September 20 – Theorizing Digital Media . . . and Code

//September 20 – Theorizing Digital Media . . . and Code
September 20 – Theorizing Digital Media . . . and Code 2016-09-20T03:12:44-04:00



Jean Baudrillard. “Xerox and Infinity” in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, translated by James Benedict, 51–60. London ; New York: Verso, 1993. (Or online here)

Lisa Gitelman. “Introduction” in Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006.

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man pgs. 7-21


Paul Ford, “What is Code,” in Businessweek, 11 June 2015

James Gottleib, “Coding and Digital Humanities

Lawrence Lessig. “Chapters 1 and 2” in Code: Version 2.0, 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 2006. pgs. 1-28 (full book available for free download here)


History Moves proposal due.


  1. Isabelle September 16, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    One of the readings for last week (Digital_Humanities) mentioned the idea of the “ethics of the algorithm,” which can be taken in countless ways. Morality seems to always have a difficult time when coupled with progress, and this week’s readings proved no different. Gitelman discussed that with the advent of audio recordings, “the other” suddenly had more of a voice (pg 15). Minorities and women were able to have a medium to tell their stories (granted, not at the same frequency as white men, but progress is progress). As we prepare our proposals for a project abut women living with HIV (an often forgotten group of people), can we agree that there is a new responsibility, with the ever-growing accessibility to people’s stories, to ensure that the history of “the other” is better preserved? Should that be a focus of the digital humanities?

    Along the lines of morality, Lessig relates the story of Jake, a rather unremarkable (in real life) undergrad, who has a slew of online publications centered on sex, violence, and rape. Lessig seemed to condemn the kid for his vulgarity and depravity online, but at what point does something become questionable, or criminal, behavior? Should there be closer monitoring of these behaviors (after all, how may have led to real-life mass shootings?), or should there be an understanding that words are protected under the Constitution? Would there be concern if someone happened to stumble upon Jake’s private writings in a journal? And how do we deal with the inevitable validation that comes from an online following? Suddenly those who would normally feel ashamed of their private thoughts are able to find online communities who share their sentiments (I’m thinking more of white supremacists than sexual fantasies here). Is there a way to police this or should we all concede to it being protected under the first amendment?

    Finally, Ford mentions in his writing that the coding community is made up of mostly men, and that sexual harassment has become an issue at conferences. As the coding world inches closer to the humanities (which is well-populated with women), how will the demographics of one community affect the other? Will women be driven away from the digital humanities or will the large population of women in the humanities help to put an end to the harassment in the coding community? How will these two communities converge?

  2. Shoshanah September 18, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    Cornflakes and Cadillacs and Coding, oh my!!

    Many thoughts and questions on this week’s readings…

    I found Baudrillard’s ‘Xerox and Infinity’ both extremely moving and quite disturbing; full of purple prose about what it means to be human and overreaching vagueries about imagination and artifice. While I agree that, “What must always distinguish the way humans function from the way machines function, even the most intelligent of machines, is the intoxication, the sheer pleasure, that humans get from functioning” 53) I am deeply troubled by his conclusion that we are “witness to the end of anthropology” (57). If machines cannot be human because they cannot experience the intoxication of functioning, how can humanity cease to exist? What does he mean that the anthropological question “Am I man or machine” has no answer? As long as there are humans, there can be a study of humanity; therefore we are not witness to the end of anthropology. Machines are an extension of the human body–a digital prosthetic if you will–meant to enhance, not replace, humanity. In this light, maybe the study of machines in relation to humanity is a new branch of anthropology… Digital_Anthropology? Perhaps this is the definition of Digital Humanities?

    As somewhat of a ludite, I have a natural fear of coding. It’s always seemed like something handled by “numbers” people. The readings this week helped ameliorate these preconceptions and show me the necessity of understanding the ‘how’ of digital humanities in order to create the ‘what’. McLuhan takes this further, putting the focus on intention, “it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message…it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs” (7-8). The tragic events of Saturday night are an excellent example of McLuhan’s theory: a pressure cooker is neither good or bad, it’s what one does with a pressure cooker (making food or making a bomb) that is its meaning or message. Technology the potential to create and to destroy. As the operators of technology, humans determine the message. It is us who decide whether to use 3D printers to create guns or replicas of Van Gogh’s ear. Is the message always dependent on intention? Are there any mediums which have only one message, only one meaning?

