Speculations on Fashion as Information Technology, or, Bellbottoms as a Series of Tubes

Recently I’ve been enjoying an online discussion of the decline in fashion innovation. As Kurt Anderson observes, the visual innovation of mainstream American dress is far less pronounced when comparing someone from 1991 to someone in 2011, that 1971:1991, or 1951:1971. This violates our expectations for the forms of accelerating cultural development we sometimes ascribe to the twenty-first century. Anderson:

Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.

But as Tyler Cowen and Alan Jacobs respond, there’s a big caveat to Anderson’s argument, since it explicitly excludes technology. Cowen notes that we still see innovation in information-dependent technologies:

Today the areas of major breakthrough innovation are writing, computer games, television, photography (less restricted to the last decade exclusively) and the personal stream. Let’s hope TV can keep it up, and architecture counts partially.

I think it’s fair to say that innovation in each of these areas has been driven by the proliferation of new and powerful technologies, from the impact of social media, the internet, and attendent cultural forms on the novel, to the power of new scripting and rendering technologies in architecture.

Yet I think this discussion just misses the more basic insight, which is that fashion, as a channel for communication, is an information technology. Continue reading

Gephi Network Visualization of Humphry Clinker

I’m still working on slides for my talk at the MLA on Stevenson and Oliphant, and Victorian reflections on the ’45 (force-directed network and Google map visualizations here and here). I’m also starting to experiment with Gephi, a powerful open source graph editor. I was blown away by Matthew Jocker’s “Nineteenth-Century Literary Genome” animation, and wanted to know how it was made. Apparently, they produced it one frame at a time as separate png files and then assembled them using Quicktime.

I’m still trying to figure out how to produce animations, but I like working in Gephi. It has a feature-rich interface and allows you to edit and remove nodes, perform clustering and various forms of network analysis easily and produces sharp images. Here is the location entity network from Humphry Clinker (1771), arranged into eight clusters, with nodes and edges colored by group:

Gephi makes beautiful static images, and as can be seen in genome video, beautiful animations. On the other hand, unlike the Protovis graphs, finished visualizations are not dynamic or interactive. You can’t output a script-based visualization that the user can play with, or that could be embedded in a presentation. Not a problem for a presentation, really, but I like the activity that a Protovis graph can bring to web publishing.

I’m also evaluating these various visualization approaches in order to prepare for my historical fiction and fantasy seminar next semester, which will ask the students to help produce an online textual exhibit using Omeka. I’m going to ask them to look at what’s possible and then pitch paratextual visualizations & tools to package with the exhibit.

“Webby” Publishing and Scholarly Digital Literacy

HASTAC 2011 has posted videos of some of their panels, and I was taken with two points, brought up by Dan Cohen and Tara McPherson as part of the panel “The Future of Digital Publishing,” which can be viewed here.

First, I was taken with Cohen’s final suggestion, that humanities scholars are “terrible economists” because our pursuit of print perfection causes an inordinate investment in the final stages of publication (proof-reading, reformatting notes into periodical-specific styles). As he notes, we have learned to look past such fastidiousness in some web formats, and this indicates that, in a “webby” mode, we are able to relax those standards and still take work seriously.

McPherson’s wide-ranging discussion canvased the new formats and possibilities which digital archives are opening up to us, and she asked Humanities scholars not to cede the task of figuring out how to manage massive data sets to scientific and computer scientific communities. I was particularly caught by the description she gave of a question that keeps her up at night: ten or fifteen years for now, how will young scholars make sense of the wild explosion of publication formats and approaches which archives and DH work have opened up?

This, for me, raises a third question and perhaps more challenging problem: how will we cultivate scholarly digital literacy? Part of what reinforces the power and importance of print and text-based publication is the high-level textual literacy that humanists develop. I think about how hard it was to develop the specialized literacy it took for me to understand scholarly publishing formats — this demanded a huge evolution in my reading practices, above and beyond what I would describe as my already high-level textual literacy as an undergraduate. When we present something like a simple chart, or even an object as complex as an active network visualization, much less expose users to archives of new material, we tacitly demand some literacy in those formats. Brief textual descriptions and introductions don’t suffice here. Cohen’s observation regarding the relaxed constraints offered by “webby” publishing standards emphasizes the point: we tolerate spelling errors because the effort otherwise put into exhaustive spell-checking is being invested elsewhere, in the aspects of digital scholarship that entail considerable investments in both acculturation and ongoing labor.

