How revolutions are made

Speaking of the digital revolution, a few weeks ago Andrew Prescott gave a keynote address at the Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield. I wasn’t there but the text has been posted online. In the keynote Prescott questions some widely held beliefs about revolutions both industrial, social and digital:

The Arab Spring, the arrival of printing and the Industrial Revolution all show us how change is not necessarily revolutionary or disruptive. The processes we think of as revolutionary can be lengthy, patchy in character, amorphous, difficult to measure and unpredictable, and there is no reason to think that the digital will be any different. It’s the continuities and the parallels that are often as striking as the disruptions.

In an age of rapid change were many bold claims are made, a thoughtful analysis such as this is what I call putting history to good use.

Becoming a digital humanist

Unlike Rachel Herrmann I cannot pinpoint the day when I decided to become a historian. It was a choice that emerged only gradually and from the simplest, most unoriginal of motives: a lifelong fascination with the past and how it relates to the present. If you always go around thinking about the world in terms of continuity and change over time, aspiring to pursue a life in academic history seems like a logical step. So I did, and (some twenty years later) here I am.

As a historian, then, I must admit to having a deep and not entirely rational attachment to the traditional practices and material aspects of our craft. Yes, I confess: there is nothing like the dusty smell of aging books that have not been opened for decades, or the touch of fragile sheets of paper covered with centuries-old handwriting. The mundane details of organizing archival trips, the tedium of combing through library card catalogues where no shortcuts are to be had – it is all part of a somewhat old-fashioned mode of scholarly life that means the world to me.

There can be no doubt, however, that this way of life is quickly becoming obsolete in many respects. Sometimes I cannot help wishing that I could just go on as if nothing had happened – everything would be so much easier then, right? – but that is not really an option at this point. The reason is simple: academia, along with the rest of society, is about to be transformed by the digital revolution in ways we are only beginning to imagine. In one way or another, as teachers, scholars and citizens we all have to face the changes brought about by digital technology and social media.

It was this realization that made me begin to explore the field of digital humanities almost one year ago. On the one hand it was obvious that I could not continue along the same old tracks, on the other I felt a certain skepticism about some of the claims being made on behalf of all that is New, Digital and Social. The best way to deal with that ambivalence was to get at least a basic grasp of what is going on and where things seem to be heading. So, for the last ten months or so I have been trying, in my spare time, to follow some of the more visible DH figures on Twitter, read their blogs and collect information about useful tools and resources.

I have not really had the time to explore specific techniques or services in depth, like a proper, practicing “digital humanist” (however that is defined) would; I have just tried to understand the major features of the DH landscape and what the main points of debate are. I have blogged and tweeted about it, but as someone pointed out the other week that alone does not make you a digital humanist. It was only a few months ago, and even then hesitantly, that I updated my profiles on Twitter and from “interested in” to “exploring digital humanities”.

By now I think I have a reasonably good general idea of the main issues, but no actual hands-on DH experience – unless you count the blogging and tweeting, of course. In one sense I do not even want to become a card-carrying digital humanist at all, since that label is strongly associated with certain beliefs and ideas that I do not fully subscribe to. (That is a whole other discussion that shall have to wait for another time.) But my direction is clear and over the next year or two this topic will be all the more relevant to me. On the one hand I am in the early stages of a research project where I will try to apply some of my recent DH insights, and on the other I have been asked to lead a development effort at my department to better integrate some of the new digital and social tools into our teaching practices.

About a week ago I passed another milestone on this road to wherever I am heading, when one day I went from “exploring” to “practicing” digital humanities in my everyday work – if on a very modest scale. In the morning of that day, sitting on the tram going to work, for the first time ever I published a blog post from my mobile phone. Part of the afternoon I then spent by reading up on Zotero and watching the entire collection of screencasts about how it works, in preparation for actually using it in my research. For mankind those may have been very small steps, but for me they were great leaps on my way to becoming something akin to a digital humanist.

A little less awesome

Derek Thompson, writing for the Atlantic, paints a gloomy and, unfortunately, all too plausible picture of the state of social media:

If we’re graduating from the “making delightful and cheap things” stage of the social media age to the “making money” stage, make no mistake: Things will get less delightful. In order to be profitable, it is highly likely that Twitter can only get more annoying, Pandora can only get more interrupt-y, Tumblr can only get more cluttered, Facebook can only get more devious, and the app baubles on your iPhone can only get more expensive.

