Monday, 14 December 2015

The New Old Reading

Katherine Hayles has an interesting and thought-provoking article on how we read in today’s world of the ubiquitous screen.
The first point I felt worth noting was the fact the Professor Hayles published her article on her own website, but via Scribd. Depending on your device and configuration, this initially means the dreaded scroll bar within a scroll bar, which a lot of unmotivated would surf away from instantly. The presentation is also clearly print-like pages, thus suggesting that Professor Hayles prefers printed material herself.
Image of scroll bar within a scroll bar
The Dreaded Double Scroll Bar
In the debate of print versus digital, deep versus skim/scan, she openly comes down on the side of deep reading traditionally associated with print.
When I can, I print, (though an ecologist at heart), sometimes to give my eyes a screen break I will shed a few leaves of (hopefully sustainable) forest. Also, you can scribble notes, underline, or even highlight if you have the fancy pens. All of which describes the deep reading many of us have been brought up on, the loss of which many lament, and not just among academia. Parents of a certain age, frequently regret the loss of such skills among their screen-addicted teen offspring. Professor Hayles also notes how digital reading, skimming and scanning, establishes different brain pathways when compared to print and deep reading. 
The essential difference as I see it, is when we read digitally we are often in a hurry, and it is this rushing which is contrary to deep reading (sitting somewhere quiet giving a poem/slice of text your entire attention), truly attempting to connect to all the writer had in mind, plus of course the multiple layers of linguistic artistry binding those layers of meaning. Apparently, research (the results of which the professor calls into question) has been done on brain activity of various groups while reading digitally. An interesting study might be a comparison of heart rate while reading print versus digital. Studies have found that we absorb more, the more relaxed we are. If we rush when reading digitally, we are not relaxed, therefore absorbing less? Or perhaps feeling less? That is, not fully empathizing with the message or messenger?

Skapinke (2015) in a recent Financial Times article cites research by Mangen and Kuiken (2014) which compares print versus digital when reading fiction and non-fiction.
Results indicated that, independently of prior experience with reading on electronic media, readers in the iPad reported dislocation within the text and awkwardness in handling their medium. Also, iPad readers who believed they were reading non-fiction were less likely to report narrative coherence and transportation, while booklet readers who believed they were reading non-fiction were, if anything, more likely to report narrative coherence. Finally, booklet (but not iPad) readers were more likely to report a close association between transportation and empathy.
When measuring how long screen reading has been around compared to print, (the latter about 5,000 years), Skapinke describes the former as “a just-peeled-the-protective-plastic-off novelty”.
The fact is screen reading is now natural for many below a certain age, and there is no way to put that genie back in the box.

Young boy in bed reading on an electronic device
Reading is "cool" on-screen
According to the National Literacy Trust, boys think it is cool to read on-screen.
If we want younger generations to learn how to read deeply, as Professor Hayles, and many others do, then we must find ways to adapt our teaching to integrate the screen. Alan Liu in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been teaching what he calls a Literature+ course, an example of which is rewiring Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into “Romeo and Juliet: A Facebook Tragedy”. Thus a form which is familiar to the students is used to present the age old theme of love and tragedy in a way that contemporizes it for them, and hopefully develops their capacity as readers of text, and indeed life.


Hayles, N. (2010). "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine". Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Skapinke, M. Those headed for the top add print to their digital reading. (2015). Retrieved from:

Mangen, A. & Kuiken, D. (2014). Lost in the iPad: Narrative engagement on paper and tablet. Retrieved from:,. (2015). Ebooks boost boys' reading abilities, research finds. Retrieved 10 December 2015, from,. (2015). Our research shows using ebooks increases boys’ reading progress and makes them keener, more confident readers. Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Internet: Open and Staying Open?

The Open Access debate takes a number of forms, and touches on a number of aspects of our digital practices, academic, creative and everyday. So what is Open Access?

Suber (2004) offers the following succinct definition:

Open-access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.