I think there is an expectation that great content and great scholarship will cultivate literacy. The iPad certainly shows (as McPherson notes), that a transformative product can drive technical literacy in a way that seems immediate and unreflective — a transformation so profound that it produces what Thomas Kuhn describes as the “gestalt” experience of a new episteme — and the duck becomes a rabbit. And yet, I worry that new technologies and techniques, especially as they are initially developed, pull in precisely the opposite direction. Certainly, this concern weighed on me as I decided which path to pursue in my own work, and I’ve opted primarily for publication in traditional print formats, and the forms of scholarship that would help me achieve that aim. If you watch to the close of the talk, the audience questions are dominated by the problem of tenure and scholarship-evaluation standards. But this is generally cast in terms of accommodation or, alternatively, forcing traditional scholars to change their practices, rather than acknowledging that digital scholarship demands, in effect, a new, and truly complex, set of literacies.

Google Fusion Tables

I’m still working on my Stevenson and Oliphant talk for the MLA, and I thought I’d try to map some of the location data that I’ve been collecting for that talk. My friend Mitch Fraas, a Bolinger Fellow here at Penn, has been using fusion tables to look at the geographic distribution of printed books from the records at Van Pelt. Basically, all you have to do is upload the location data as a table to Google Docs and select the visualization that you want. You can embed the visualization directly, or produce a Google Earth view that adds geographic images. I’ve done both below for Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. The interesting thing about such a visualization is that it helps to highlight the different imaginary spaces of geography. On the one hand, there are the physical locations. On the other, you can use tools like network analysis to figure out how closely associated those places are in the world of the book. (Zoom & click on icons for count. Count number is distinguished by color.)

Locations in Humphry Clinker (1771); Google Fusion Table Map

Differences between geomapping and other location-based visualizations can help to demonstrate how literary networks distort the geographic spaces of the novel. For instance, in the force-directed network graph at the bottom of this earlier post, Edinburgh is closer to England, and Scotland closer to France, due to the close proximity of these locations in terms of their citation in the novel.

OWS and Forgiving Student Debt

Wednesday evening I went to an OWS-Occupy Philly rally. I was hoping to get a sense of what OWS-Philly was planning to do, now that the city has evicted them from Dilworth Plaza. I didn’t get a clear sense of what the next phase is, though I suspect that warmer weather and a hot campaign season will revive OWS nationally. But I did note a laser-like focus on the banking industry, in addition to the Philadelphia Youth curfew law, expanded in October, which is widely seen to be racism by proxy.

Many of the OWS speakers advocated pulling money out of local banks. Now that Meg and I are saving for our retirement, and finally have our finances roughly in order, it was hard for me to wrap my head around what I’d have to do to try and completely extricate myself from the banking system. Even cashing checks from Penn would be a problem, seeing that without an account, I’d have to pay some kind of fee.

But the challenge does raise the question for the most effective means of changing the role that student debt plays in higher education. As I have argued previously, a large part of the rise in student debt can be seen as an inefficient federal subsidy that passes the provision of support for higher education through various financial institutions, rather than providing grants directly to students and schools. Among circulating proposals is this petition, which will formally ask Congress to forgive federal student debt (I signed, and I note that they are close to reaching their goal 675K signature goal).

Another proposal is from the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. In seperate pledges for students, faculty, and non-debtors, they propose that students should refuse to make payments on their loans as soon as they reach the goal of one million signatures. I’m not sure that I support this tactic. For one, I assume from the association with Occupy Wall Street that the campaign is construed as part of a broad attempt to crack down on Wall Street abuses. But this doesn’t align with the fact that 90% of student debt is held by federal and state institutions, not private banks. As a practical matter, while I’m sure that mass defaults would achieve some short term goals in terms of freeing students from crushing debt, I have to think that the political effect would be overwhelmingly negative. It’s hard to imagine a response in which federal and state legislatures opt to put even more money into higher education.

And yet some sort of broad adjustment is demanded; 8.6% unemployment can not sustain the level of student debt that we are seeing. This is a professional and particularly academic problem. I was fortunate enough to finish my Ph.D. without carrying any student debt; it was a boon to earn my degrees at state schools with full scholarships. Tuition at UT-Austin was $2,500 a semester in the late 90’s when I started as an undergrad. In the humanities, we worry about the over-production of Ph.D.s. But if the accrued debt required to make it all the way through the bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate become prohibitively expensive, it’s hard to see how this will lead to the kind of adjustment we want.