Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

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26 Ways to Use Twitter for Teaching and Learning: A Storify-ied Reflection

26 Ways to Use Twitter for Teaching and Learning: A Storify-ied Reflection

On 1/4/2012, Ed O’Neill (Twitter: @learningtech) posted an interesting series of 52 tweets on the topic of “Using Twitter for Teaching and Learning.” I liked how he was using Twitter to discuss Twitter, but wasn’t sure about the best way to respond to his tweets. I felt that since his tweets started from a single presentation that it would be best to try to respect the order and logic of his initial presentation.

Towards that end, I used Storify to collect his tweets in the order they were originally tweeted. This, of course, required me to re-order his tweets since twitter posts (in their very nature) arrive in reverse chronological order. Once I assembled all 52 of his tweets, the original aim of his presentation became much clearer to me, though I liked the way that Twitter required Ed to chunk his presentation into different lexia.

And this is worth noting: I felt that these lexia mostly benefited from having to be fit into 140 characters. Twitter created a constraint that I felt was in keeping with the cognitive power of Ed’s argument. (And here I am intentionally thinking about Edward Tufte’s well-trod pamphlet The Cognitive Power of PowerPoint, where he notes how PowerPoint seems to rob slides of their full evidentiary and illuminating potential). Twitter’s constraints probably work because breaking text into brief but precise messages is a different kind of cognitive activity than the cut-and-paste, overly visually templated, and bullet pointed mentalities of many PowerPoints.

I also liked that, as I sought to extend my engagement with Ed’s originating tweets, that Storify let me write in the “margins,” so to speak. Storify lets you comment on each individual tweet, so you can weave one’s one thoughts and reflections into the very fabric of a series of related tweets. This strikes me as a great way to restore an argumentative or presentational flow that might seem missing in the ever-flowing stream of tweets that sail through the columns of my TweetDeck.

I want to thank Ed again for starting this conversation. Ed brings a great perspective to learning technologies (in keeping with his twitter de plume) that reminds all of us educators the importance of connecting new technologies to learning objectives and the spread of best practices.

Finally, twitter, in my opinion, has not gained the traction I might have expected in higher education classroom, and Ed’s tweets contain many ideas that faculty members could start using in their classes right away, particularly the value of Twitter as a tool for communication between faculty and students and a way to get students collaborating and reciprocating around course-based ideas and themes.

If you want to read my Storify-ied reflection, click on the link at the top of this post.

Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

“Mobile phones are a way of life for Generation Text.”
–Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a big supporter of digital and multimedia literacies in higher education. Since my postdoctoral work at the Institute of Multimedia Literacy back in the early ’00s, I have been researching and writing about uses of new media and new technologies in the classroom. In each of my academic appointments at Saint Mary’s College and IUPUI, I also have experimented with multimedia literacies in my own pedagogy, frequently putting into practice and evaluating best practices around new technologies and their potential to improve student learning outcomes. And my own courses typically revolve around project-based learning. I prefer (whenever possible) to have my students create multimedia projects as a major learning component. Probably no surprise again, but I’m a big fan of higher order processes in learning (following Bloom’s famous taxonomy) and find project-based learning to yield marvelous moments of synthesis and evaluation.

However, my focus to date has been exclusively on new technologies and their applications in higher education. But that changed earlier this year when I got the opportunity to collaborate with my younger brother on an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant. My brother, Bob Edwards, is a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public School district. Bob has been similarly interested in the role of new technologies in the classroom. I was thrilled to hear that he had won a Teacher Incentive Grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. This grant is designed to support project-based learning in the Chicago Public Schools. My brother’s winning proposal was:

 Revealing Generation Text:
Students will research cell phone usage, investigating how texting is affecting teenagers. They will create a documentary film disclosing their findings.