    I agree with Gottlieb’s sentiments about not elevating coding above critical thinking within DH. Are these equally important? Or is critical thinking more important? Gottlieb seems to suggest that a basic understanding of coding will help Humanities scholars on a conceptual level. Can the same be said for computer programmers? Would a conceptual understanding of the Humanities force computer programmers to consider the potential destructive and creative use-value when writing code?

  3. clinclau September 19, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    1) Regulability and Philosophy
    It seems as though the themes that Lessig lays out in the introduction of his book Code 2.0 are thought by Baudrillard to be lost causes. The two agree on the inherent controls that code, as a model and tool, enforce on digital environments. Where Lessig proposes a discourse around “regulability” that considers the possibility of mindful parameters of cyberspace, Baudrillard takes a bird’s eye view, incorporating wider concepts of vision/looking and communication. Is there a middle ground between these two? Is Lessig closing the barn door after the horse has bolted? If their arguments exist on different planes – one pragmatic and the other philosophical – is that difference important?

    2) Content and Media/Actors and Actants
    In his chapter “The Medium is the Message,” McLuhan drives home an argument about the nested nature of media, that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” (p. 8, Routledge 2001 edition; p. 8 MIT Press 2002 edition) He goes on to say, “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content.’” (p. 19, Routledge 2001 edition; p. 18 MIT Press 2002 edition)

    a. Who is the burglar? Why is this analogy criminal?
    b. Is there traction in lining up this general read of media with Baudrillard’s collapse of the subject/object divide (both here in “Xerox and Infinity” and in “Simulacra and Simulation”)? Contrasting McLuhan’s read that media are “extensions of man,” Baudrillard suggests that the self is, ultimately, the content and the medium, to deleterious effect. How is this shift in understanding self and/as subject important to the way that we understand media?
    c. Is there an equivalent burglar in Baudrillard’s example of the Telecomputer Man?

  4. Whitney September 19, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    I also found Baudrillard totally compelling, especially his stating that communication via screens is “more erotic because it is at once both esoteric and transparent…this is communication in its purest form, for there is not intimacy here except with the screen and with an electronic text that is no more than a design filigreed onto life.” I wonder if there is any real truth to this, is communication stripped of all humanity other than linguistics the purest form of communication?

    Another gut-wrenching quote from Baudrillard is, “that we fall so easily into the screen’s coma of the imagination is due to the fact that the screen presents a perpetual void that we are invited to fill.” The entirety of the tone of “Xerox and Infinity” carries a sense of impending doom to all humanity, but I wonder if there is a way in which to see this particular quote as a space for optimism? The fact that this was published back in 1993 before the ever-absorbing black box we now call a phone existed suggest that, though a bit dramatic, Baudrillard did have a strong sense for where our culture would be moving; but, maybe there is a way to turn this “perpetual void” into an actual opportunity to find fulfillment.

    In “Code: Version 2.0,” Lessig makes note of James Boyle’s concept of the “Libertarian gotcha,” which really had me questioning how any current government could actually regulate blockades of the Internet itself. In countries like North Korea, have there not been successful efforts from brilliant coders and hackers to bring attempts at heavy-handed Internet regulation down? I guess what I’m asking here is how it’s even possible for entire countries to be cut off from world news and the like when there are, by Paul Ford’s account, millions of coders in the world? Is Internet access not considered a world-wide social justice issue yet?

  5. Anna September 19, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    1- In “Xerox and Infinity” Beaudrillard raises the question of reproducibility on p57. He states that “What this means on a more concrete level is that there is no longer any such thing as an act or event which is not refracted into a technical image or onto a screen, any such thing as an action which does not in some sense want to be photographed, filmed or tape-recorded, does not desire to be stored in
    memory so as to become reproducible for all eternity.” I find that passage particularly interesting and to put in relation with Walter Benjamin. Does every act or event actually want to be reproducible? Doesn’t it lack some of its value if we reproduce it? What of protocols?

    2- In Paul Ford ; “What is code?” So if computers use programming languages but there are preferences in in terms of programming languages depending on the cultures, will a PC sold in France use a different programing language than a PC sold in China? Or are all the computers formatted the same way and then each of us would download new programs and then our computers would work accordingly to our cultural preferences (Java among others)?

    3- In “Coding and digital humanities” pushing critical thinking sounds great but thinking about how to build projects that can share code and data with other project when one doesn’t know about code and data seems complicated. Digital aspect of the work comes with code. Thinking about these issues with knowing how to code would be like wanting to do a chocolate cake without chocolate. Thinking about it is great but what’s the point if we can’t actually give it a form/create it?

