How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

by N. Katherine Hayles

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“How do we think?” N. Katherine Hayles poses this question at the beginning of this bracing exploration of the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. As the age of print passes and new technologies appear every day, this proposition has become far more complicated, particularly for the traditionally print-based disciplines in the


“How do we think?” N. Katherine Hayles poses this question at the beginning of this bracing exploration of the idea that we think through, with, and alongside media. As the age of print passes and new technologies appear every day, this proposition has become far more complicated, particularly for the traditionally print-based disciplines in the humanities and qualitative social sciences. With a rift growing between digital scholarship and its print-based counterpart, Hayles argues for contemporary technogenesis—the belief that humans and technics are coevolving—and advocates for what she calls comparative media studies, a new approach to locating digital work within print traditions and vice versa.

Hayles examines the evolution of the field from the traditional humanities and how the digital humanities are changing academic scholarship, research, teaching, and publication. She goes on to depict the neurological consequences of working in digital media, where skimming and scanning, or “hyper reading,” and analysis through machine algorithms are forms of reading as valid as close reading once was. Hayles contends that we must recognize all three types of reading and understand the limitations and possibilities of each. In addition to illustrating what a comparative media perspective entails, Hayles explores the technogenesis spiral in its full complexity. She considers the effects of early databases such as telegraph code books and confronts our changing perceptions of time and space in the digital age, illustrating this through three innovative digital productions—Steve Tomasula’s electronic novel, TOC; Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.
Deepening our understanding of the extraordinary transformative powers digital technologies have placed in the hands of humanists, How We Think presents a cogent rationale for tackling the challenges facing the humanities today.

Editorial Reviews

Rita Raley
How We Think offers a comprehensive account of how humanities scholars and students apprehend their work differently in the context of the digital turn. The perfect fusion of N. Katherine Hayles’s characteristically lucid technical explanations and virtuosic literary analyses, this book navigates the divide between the traditional and digital humanities and shows us how they might in fact intellectually stimulate and support each other. A discipline supposedly in crisis has never seemed so vibrant.”—Rita Raley, University of California, Santa Barbara

Wendy Chun
“Compelling, brilliant, remarkable for its breadth and its insightful mapping of the digital humanities. A must read for all humanities scholars wanting to move beyond the hype and hysteria surrounding digital media.”—Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Brown University

New York Journal of Books
“If you are presently teaching or practicing digital, or a traditional academic in denial, or just curious about the impact of digital technology in the humanities, How We Think has arrived at the right time.”
Invisible Culture
 “By making use of the humanist and scientist vocabularies, the book represents a new model of humanist writing, one that is avowedly concerned with the material aspects of epistemological practices.”
How We Think disrupts the popular notion that there is a technological split between generations or between fields of study. . . . Hayles thoroughly supports her argument for technogenesis, providing concrete examples of the coevolution of humans and technics. She also explores the nuanced construction of temporality, spatiality, narrative, and database that occurs at the interface between human and technological beings. Whether or not we are prepared to welcome this intersection into our lives and work, it is already present and inextricable.”

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University of Chicago Press
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How We Think

Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

By N. Katherine Hayles

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-32142-4


How We Think

Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

How do we think? This book explores the proposition that we think through, with, and alongside media. This, of course, is not a new idea. Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, Lev Manovich, Mark Hansen, and a host of others have made similar claims. Building on their work, this book charts the implications of media upheavals within the humanities and qualitative social sciences as traditionally print-based disciplines such as literature, history, philosophy, religion, and art history move into digital media. While the sciences and quantitative social sciences have already made this transition, the humanities and qualitative social sciences are only now facing a paradigm shift in which digital research and publication can no longer be ignored. Starting from mindsets formed by print, nurtured by print, and enabled and constrained by print, humanities scholars are confronting the differences that digital media make in every aspect of humanistic inquiry, including conceptualizing projects, implementing research programs, designing curricula, and educating students. The Age of Print is passing, and the assumptions, presuppositions, and practices associated with it are now becoming visible as media-specific practices rather than the largely invisible status quo.

To evaluate the impact of digital technologies, we may consider in overview an escalating series of effects. At the lower levels are e-mail, departmental websites, web searches, text messaging, creating digital files, saving and disseminating them, and so forth. Nearly everyone in academia, and large numbers outside academia, participate in digital technologies at these levels. Even here, the effects are not negligible. For example, the patterns of errors in writing made with pen and/or typewriter are quite different from those made with word processing. More dramatic is the impact on academic research; whereas scholars used to haunt the library, nowadays they are likely to access the sources they need via web searches. Perhaps most significant at this level is the feeling one has that the world is at one's fingertips. The ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one's place in the world. I live in a small town in North Carolina, but thanks to the web, I do not feel in the least isolated. I can access national news, compare it to international coverage, find arcane sources, look up information to fact-check a claim, and a host of other activities that would have taken days in the pre-Internet era instead of minutes, if indeed they could be done at all. Conversely, when my computer goes down or my Internet connection fails, I feel lost, disoriented, unable to work—in fact, I feel as if my hands have been amputated (perhaps recalling Marshall McLuhan's claim that media function as prostheses). Such feelings, which are widespread, constitute nothing less than a change in worldview.