MOOCs: A reader’s digest

Over the summer there has been intense discussion in higher education circles about MOOCs, massive(ly) open online courses offered by prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. By now I have realized I will never get around to writing the extensive and thoroughly argued piece on the subject that I have been thinking about. Instead, for what it’s worth I have tried to summarize below some of the main points I am taking away from the discussion in a sort of “reader’s digest”.

The number of contributions to this debate is somewhat overwhelming so I can only link to a fraction of them here, but some of the pieces I found most interesting were those by Audrey Watters (1, 2), Timothy Burke and Dominik Lukeš. There was also a good round-up of posts on MOOCs in Digital Humanities Now that featured, among others, a four-part series by Mills Kelly of Edwired (1, 2, 3, 4) that anyone interested in the subject should read. (I linked to parts of this series in a brief post here on 19 July.)

Based on the above (and more), this is my bullet-point(ish) summary:

1. Everyone is really excited about MOOCs and their promise of transforming higher education by harnessing the potential of digital technology.

2. “Everyone”, that is, except those who actually have any knowledge or experience of using digital technology to improve the quality of higher education. For instance, it is striking how virtually every leading digital humanist you have ever heard of is sceptical or critical of MOOCs as currently conceived (and marketed).

3. This is so significant that it deserves to be reiterated in a bullet-point all its own: Those voicing these concerns are not the educators who never understood the value of digital/social in the first place and who think universities and colleges should just carry on as they always have. (Well, they are also critical but that is another story.) Rather, some of the loudest critics are the very people who have worked for years or even decades to “harness the potential of digital technology” in education because they think it is sorely needed.

4. According to these critics (and I agree), the main reason to be skeptical of MOOCs in their present form is that they are simply not transformative at all. In most cases they consist of little else than a series of video lectures delivered to massive student audiences. No matter how good these lectures are, they provide little to no opportunity of meaningful teacher-student interaction. In other words they may constitute a very efficient method of content delivery, but communication is not what they are about.

5. This is a problem since it is the potential of digital technology to increase communication and interaction that is transformative, not its potential of distributing goods more efficiently or economically. What conventional (as in non-MOOC) education needs is not less interactivity but more, and the current model of massive online courses does not provide that. If anything they go in the opposite direction.

6. Those most fervently arguing for the blessings of the MOOC model are politicians, administrators and technology companies. The two former groups hope to save money while the latter hopes to make (a lot of) it if this model is widely adopted. All of them are probably sincere in their belief that MOOCs actually improve the quality of education, but “quality” is then defined in terms of economically and technologically efficient content delivery, not of learning as a complex and distributed process that requires human interaction in order to be effective.

7. Put differently, those who enthusiastically portray MOOCs as the future of higher education tend to focus narrowly on technology as such rather than on its social ramifications in an educational context. Again, it is here that we find the truly transformative opportunities, as digital tools and social media dependent on them can be used to alleviate and overcome (rather than compound) the flaws in traditional educational models. It is this social aspect that those who have long advocated “digital” or “online” learning are basing much of their work on, and this is the reason they are sceptical or critical of MOOCs.

8. All this being said, unlike many digital humanists I believe there is still an important place in future education for conventional lectures as well as textbooks (although in both cases in digitally evolved forms). While it is true that digital/social tools liberate us from the need to depend on these linear, one-way and static forms of presenting and organizing content, the very diversity and heterogeneity of all the new materials available online will underscore the need for some kind of common frame of reference on which to base more interactive and exploratory learning processes.

9. The reason for this is that learning takes place by relating new data to existing cognitive patterns. The main value of both textbooks and traditional lectures consists in providing such basic structures, not in conveying individual pieces of content. This does not mean, of course, that we should passively rely on those structures in teaching and learning, but rather use them as a starting point for discussions and critical analyses of how knowledge is produced, organized and disseminated.

10. Finally, then, this suggests the role I think that MOOCs do have to play in higher education of today and tomorrow. They can serve as providers of a common core of (high quality) lectures and other mass-distributed content around which more dynamic – on- and offline – learning activities can be built, led by teachers that students can interact with on an individual basis. In such a model we are harnessing the potential of digital technology as well as the opportunities opened up by its social consequences.


A few weeks ago I signed up as a backer of, an attempt at a paid, real-time social feed service built for users and developers rather than advertisers. If such a service is really possible and viable in the long run is far from clear, but at least it just reached the first goal: pledges of $500,000 in crowd-sourced funding.