What makes it possible is the internet…this is the argument that Lessig (2001) makes for keeping the Internet as part of the commons, as free as free speech (but not like free beer which in every bar is always tomorrow).
Lessig’s central claim is:

[] there is a benefit to resources held in common and that the Internet is the best evidence of that benefit

He also contends that the Internet forms an innovation commons.
His debate is not about property but about who, if anyone, controls or should control access to these resources held in common. His book’s copyright page has the “all rights reserved” statement crossed out, in line with the spirit of open access and artefacts held under commons license.
Copyright page of Lessig's The Future of Ideas with Copyright crossed out

Authors of the resultant report of a seminar under the auspices of the European Science Foundation (ESF), regarding Changing Publication Cultures in the Humanities, state:

We consider it important to promote open access, to democratize access to content.

Just as the printing press began the democratization of knowledge (or at least information access), today the Internet exponentially extends that process.
 Old manual printing press                              Animation of word Acadoodle on blue lit background
The printing press of old made hard copies, today we live in an age of dynamic data.

Democratic access implies access by the many rather than by the few who up to now acted as gatekeepers of the content and guardians of their privileged access. Again the ESF authors encourage an open approach:

We encourage scholars to choose open access and to take advantage of the opportunities it offers

Lessig argues that “always and everywhere, free resources have been crucial to innovation and creativity; that without them, creativity is crippled” and that “digital technology could enable an extraordinary range of ordinary people to become part of a creative process.” Basically many could move from the life of consumer to a life of creator. Clearly, Lessig feels that liberating our natural creativity is a more meaningful way of life, and would add value to our society. Indeed by keeping these resources free, they gain value.

Lessig quotes Shapiro as optimistic. The ESF report is also somewhat optimistic. However, Lessig’s own view is rather pessimistic. His view is that the freedom and neutrality at the core of the Internet, one of the entities that should remain in the commons, as a foundation of innovation and creativity, is under threat. One analogy in his notes comes from a Cisco whitepaper (1999) which imagines what life would be like if you wanted to drive to a street of bookshops but kept getting rerouted to a specific bookshop not of your choice.

Lessig’s book dates from 2001, today when we look for information (especially about products) we are taken in hand by recommender systems that channel our search down a slick, well-oiled path to a specific shop front. And the shop front may follow us around the web for several days.
According to Lessig, the net of control is being thrown over the Internet and we are doing nothing about it, his book’s final words. This is where the role of modern researchers comes in. The ESF authors state:

Humanities research pertains not only to topics within contemporary societal and cultural trends but also often to topics outside them.

As public intellectuals, researchers can promote knowledge democratization and ensure free digital access to allow for a creative space open to all. Such intellectual leadership leads to a more mature society which can have the courage to allow the existence of a space for untethered imagination to create and share, because who knows what the next Internet will be?


Lessig, L. (2002). The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Random House Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Suber, P. (2015). Very Brief Introduction to Open Access. Retrieved 21 November 2015, from

Cisco White Paper, “Controlling Your Network—A Must for Cable Operators” (1999), 5, available at

Aliaga-Lavrijsen, J. (2012). Changing Publication Cultures in the Humanities (European Science Foundation).ResearchGate. Retrieved 21 November 2015, from

Shapiro, A. (1999) The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know (New York: PublicAffairs),. (2015). Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Talking Humanities. (2015). Should historians learn text processing techniques? Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Digital Volunteer

1916 is much in the news at the moment, and the call to help transcribe the Letters of 1916 received a tremendous response to the point that there was little or nothing left to transcribe for those who were late to hear the call.

For anyone wishing to dabble in the transcription process and view digitized versions of primary sources there are other projects out there. Indeed, there was a lot going on in the world in 1916 from the point of view of richness of historical artefacts. Back in those days, people kept paper records in metal filing cabinets, and wrote letters by putting pen to paper.
An example project is Measuring the ANZACs, where volunteers are asked to:
Do your part to help transcribe first-hand accounts of New Zealanders from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps circa World War I.

According to the NewZealand History website, about 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted during the First World War, of whom nearly 100,000 served overseas. When the war broke out in 1914 men flocked in their thousands to answer the call to arms. By the end of the first week of the war 14,000 had volunteered to enlist.
Unclear photo of WW1 soldier
Off to War: a volunteer?
A nice feature of the site is that you can start working immediately, no need to register and sign in. Another important feature for getting and keeping volunteers on board is that the website offers up an item that needs work, the volunteer is not required to go fishing for unworked artefacts. Admittedly, there may be questions about the quality of the marking and transcribing as volunteers do not even need to follow the tutorials, and let’s face it most of us won’t bother reading the help text. In this age of digital intuitiveness, we want to dive in and figure it out as we go. In this case, this can work, as the tasks are fairly simple, and really only require a bit of application and patience.