Moreover, research indicates that the small habitual actions associated with web interactions—clicking the mouse, moving a cursor, etc.—may be extraordinarily effective in retraining (or more accurately, repurposing) our neural circuitry, so that the changes are not only psychological but physical as well. Learning to read has been shown to result in significant changes in brain functioning; so has learning to read differently, for example by performing Google searches. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010) argues that these changes are imperiling our ability to concentrate, leading to superficial thought, diminished capacity to understand complex texts, and a general decline in intellectual capacity. He relates them to feelings of being constantly distracted, so that instead of focusing on a task for a relatively long time, one feels compelled to check e-mail, search the web, break off to play a computer game, and so forth. These issues are discussed in chapter 3, but here I want to draw a somewhat different implication: our interactions with digital media are embodied, and they have bodily effects at the physical level. Similarly, the actions of computers are also embodied, although in a very different manner than with humans. The more one works with digital technologies, the more one comes to appreciate the capacity of networked and programmable machines to carry out sophisticated cognitive tasks, and the more the keyboard comes to seem an extension of one's thoughts rather than an external device on which one types. Embodiment then takes the form of extended cognition, in which human agency and thought are enmeshed within larger networks that extend beyond the desktop computer into the environment. For this reason, models of embodied and extended cognition, such as proposed by Andy Clark (2008) and others, play a central role in my argument.

So far I have been speaking of lower levels of engagement, carried out every day by millions of people. Scholars are among those who frequently enact more sophisticated activities in digital media. At the next level, a scholar begins to use digital technologies as part of the research process. At first this may take the form of displaying results already achieved through other media, for example, posting an essay composed for print on the web. Here the main advantages are worldwide dissemination to a wide variety of audiences, in many cases far beyond what print can reach. The open secret about humanities print publications is their extremely low subscription rates and, beyond this, the shockingly small rate at which articles are cited (and presumably read). David P. Hamilton (1990, 1991) undertook a study of how often journal articles are cited within five years of their publication. Correcting for announcements, reviews, etc., that are not intended for citation (see Pendlebury 1991), his results show that for the sciences, the percentage of articles that have never been cited once in five years is 22.4 percent. For the humanities, it is a whopping 93.1 percent. Even acknowledging the different roles that article publication plays in the sciences (where it is the norm) and the humanities (where the book is the norm) and the different rates at which journal publication takes place in the two fields (a few months in the sciences, from one to three years in the humanities), this figure should give us pause.

The low citation rate suggests that journal publication may serve as a credentialing mechanism for tenure and promotion but that journal publication (with a few significant exceptions) has a negligible audience and a nugatory communicative function. It also raises questions about evaluations of quality. Typically, judgments are made through faculty committees that read a scholar's work and summarize their evaluations for the department. In such deliberations, questions of outreach and audience are rarely entertained in a negative sense (although they are typically considered when work is deemed influential). If influence and audience were considered, one might make a strong argument for taking into account well-written, well-researched blogs that have audiences in the thousands or hundreds of thousands, in contrast to print books and articles that have audiences in the dozens or low hundreds—if that. Indeed, it should make us rethink credentialing in general, as Gary Hall points out in Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media or Why We Need Open Access Now (2008): "The digital model of publishing raises fundamental questions for what scholarly publishing (and teaching) actually is; in doing so it not only poses a threat to the traditional academic hierarchies, but also tells us something about the practices of academic legitimation, authority, judgment, accreditation, and institution in general" (70).

The next step in engagement comes with conceptualizing and implementing research projects in digital media. Here a spectrum of possibilities unfolds: at one end, a one-off project that a scholar undertakes without becoming deeply engaged and, at the other end, scholars who work primarily in digital media. Even at the lower end of the spectrum, assumptions and presuppositions begin to shift in dramatic ways. For example, the scholar who works in digital media is likely to store data in databases rather than express it discursively. As chapter 2 discusses, this change leads to a significant transformation in how a scholar thinks about her material. Refractory elements that must be subordinated in verbal presentation for an argument to make sense and be compelling can now be given weight in their own right. Constructing a database also makes it possible for different scholars (or teams of scholars) to create different front-ends for the same data, thus encouraging collaboration in data collection, storing, and analysis.

At this point the changes accelerate, for now the digital-based scholar begins to shift her perspective more substantially, as issues of design, navigation, graphics, animation, and their integration with concepts come to the fore. While navigation in print is highly constrained, guided by tables of contents, chapter headings, endnotes, indexes, and so on, in web research navigation may occur in a wide variety of ways, each of which has implications for how the audience will encounter and assess the research and thus for what the research is taken to mean. Hypertext links, hierarchies of screen displays, home page tabs, and so forth all contribute to the overall effect. Graphics, animation, design, video, and sound acquire argumentative force and become part of the research's quest for meaning. As a scholar confronts these issues, sooner or later she will likely encounter the limits of her own knowledge and skills and recognize the need—indeed, the necessity—for collaboration. Since the best collaborations are those in which all the partners are in from the beginning and participate in the project's conceptualization as well as implementation, this in turn implies a very different model of work than the typical procedures of a print-based scholar, who may cooperate with others in a variety of ways, from citing other scholars to asking acquaintances to read manuscripts, but who typically composes alone rather than in a team environment.