My brother asked me to be a part of his project, since he knew of my areas of interest and because he was planning on making a documentary film involving teams of his students from his senior-year Creative Writing class. Together we carved out a plan to have his students work in small teams with dedicated assignments. Each team would interview students, teachers, and administrators to hear their thoughts and observations about Generation Text and student texting. Moreover, we decided each team would additionally focus on a different issue related to Generation Text and the cell phone polices of Chicago Public Schools:

  1. What is and what should be the cell phone policy in Chicago Public Schools?
  2. What are the pros and cons of cell phone confiscation by teachers and administrators?
  3. How can cell phones be used as learning tools?
  4. What would a world without cell phones look like?

Using the money from the grant, we were able to purchase four Cisco Flip cams HD. A quick aside about Flipcams: I am aware that Cisco has ceased support for this project in April 2011, but it was a great tool for us, especially for its ease of use, the quality of its picture, and in my opinion, the quality of its small internal microphone. The Flip cams worked easily and flawlessly for our documentary and it’s a shame that this product is no longer going to be on the market.

The students spent several weeks arranging for their interviews and shooting their videos. We got lots of great footage from each team, and then set about assembling the final cut.

You can see the final results for yourself here by watching the video, which we just completed, and was just screened for the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a group of first year students at Phoenix Military Academy.

I want to say a few more words about the documentary and what I learned. Overall, we wanted to have the student voices take center stage and present a balance portrait of the everyday realities of cell phone uses and abuses in Chicago Public Schools. As someone who has worked exclusively in higher education, I can say the video was very illuminating to me. I consider myself up to date on the literature around cell phones in higher education, so I was surprised to learn about some of the very real problems created by cell phone uses in K-12 education.

While I expected to hear about the cell phone as a tool of “distraction” (and this was a major theme echoed by all participants in the video), the cell phone is also a tool for bullying in K-12. I wasn’t aware of this as I began working on the documentary. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted last year,

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%). This trend is more common for those teens whose parents are under 40 and low in educational attainment.

Responses in the focus groups were split with regard to how serious of a problem this is. Some teens clearly believe this is major problem with serious social and psychological consequences, while others feel that it is “not really a big deal.”

Bullying and student fights came up as a big issue in our documentary. One reason for the “zero tolerance” ban in Chicago Public Schools is to stop the problem of bullying by cell phone. Therefore, educators who are trying to experiment with educational uses for cell phones have to be aware of the negative uses of this technology among K-12 students.

On the positive flipside, it was great to see the eagerness with which students embrace the new capabilities of cell phones, especially smart phones. However, there is something of a “cell phone arms race” among high school students with students wanting not just a cell phone, but the “right” cell phone. Clearly there is a digital divide between high school students who have cell phones and those who have smart phones. This divide, especially in terms of social capital among one’s peers, appears to be a much greater gap than the one between students who have laptops and students who have no laptops. The role of texting and mobile communication in student’s everyday lives is primary in this regard. Students see their cell phone as an extension of their identity and life style (many students commented on how confiscation of their phone was literally “the end of their world;” hyperbolic, perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine).

In one segment, a group of students that ran “speed tests” between a laptop and a mobile phone (running Android 2.0). These students were able to demonstrate that they could get faster results from Google through their mobile phone connection than the laptop running on the school’s wireless network. What intrigues me about this is that the students are aware of these speed differences. You get a sense that the mobile generation is deeply savvy about connection speeds – a useful thing to be aware of—especially if your “life” is being conducted through a mobile device.

Most of the other major insights we found are in the final video itself, but I was glad to hear that the students themselves are aware of how the cell phone can be a distraction. There is no doubt that many students are surreptitiously texting each other all day long, and as long as the policy is “zero tolerance,” students will continue to do their best to keep their texting out of sight. But even against the backdrop of “texting as distraction,” many students are keenly interested in exploring how cell phones can be used as educational tools. A good sampling of those possible uses can be found in the Speak Up 2010 Survey, which surveyed high school students on what they would like to use cell phones for during the school day:

  • Check grades
  • Conduct research
  • Take notes in class
  • Collaborate with friends
  • Use the calendar
  • Send an email
  • Access online textbooks
  • Check out school activities
  • Create and share videos