    4- Lawrence Lessig. “Chapters 1 and 2” in Code: Version 2.0, p 8 the author seems to hesitate between several bodies to regulate cyberspace : Courts and Congress. However when talking about cyberspace arent’t we talking about a much broader space than the US and then have many more “bodies” options? My point is not that the cyberspace should be run by any of them but if we consider legalizing the cyberspace shouldn’t it be by an organization that covers all of its users?

  6. Lauren September 20, 2016 at 2:20 am

    In Coding and Digital Humanities, I was fascinated by the idea of how writing code for a production system is a very different thought process than writing a paper. The code is inherently collaborative, a coder’s best friend is stack overflow where you can ask any nerdy question and get back snippets of code in a second. But using those pieces of code in my work is never seen as an ethics violation, I have even had entire projects around just translating one piece of code found on the internet into our systems. Though the pieces of code in themselves are hours of intense work, they career both form and function in them so why is it is so “ethical” to reuse and find others code where the idea of using pieces of others writing is unethical.

    I wrote in last week post about this idea of compoundable understanding and what in the humanities is the write unit to share to enhance compoundable understanding. this week I started to think about the communities around the world of computers and the world of humanities. In Ford’s piece, he gives insight into the day of a life of a developer (and I will say it was pretty accurate), there are particular ways you think about your work as a coder and is those ways of thinking about work in line with how the humanities does its work. Are the communities overall in a discord that would be impossible to bridge? is the way the work done fundamental to the field?

    On a different note I was fascinated by ‘Xerox and Infinity’, one of the earlier thoughts that stuck with me through the week was the notion of ‘mental prosthesis’, where he describes the future world of our bodies and minds being essential crippled and replaced by pieces of technology around us. The use of the word cripple was jarring at first, is any “enhancement” to the current self-seen as something that could cripple us but later just seen as the norm? Are we really as naive as the Telecomputer Man where we are unable to see the harm of the pieces of technology and only become a piece of itself. At this particular moment what in our lives that we are carrying around with us things have crippled us? do we care that it has crippled us? In some ways technology is the cause of bodily harm – the phone having people always bent over and cell phones causing brain damage. but as was described it is the crippling of abilities that use to be prized are now just intertwined with the machine, an example is the inability for humans to practice the skill of thoughtful discourse as easily due to information being readily available: ‘the extraordinary success of artificial intelligence is attributable to the fact that it frees us from real intelligence,’. The paper takes the idea that the merging with the machine and it being consumed/crippled by it rather than it just being a new wave of skills to navigate the world.

  7. Leslie September 20, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Considering “The Medium is the Message,” I understand that oftentimes the medium itself gets ignored in order to focus on the content (9) (maybe that is just our natural inclination as humans). I agree that medium is the message, if just for the mere fact that context is important. However, I think there is some danger (this may not be the correct word) in prioritizing the medium over content in projects, especially in the digital sphere we’re working in. So this has me wondering (and may qualify me as a “technological idiot” by McLuhan’s standards): is there a way to marry the content and medium to create one large message in which the content reinforces the content and vice-versa? Or do we have to keep the two separate so the organization and message of the two don’t become muddied and confusing?

    In “Xerox and Infinity,” Baudrillard writes,
    “There are prostheses that can work better than humans, ‘think’ or move around better than humans (or in place of humans), but there is no such thing, from the point of view of technology or in terms of the media, as a replacement for human pleasure, or for the pleasure of being human. For that to exist, machines would have to have an idea of man, have to be able to invent man… Even the most intelligent among machines are just what they are… Alas
    for the machine, it can never transcend its own operation – which, perhaps, explains the profound melancholy of the computer. All machines are celibate” (53).
    The previous page tackles the subjects of nuance and social cues that machines cannot understand, also barring them from “humanity” (which itself comes into question later on, but that’s neither here nor there). In Turkle’s book Alone Together, the author discusses an animatronic seal used in nursing facilities to keep patients company. One person Turkle interviewed clutched the seal as if it were a baby and attended to it when it made noises. She cared for the seal even if it wasn’t capable of reciprocating those feelings.
    Does it matter if a machine can’t feel or really connect if the user feels that they are connecting—maybe this could even be considered transcending its materially? Or is the example from Alone Together like the relationship between the apparatus and the Telecomputer Man (56)?