Working collaboratively, the digitally based scholar is apt to enlist students in the project, and this leads quickly to conceptualizing courses in which web projects constitute an integral part of the work. Now the changes radiate out from an individual research project into curricular transformation and, not coincidentally, into different physical arrangements of instruction and research space. The classroom is no longer sufficient for the needs of web pedagogy; needed are flexible laboratory spaces in which teams can work collaboratively, as well as studio spaces with high-end technologies for production and implementation. At this point, it is difficult to say where the transformations end, for now almost every aspect of work in the humanities can be envisioned differently, including research and publication, teaching and mentoring, credentialing and peer evaluation, and last but not least, relations of the academy to the larger society.

Such wide-ranging shifts in perspective often are most dramatically evident in scholars who have administrative responsibility, represented in this study (discussed in chapter 2) by Kenneth Knoespel at Georgia Tech; Tara McPherson at the University of Southern California; Alan Liu at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Harold Short at King's College London; and Jeffrey Schnapp (who was at Stanford University when I interviewed him but has since moved to Harvard University). As administrators, they must necessarily think programmatically about where their administrative units are going, how present trends point to future possibilities, how outcomes will be judged, and how their units relate to the university and the society in general. They clearly understand that digital technologies, in broad view, imply transformation not only of the humanities but of the entire educational system. They are also keenly aware of difficulties to be negotiated within the humanities as traditionally print-based disciplines fracture into diverse contingents, with some scholars still firmly within the regime of print while others are racing into the digital domain.

The changes charted here have been represented as a series of levels with gradual increases between them. However, if the lowest level is compared directly with the highest, the differences are stark, pointing to the possibility of a widening rift between print- and digital-based scholars. This situation poses a host of theoretical, organizational, and pedagogical challenges. As the Digital Humanities mature, scholars working within digital media are developing vocabularies, rhetorics, and knowledge bases necessary for the advancement of the field. To a certain extent, knowledge construction is cumulative, and the citations, allusions, and specialized discourses of the Digital Humanities presume audiences capable of contextualizing and understanding the stakes of an argument; the implications of a project; the innovations, resistances, and disruptions that research strategies pose to work that has gone before. At the same time, however, traditional (i.e., print-based) scholars are struggling to grasp the implications of this work and often failing to do so.

The failures are apt to take two distinct but related forms. First, print-based scholars are inclined to think that the media upheavals caused by the advent of digital technologies are no big deal. In this view, digital text is read as if it were print, an assumption encouraged by the fact that both books and computer screens are held at about the same distance from the eyes. Moreover, print-based scholars increasingly compose, edit, and disseminate files in digital form without worrying too much about how digital text differs from print, so they tend not to see the ways in which digital text, although superficially similar to print, differs profoundly in its internal structures, as well as in the different functionalities, protocols, and communicative possibilities of networked and programmable machines. The second kind of failure manifests as resistance to, or outright rejection of, work in digital media. Many factors are implicated in these responses, ranging from anxieties that (print) skill sets laboriously acquired over years of effort may become obsolete, to judgments formed by print aesthetics that undervalue and underrate digital work, leading to a kind of tunnel vision that focuses on text to the exclusion of everything else such as graphics, animation, navigation, etc.

Faced with these resistances and misunderstandings, humanities scholars working in digital media increasingly feel that they are confronted with an unsavory dilemma: either they keep trying to explain to their print-based colleagues the nature and significance of their work, fighting rearguard actions over and over at the expense of developing their own practices, or else they give up on this venture, cease trying to communicate meaningfully, and go their own way. The resulting rift between print-based and digital scholarship would have significant implications for both sides. Print-based scholars would become increasingly marginalized, unable to communicate not only with Digital Humanities colleagues but also with researchers in the social sciences and sciences, who routinely use digital media and have developed a wide range of skills to work in them. Digital humanities would become cut off from the rich resources of print traditions, leaving behind millennia of thought, expression, and practice that no longer seem relevant to its concerns.

Surely there must be a better way. Needed are approaches that can locate digital work within print traditions, and print traditions within digital media, without obscuring or failing to account for the differences between them. One such approach is advocated here: it goes by the name of Comparative Media Studies. As a concept, Comparative Media Studies has long inhabited the humanities, including comparisons of manuscript and print cultures, oral versus literate cultures, papyri versus vellum, immobile type versus moveable type, letterpress versus offset printing, etc. These fields have tended to exist at the margins of literary culture, of interest to specialists but (with significant exceptions) rarely sweeping the humanities as a whole. Moreover, they have occupied separate niches without overall theoretical and conceptual frameworks within which Comparative Media Studies might evolve.


Excerpted from How We Think by N. Katherine Hayles. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

N. Katherine Hayles is professor of literature at Duke University. Her books include How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics and Writing Machines.

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