That list is a good starting point for conversation and reminds me of how I use my iPhone professionally. I anticipate that the most common counter-argument among K-12 teachers would be computer labs and laptops can fulfill these functions, but not without some caveats. Certain smart phones are great video tools and are much easier than checking out a video camera from the AV closet. Moreover, in many school districts, students are much more likely to have cell phones rather than laptops (due to the difference in expense, even with having to pay a monthly wireless plan), and we have to be cognizant of this “digital divide” as well. Finally, if we don’t bring cell phones in our classrooms, we run the risk of having students miss opportunities to use a mobile device as a component of a formal learning exercise rather than as a personal texting or game playing tool. As we state in the documentary (quoting Liz Kolb), educators can take a lead role in teaching students how to use cell phones more ethically, a key lesson for preparing them for 21st century learning and professional occupations.

Of course, as the video taught me, we have to tread carefully around the topic of cell phones in high schools. They have many positive uses, but also great potential downsides. My sense  is that what may happen going forward are some small modifications to the current “zero tolerance” policies in many high schools and exploring ways of using cell phones in a limited capacity as educational tools.

Personally I think it is worth the effort to experiment with cell phones due to their popularity and their ability to bring students into the classroom. Revealing Generation Text ends with a student who recalls that the cell phone is a communication tool and wouldn’t it be great if cell phones led towards more communication between students and teachers? That’s a vision I would love to see come to fruition some day.

All in all, I am very thankful my brother invited me to be a part of his grant and documentary video project. Thanks also to the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the musician Moby who gave us permission to use his song “Flying Foxes,” and all the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our project. I learned a lot about cell phones in K-12 education.

I would love to hear feedback on this video and the thoughts of other educators who have been or might be considering using cell phones in their classrooms or schools.

As We May Publish, Part Two: A Reader’s Reflection on Two Publishing Experiments

“Free their books and their minds will follow.”

–Masthead slogan for The Concord Free Press

1. The Experimental Reader

In yesterday’s post (“As We May Publish”) I discussed what authors might consider taking away from AAUP’s report on “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing.” My reflections were oriented around why authors should care about the changes currently underway at university presses. I also mentioned that my interest in this topic was being driven—to some extent—from my own authorship perspective: my experiments in open access publishing, my interest in alternative scholarly publishing, and my forthcoming university press book that has digital and database logics at the core of its critical methodology.

As a companion set of ideas to that post, I  look today at two publishing experiments that came to my attention as a reader of a particular genre of fiction. With a background in English Literature and as a scholar of film noir, I read noir fiction and hard-boiled literature. That genre—coming out of the pulp magazines, the dime novel, and the comic book—has always been at the forefront of publishing shifts. Noir authors and noir publishers have tended to adapt to new business models while retaining (and even extending) their core thematic interests and stories. Through my interest in that genre, two experiments came to my attention that I don’t think are yet widely known in digital humanities circles. I bring them up as case studies that have piqued my interest as a reader who likes to explore publishing experiments—and these examples come out of the “wild” category of the publishing ecosystem—and they help me think about the reader’s role during this moment of experimentation.

My first example will be Concord Free Press, which gives away its books for free–literally. But that is only part of the story: Concord Free Press has a particular institutional mission that asks readers to make voluntary donations to the charity of their choice in exchange for a free book. The Concord Free Press calls its mission “generosity-based publishing.” My second example is Level 26, a new media publishing venture started by CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker. His Level 26 venture involves book publishing, web community and video productions, organized around what Zuiker calls the “digi-novel.”

Though my two publishing examples are very different, both share a desire to “free their books” and encourage their readers to “give back” in highly structured ways via the open Web. I am not using the word “free” as in “free beer” (one of my favorite lines from Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture) but “free” as in “free speech,” “free culture,” and “freeing” as in “liberating” or “having independence.” To me, these projects are interesting to consider in light of the ongoing conversations around the sustainability of scholarly publishing. These examples strike me as publication models that are taking advantage of digital affordances. They are asking new questions about the role of presses, the nature of the “book,” and the participation of readers in online activities.

