Making Ambient Literature in the Digital Humanities

While most of our posts here on this blog have focused on defining and discussing critical issues surrounding the development of the idea of ambient literature, I want to take a step back and consider more broadly how the mode of research we’re engaged with fits in with adjacent topical and methodological trends. In particular, I want to look at our project’s relationship with the growing cluster of practices falling under the term “digital humanities,” specifically the way in which the ambient literature project might offer a model for a different or expanded understanding of digital humanities research.

As it has developed out of humanities computing, the field of digital humanities has been committed to establishing computationally-based methods for the modeling and analysis of data generated from research in the humanities, which could include areas such as anthropology, history, literature, and art history, among others. In this, the aim is to produce computational tools by which researchers (and potentially the public as well) are able to answer questions and to better understand the humanistic objects of their attention. As Constance Crompton, Richard J. Lane, and Ray Siemens (2016b) put it in introducing a recent collection on the topic, the digital humanities have a “methodological commitment to thinking and theorizing through making” (p. 1).

For the study of literature, this focus on “making” has facilitated the rise of a number of distinct approaches. These including tools for text and network analysis used in distant reading, techniques of scanning and archivization that have allowed wider access and easier engagement with manuscripts, and the general sense that digital tools can facilitate public engagement with literary research in new ways. In all of these approaches, techniques developed from computer science are used to collect, formalize, and re-order humanities data for the purposes of preservation, analysis, and dissemination. These tools offer a chance to find new approaches to old questions and to ask questions that might not have been previously answerable. As Alan Liu points out, when applied skillfully, these methods are able to address the same kinds of questions as do the classical methods in the humanities, except that they offer a means to utilize different scales and scopes of analysis.

Electronic Literature in the Digital Humanities

In general, forms of electronic literature (such as ambient literature, at least in the shape given to it in this project) present a unique case for the digital humanities. After all, they are humanistic works which are (almost by definition) digital and are often included in any accounting of the digital humanities (electronic literature is, for instance, represented in Crompton, Lane, and Siemens’s edited collection of essays (2016a), but not in a similar volume edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte (2013)). Works of electronic literature are made from the same computational fabric as the analytic tools of the digital humanities, while simultaneously being open to analysis by those tools. Works of electronic literature present distinct challenges for modeling and analysis in computational systems (What is the best way to analyze the text of a work when the text is always changing? How can you analyze not only strings of text, but the algorithmic relationships between strings of text? What about works, like ambient literature, that need reader interaction to become real?). At the same time, they also present, as I would like to argue here, a unique opportunity for the digital humanities to think about how to adapt a further set of methods from computer science, specifically human-computer interaction design research. In particular, I want to focus on how interactive or experientially-driven works of literature offer a new way for thinking about what the digital humanities might ultimately come to achieve.

Ambient literature seeks to use computational tools (such as GPS, sensor networks, and other techniques from mobile computing) to bring audience’s experiences of place or their more general sense of situation or context into direct contact with the work being done by the literary text. In this specific case, the question arises as to how the extra-textual context which is so important in the work is able to be circumscribed by formal digital methods. That is, in many ways, works of ambient literature elude many approaches from the digital humanities in that the computational techniques that are used to create new kinds of literary effect in works of ambient literature confound processes of formal modeling in that they open themselves up to extra-textual and largely uncontrollable contextual inputs.

Though I don’t want to dwell too much on it here, the question of the formalization of context has been an issue in human computer interaction (HCI) research for at least 30 years now (Agre, 2001; Chalmers, 2004; Dourish, 2004; Suchman, 1987), with no fully satisfying resolution in sight. The idea of context and the influence that the context of use might have on the function of an application is especially important with the rise of mobile computing: a classic example of this problem is how to properly automate the silencing of telephone rings in theaters and other similar shared environments (What about doctors who are on call? What about workmen doing work in a theater after hours? How noisy does a restaurant have to be before ringing phones are a nuisance?). The best solutions usually combine approaches which leverage a blunt formalization of the context of use (such as simple location or proximity) with an interpretive opening to allow for human user to be the final arbiter of the actual question of context. The difficulty of the question of context and the way in which it is embroiled with the intention of human meaning is well established, so much so that attempting any specific theoretical definition seems like a fool’s errand (see Dreyfus (1979, 1992) for how this question came to a head for artificial intelligence research or the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer (2004) or Jacques Derrida (1997), who each saw the impossibility of contexts’ formalization as a basic condition of meaning).