Another nice thing about working on the Anzac artefacts is the continuity with regards to the subject. With such volumes of data, it is easy to forget that we are dealing with real people. But the project builders added a nice touch, in that when you work on a record for a given soldier, and decide to work on the next record, it pertains to the same person. Thus, I soon became quite interested in the fate of Corporal James Henry McConquadale, especially when one record to transcribe was his will. Presumably it was standard procedure for all soldiers to make a will before going to the front?

The first record the site presented to me was a Casualty Form:

Transcription attempt at ANZAC Casualty Form

Followed by his Will:

Transcription attempt at record of will

Thankfully, however, the will was followed by his Discharge papers:

Sample ANZAC Certificate of Discharge

You will notice that in the first record I was unsure of the good corporal’s surname because of the handwriting, but by the last record I think I had figured it out. There was no way to go back to the first record and redo, so another volunteer (was James Henry a volunteer?) will tidy that up.

'First World War census and conscription', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 23-Feb-2015

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Our Digital Artefacts - What and Why

Seal (2013) suggests that in the Arcades Project, Benjamin (1940) wished to explore the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche, as he examined Baudelaire’s flaneur who, according to Butler (1994), seeks a form of transcendence, eternity from the transitory.
Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842
Seal goes on to use the flaneur metaphor for our interaction with social media in the 21st century. This metaphor for the modern data stream watcher has some accuracy, but of course, as he admits, also has its limits. The flaneur is moving, the modern social media viewer is not, the stream is moving past us. The stream may be far from ambulating, in fact it can be moving with apparent urgency. Manovich (2012) suggests we can control the stream. True we can control how much of the flow we wish to view by selecting which parts of the stream to allow into our window(s) but we cannot control the flow, neither its speed nor its volume. Unless of course you have the power to switch off electricity worldwide, the flow will go on.
This brings us to his comment:
Before digital computers, the data was typically recorded in some permanent medium.
Rodin Museum showing Rodin sculptures
Rodin Museum: a data collection?

If we widen the definition of data, we can consider a Rodin sculpture to be a statement (data) set in stone. 

Is anything digital permanent? Can it ever be? The fact that the digital is fuelled by electricity, which is of itself a moving stream, does this makes us feel it is impermanent? Do we have a sense that our daily data stream is essentially ephemeral? After all, does yesterday’s status really matter?
Well the answer may be yes, because the social media viewer can easily be gripped by an urgent impulse to participate, and thus change the flow, become part of the flow, drop a message into the flow and watch where the message goes and how many more messages it provokes etc. 

This is especially visible on Twitter where a clever comment added to a retweet can change the initial tweeters intention or extrapolate its impact. This is where the flaneur and voyeur metaphors fall short, because we have the choice of being mere viewers of the stream, but at any moment we can become actors on and in the stream. This is not unlike the difference between watching a film and playing a digital game. In the latter, we are actors. But again, even this metaphor falls short, because if we participate in the data streams, we are dealing with real people sometimes in real time. Our input can have a real impact on another non-virtual human being.

The Oxford definition of an artefact is:
an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest
and gives the usage example "gold and silver artefacts". The etymological entry states "'by or using art + factum' something made".

Perhaps one of the attractions of the data stream is that it allows our naturally creative side to use some art to make something, however small, however transitory, which gives us a small taste of the transcendence which the flaneur sought.


Seal, B. (2013). 'Baudelaire, Benjamin And The Birth Of The Flâneur - Psychogeographic Review'. Psychogeographic Review. N.p., 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.Retrieved 30 November 2015, from

Manovich, L. (2015). Software Studies Initiative: Data stream, database, timeline (new article by Lev Manovich, part 1). Retrieved 30 November 2015, from

Butler, C. (1994). Early modernism: literature music and painting in Europe, 1900-1916. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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DH6017 Presentation