2. Scott Phillip’s Rut and the Generous Reader

“If you took the tender portrait of a town in decline in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, mixed it with Kurt Vonnegut at his most satirical and biting, then sprinkled in a few grams of meth and a generous shot of piss from a syphilitic hobo into the resulting solution, you’d have a drink that could almost put you on your ass as fast as Rut sure-as-shit will.”

Review of Rut by Spinetingler Magazine

Scott Phillip’s most recent book Rut was published by Concord Free Press. Scott Phillips is best known for his novel The Ice Harvest, which was also turned into a neo-noir film starring John Cusack. Instead of going with a traditional publisher, his latest work is being distributed for free by Concord. What this means is that it does not cost anything to obtain a copy of the book. It is actually free (as in costing no money). However, there is a reason for this. Concord Free Press asks all readers who take possession of the “free” novel to make a voluntary donation to the charity of their choice. The book-as-giveaway is used an incentive to increase charitable donations. And so far, the experiment is paying off. Concord Free Press has raised over $200,000 dollars in donations via the books has it published.

Now, it is important to note that its books, including Rut, are not published as e-books or released as PDFs—they are only available as traditional paperback novels. In fact, in one of my favorite parts of this experiment, the back page of each novel has ten blank lines where each reader of the book is supposed to sign their name and then pass the book along to another reader. This decidedly analog approach to forming a network of readers is a great way to encourage an ever-expanding readership. The physical book operates metaphorically a little bit like a digital bit; it is not meant to sit on one’s shelf, but is always intended to be in transit to another reader. It’s a virtuous model of sharing: the reading circle as lending library.

How do online communities come into play here? Concord Free Press hosts a website and asks all of the people who donate due to one of their books to log onto their site (www.concordfreepress.com) and note where they gave and how much. What one notes when visiting Concord’s website is how many donations are significantly more than the reader would pay at a bookstore for a 230 page novel like Rut. It is not uncommon to see donations of $25.00 and higher, suggesting that one act of generosity (giving away a book by an established author) results potentially in a greater act of generosity (a donation in excess of the typical consumer purchase of a paperback).

ForeWord Magazine says that Concord Free Press “re-conceptualizes the very goals of publishing, a grand experiment in subversive altruism.” It is this aspect of the experiment that I want to consider most closely. While Concord’s “subversive altruistic” model will not necessarily work for all publishers and all authors (note that Concord Free Press is publishing the work of already established authors), it is worth considering how models of “generosity” can induce and support participation via the open Web. [As an aside, is this type of generosity akin to the free labors that go into supporting a publication model like Wikipedia?]

At this point, the publication model of the Concord Free Press raises more questions than answers for me. Still I want to explore the implications of this kind of experiment on scholarly publishing. What would the scholarly version of this experiment look like on the open Web? How could scholars benefit from giving away books for free and asking for audience participation in return? Would a model of “book sharing and lending” (which is also at the heart of Concord’s experiment) work for a scholarly book? Is the logical extension of Concord’s paradigm to publish their novels in digitally native formats and remove the need for actual physical book publications? How might scholars locate funding to write books that encourage “subversive altruism?”

3. Anthony Zuiker’s Level 26 and the Active Reader

“Not a hint of this appeared in the mainstream press. This material was relegated to a bunch of serial-killer-fan web sites, the most active being Level26.com.”

–Self-conscious, metatextual reference from the novel, Level 26: Dark Prophecy (p. 117)

CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker is exploring the “digi-novel” in a series of crime stories focused around a criminal profiler, a “Special Circs” agent named Steve Dark. Two novels in the series have already been published, Dark Origins and Dark Prophecy. Each novel is supported by (even architected around) digital components and an online community. There is a website, Level26.com, where fans can meet up. There are videos that function as “cut scenes” interspersed throughout each novel. There are the Level 26 apps that bring the novel and its digital components into one application. A quick disclaimer: I don’t think Level26 is everyone’s cup of tea. The story itself can be quite gruesome (a bit beyond where even the CSI: TV series will go) and will mostly appeal to hardcore fans of Zuiker’s TV shows or mainstream readers of the serial killer/mystery genre.