An alpha of is now live, and with the money pledged so far I assume we will eventually see at least a beta version. I certainly hope so, and that they (we?) will gain the momentum needed to build a long-term service that is free from the dependence on advertising. On as on Twitter, I am @ksn. Maybe I will see you there?

Simplicity vs. consistency

Mike Isaac at All Things D in a convincing, but not exactly reassuring, analysis of where Twitter is heading:

The direction in which tweets are evolving is a deviation from Twitter’s modus operandi. The company has prided its service on its simplicity: Stripped-down, text-only messages. And, for years, Twitter has resisted doing anything that would complicate the simplistic appeal. For the company to give an about-face and turn toward media is a major sea change — and if Twitter can’t be as simple as it always has been, staying consistent is the next best sort of insurance.

I don’t mind consistency, but simplicity is the whole point of using Twitter. If they lose that, they have lost everything.

If students stop coming

In a follow-up to a previous blog post on “the online course tsunami” Mills Kelly of George Mason University speculates on what may happen to the academic labour market if MOOCs (massively open online courses) gain real, long-term traction:

If general education is to be delivered through whatever means (online only/hybrid) seems most cost effective and/or universities opt for a competency model such as I proposed in those long ago posts on the free economy and higher education, then we will eliminate the need for large numbers of junior and/or contingent faculty, because our students will be able to present credentials that demonstrate their mastery of what is currently called general education. Someone, somewhere, will be making money on these courses or course-like options.

This is only one of the possible outcomes that Kelly is discussing, but if this scenario would become real, “tsunami” is no exaggeration of the impact on the entire landscape of higher education (and with it, research).

Update: Kelly has now published a third part in the series focusing on the potential impact on upper-level courses if many students take their introductory courses via MOOC providers.

Libraries without books

David A. Bell of Princeton has a thorough piece on the future of libraries in the New Republic, where he argues that major change is unavoidable:

This technology cannot simply substitute for the great libraries of the present. After all, libraries are not just repositories of books. They are communities, sources of expertise, and homes to lovingly compiled collections that amount to far more than the sum of their individual printed parts. Their physical spaces, especially in grand temples of learning like the NYPL, subtly influence the way that reading and writing takes place in them. And yet it is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.

It is a balanced, well-informed analysis and Bell is probably as right as anyone can be in assessing the way forward for libraries, but I feel very sad at the thought of physical books gradually being pushed to the sidelines and even “phased out” entirely. A world that means a lot to many is on the brink of disappearing.

Twitter’s path

Like many others, me included, Orian Marx is worried about the direction in which Twitter seems to be heading. In a comprehensive blog post (via @ayjay) that is a good, if somewhat depressing, read for anyone who cares about the service, he writes about its past, present and (potential) future:

I have had a love / hate relationship with Twitter for four years. As a technologist, it is impossible not to be enamored with the transformative effect Twitter has had not just within my industry but the world at large. As an entrepreneur and perhaps an idealist, it is impossible not to be embittered by the trajectory upon which Twitter has set itself as a company. […]

I think Twitter will continue to spread FUD until what’s left of the ecosystem remains wilting in the carefully arranged flower beds of its walled garden, foregoing the legacy of all the good ideas that got it to where it is today.

While I hope he is wrong, I am afraid he will be proven all too right. Twitter has now reached the point where they need to start making a profit, but like so many other web services they have chosen to make their users into the product they sell rather than the customers they serve.

Along with Facebook’s failed IPO and their, as well as Google’s, serial privacy violations, Twitter’s recent actions are just the latest indication that we are entering a critical new phase in the (admittedly short) history of social media companies. After several years of explosive user growth, which has also brought with it large amounts of investor funding, many of them now face increasing pressures to generate revenue in a market where “free” is the norm. Rather than giving users the chance of paying for services, they try to build their business exclusively on ad networks.

When that happens, openness quickly gives way to attempts at control in a modern enclosure movement. Except that today, the sheep being enclosed — or shut out — are you and me.

Blogs — a return to seriality?

Speaking of academic blogging, Kathleeen Fitzpatrick just posted a piece on “Blogs as serialized scholarship”, where she discusses to what an extent and in what respects blogging is a new form of scholarly exchange or reminiscent of old ones:

The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production.

Interesting argument. I have worked quite a lot with such 18th century scholarly correspondence and agree that there are obvious parallels to blogging (although the speed of exchange is very different today, of course).