    In Chapter 2 of Code, Lessig differentiates between cyberspace and the Internet (9). However, Lessig only seems to provide an example of sorts: parents using the Internet while the next generation becomes involved in cyberspace. It explains some things, but I am still hazy on what cyberspace compared to the Internet. Does cyberspace depend or create social norms? Is it interactive and involve community whereas casual Internet using might not require that? Does the differentiation merely depend on the generation that is using the Net? Is there some concrete definition so I can wrap my head around what exactly the difference is?

  8. kcauley September 20, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    The Gitelman piece distinguishes ‘media’ as a plural noun. Though it is clear that several mediums contribute to the mainstream, it is also true that few companies and organization have share of that market (think apple, google, etc). As new media becomes newer, do we predict these dominant content providers to become smaller or larger? Do novice mediums stand a chance at providing alternative content? Or are we headed toward a singular noun ‘media’?

    Can DH-as a discipline- concur upon a guidelines for governing(or not-governing) projects? “Code is Law” confronts cyberspace as neither laissez-faire or truly governed, a rather complicated undertaking. That said, due to DH’s newness, is it important to establish within the discipline a set of concrete ethics in order the address the problems illustrated in Lessig’s piece?

    Is DH geared more toward like-minded academics, or is the purpose of DH to reach a broad and non-academic audience? Gottlieb discusses the story-telling aspect of digital projects, but I’m wondering to whom those stories are designed toward the most… ?

  9. Zejun September 20, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Q1. In “What is Code”, Ford describes in the computer science world a great deal of attention is paid to efficiency. (2.4) Since the coders run the things that run the world, (2.2) Will the “engineering mindsets” (4) eventually shaping the future of our society?

    Q2. In “Code: Version 2.0”, Lessig brings about the question of what values should be protected in the cyberspace in the context of cyber governance. It prompts me to think about what happened to our personal data if the owner is incapable of handling it. (e.g. digital illiteracy, deceased) Will those unprotected data end up in a public pool for manipulation or alteration?

    Q3. In “Xerox and Infinity”, Baudrillard challenges the concept of human and the paradigm of the sensory. It seems to be the doom of humanities, however, since the lines between genders, biological and extended sensory are blurred, will the machine learning actually be helpful in addressing the gender inequality in the world of coders?

  10. Ariel September 20, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    In Paul Ford’s article, “What is Code?”, he addresses how expensive it can be to update the backend of a website. It’s interesting how so much money can be spent to create an initial website, and then within a matter of weeks, the coding can be considered outdated and need to be replaced (although, most won’t admit that after only a few weeks). What has made it so that our society is willing to spend so much to remain current in their web presence, while seemingly simultaneously accepting that a more cost efficient solution seems out of reach?

    As I continued to read Paul Ford’s article, he explains the reach of programmers and coders, in our society today. The more he explained, the more I thought about how my mind is not a tech-savvy one at all. He explains things and the question that comes to mind is, and people understand how to create this? Not only that, but a large percentage of the developers he mentions, they do this for fun? Not for a paid career, but as a hobby?

    James Gottlieb ends his article with, “Instead of pushing coding, let’s push critical thinking. How do we structure our projects? How do we build projects that can share code and data with other projects? How do we build things that others find compelling?” At first I couldn’t think of an application of what he was saying and then I thought of our own project for this class. Although we are not expected to know how to fully code our projects by the end of the semester, I was able to understand the coding and the critical thinking coming together. This made me further reflect, what other aspects of my education have I pigeon-holed to purely the critical thinking part without leaving room for a digital component?

  11. Sarah September 20, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    1) Marshall McLuhan identifies SCALE, PACE, PATTERN as ways to measure change. How else can we measure change?

    2) Does Digital – Humanities suggest an inherent conflict in terms of the role of creativity, art, and affect when considering the relationship of man and machines? (See Baudrillard,Xerox & Infinity)

    3) How essential is “terror” and “fear” to the digital? (See Lessig, Code)

  12. lbowen March 2, 2017 at 12:42 am

    My questions (and comment) for this week’s reading center on Ford’s piece as I found it a really unique and informative piece of writing.

    Ford’s article both implicitly and explicitly defines the world of coding as male-dominated. What has created this imbalance and how can we create more diversity in the programming world?

    I found the discussion of artists’ ability to excel at programming due to their talents at seeing the big picture fascinating and somewhat surprising. I wonder how this might translate into the realm of DH and the impact of artists’ vision in the discipline?

    This last point is less of a question and more of a comment around Ford’s text and usage of imagery/diagrams very illuminating.

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