraging audience participation are an integral part of generating interest and retrieving feedback.

I had the good fortune of working on this project concurrently with my WheaTalks presentation, which conveniently dovetailed with my boards in a number of ways. Obviously, because I was talking about the use of computers for literary analysis, I wanted to defend the use of computers for understanding the arts, specifically addressing the concerns of those using the argument from consciousness. However, also I happened to be giving a performance. And that performance used technology. I couldn’t imagine giving a lecture on the verse types of Anglo-Saxon poetry without microphones or the divine hand of PowerPoint, fighting against boredom for the attention of the audience from multiple perspectives: visuals, audio, and humor.

I am also grateful to this project for introducing me to my favorite opening sentence to an article of all time:

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What elegance.

Pinterest itself as a social medium leaves much to be desired. It is nice as an archival tool for myself, to keep track of links I’ll never read or shoes I’ll never afford. Then again, I can bookmark pages straight through my browser. Interactivity between members is limited to commenting or liking individual pins, or just re-pinning pins to another board. It’s also a problem for intellectual property; I have noticed many a pin left uncredited and unlinked, left to stand on its own in a cruel and unforgiving fate stagnating at the bottom of a board whose order may never be changed without even a caption to its name.

I will conceded that Pinterest is lovely in its minimalism, but in that minimalism is lost the capacity for meaningful interactions and getting more information from each link. I have the same problem with Twitter, which in its succinctness forces users to link to outside sources to understand the full context. However, the one great affordance of Pinterest is its emphasis on visuals; unlike a block of text, an image can be instantly absorbed and assessed. As a tool for finding people with similar interests or learning about a given topic, it falls quite short. As a tool for posting pretty pictures of wedding inspirations, it’s probably the best social medium there is.


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