All of this is to say that questions regarding how we understand readers’ relationships to electronic texts within contexts remain difficult, even as they are a central aspect of what makes ambient literature what it is. It is at this nexus that the problem that ambient literature poses for the digital humanities as a mode of analysis begins to open up. Even while the inclusion of a reader’s context is what both makes the analysis of a work of ambient literature difficult using the common methodologies of the digital humanities (such as text mining, plotting literature within a geographical information system, etc.), it also points toward a new way of thinking about the digital humanities. “Making” works of digital literature comes to mirror the “making” of tools in the digital humanities in that each process of “making” aims to theorize literature, albeit in different ways.

Ambient Literature as a Model for the Digital Humanities

The ambient literature project is founded on the commissioning of three works created by three different authors in collaboration with our technical partners. Each in their own ways, these three works are meant to point toward what ambient literature is or could be and to provide an opportunity for us to better understand the connection between the literary text and the context with which it engages. Each of the works is designed to use digital technologies in order to allow the text to be responsive to a sense of readerly context. In this, we’re facilitating a kind of speculative modeling of the interactive space that is opened up by this approach to electronic literature. We’re laying out a set of propositions about literature and the context of its reception that could not be possible without digital means. Similar to modes of critical making or design research, and following the idea that the digital humanities should focus on making digital tools, we’re guiding the development of a specific type of digital literature in order to study it.  

Instead of using digital tools in the classic digital humanities sense of capturing and modeling data from existing works (as in a network graph of character relationships in Shakespeare (Moretti, 2011), for instance), we’re using digital tools to model the conditions of a certain kind of theoretical interaction between literature and context. What is important for understanding these variable works is the program of qualitative, user-centered research that surrounds them. To study works of literature in which a reader’s context is part of the work of literature itself, it is not enough to simply think about the literary work’s specific materials. The broader interactions that might go on around it must also be considered. As ambient literature uses formal, computational tools for the modeling of a speculative kind of literary interaction, it also engages in a qualitative evaluation of how those tools are engaged by readers in the real world. It does this in service of answering theoretical questions concerning literature (here, the question of the context of the text is primary). In this, ambient literature is supported by methods developed in HCI for similar purposes that suggest it is not enough to just make formal models of work practices; these models must also be examined in use (Kling, 2007). Within the computational program of the digital humanities there remains a wide berth for qualitative analysis as well.

In the end, what the work of the ambient literature project puts forward is an example of a model of the making of digital tools in service of the digital humanities that remains true to the formal aims of the digital humanities, while also opening such methods to qualitative approaches. In examining readers and their engagement with these digital artifacts, the digital humanities can build on a robust tradition of work coming out of HCI research, while also, like the best current work in the digital humanities, maintaining a fidelity to the classical engagements of the humanities. Such an approach uses digital tools to make new territories of literary practice available to analysis.

However, despite the practical tone given to this kind of work in its concern with making, this kind of conceptually-directed literary making offers a chance to approach literary theory in a new way. These digital literary artifacts themselves (works like those of ambient literature) come to embody and give material form to theories of literature. This was an idea put forward in HCI by John Carroll and Wendy Kellogg (1989) when they sought to conceptualize a process for theory development in HCI:

We suggest that HCI designs characteristically embody multiple, distinct psychological claims, that virtually every aspect of a system’s usability is overdetermined by independent psychological rationales inherent in its design. These myriad claims cohere in being implemented together in a running system. Thus, HCI artifacts themselves are perhaps the most effective medium for theory development in HCI. We advance a framework for articulating the psychological claims embodied by artifacts. This proposal reconciles the contrasting perspectives of theory-based design and hermeneutics, and clarifies the apparent paradox of HCI application leading HCI theory. (p. 7)

So, just as Carroll and Kellogg saw the possibility in HCI for building artifacts which embodied and developed HCI theory as a way to reconcile an overdetermination of theoretical influence, today in the forms of electronic literature that are being developed there is likewise an opportunity to embody literary theory in digital forms.

That artifacts might embody some theoretical position is not a radically new idea, particularly in that it is simply the inverse of the long tradition of research in the humanities in which theories are developed from the study of literary or art objects. This approach just starts to turn that established progression around and fosters the impulse given in the digital humanities to express what we know about electronic literature “in formal language, in terms that are tractable to computation, in utterances that are internally coherent and consistent with a declared set of rules” (Unsworth, 2013, p. 46).

Research in electronic literature which focuses on the creation of evocative works that address specific theoretical questions, opening these areas up to study, provides a model for a new kind of digital humanities. Ambient literature is one such model that uses digital tools to establish formal systems that both embody theoretical perspectives and allow for the qualitative examination of works as they emerge through engagement with the reader. Set alongside established practices in the digital humanities, this interaction-based mode of research offers new ways to think about the close and distant reading of literature and what that entails in interactive and variable works.

— Michael Marcinkowski


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