Zuiker’s vision for the “digi-novel” seems to be a digital convergence between the storyworlds of television, web, and book. But up to this point, it still feels more like a group of parts than a converging, transmediated storyworld.  For example, there are “cyber-bridges” that extend the story beyond the written word. You can go to YouTube to see examples of his cyber-bridges. Cyber-bridges are video segments that occur approximately every 20 pages in the book, or even re-organize into its own one hour movie. To support the viewing of cyber-bridges, Zuiker hosts a free online community, Level26.com. To encourage readers to buy the book, the cyber-bridges must be unlocked using a printed code found in the book. (Of course, from an archival standpoint, one wonders what happens when and if the website goes offline in a few years for the book’s future readers.) I tend to find that the cyber-bridges interrupt my reading rather than plunging me deeper in the story. Cyber-bridges operate too often like cut-scenes in a video game, but without the feeling that one has “leveled.” And there can be a jarring effect when the characters in your reader’s “eye” are fleshed out in the video segments. I make note of these issues to highlight that Level 26 is still in an experimental stage. Zuiker himself has written on the problems he has faced in making all the pieces of the Level 26 franchise work.

Of particular interest to me is the community forming at Level26.com (which has had a community as large as 100,000 members). This is a community that is built for fans, aided by fans, but was not originally founded by fans. In fact, “official fan sites” can frequently be problematic, especially if readers sense that the community is little more than a marketing gimmick for a movie, TV show, or book. One way Level 26 is addressing this concern is to encourage fan participation on topics beyond the Level 26 novels, and making the site a destination for fans of serial killer fiction in general. How successful that maneuver will be has yet to be determined, but there are dedicated community members already operating around the subjects of serial killers, crime detection, and CSI: fandom. There is no doubt that Zuiker has learned a thing or two about building “franchises” from his CSI: success, and that this project benefits from his position in the media industries. In addition, Level26.com hosts fan contests, has a section for reader suggestions for future novels, and has active commentary sections related to the books.

Level 26 also takes advantage of handheld, touchscreen devices and in the process encourages active readers to click, touch, and play with the text and its digital components as the story unfolds on the screen. Using iPhone and iPad apps, Zuiker can eliminate the printed book’s hybrid status–straddling the analog-digital worlds–and produce a single, unified digital work. As Zuiker writes in February 2011: “”Years ago, when I started working on Level 26: Dark Origins, there wasn’t a device available to showcase my vision for what the Digi-novel could be. Now, with the release of the iPad, it’s time to unleash the Ultimate Digi-novel!” While the interactivity of Dark Prophecy as an app is still fairly rudimentary (and maybe not quite living up to the hype of being the “ultimate digi-novel”) nonetheless one can begin to see the promise of digi-novels as a mode of digital storytelling. Issues that have plagued early experiments in digital storytelling are still present in the app version of this novel. Beyond the interruptions of the cyber-bridges, pulling up electronic dossiers on characters or collecting evidence in the flow of a particular chapter can feel like tangents from the main storytelling rather than valuable hyperlinks. But even with these critiques, I fully appreciate how Zuiker is experimenting with digital storytelling and taking creative risks.

What might Level 26 suggest for the future of scholarly publication? First, the use of cyber-bridges would not be interruptive in a scholarly argument the way it is in a fictional narrative. I can see the potential of having cyber-bridges in a film or media studies book that could embed videos right alongside the written argument. Second, I think Level 26 points towards existing scholarly work that are moving more towards a “tablet-based reading” protocol or towards the expanded role of “video” in our reading practices. Here I sense deep affinities to a project like Alex Juhasz’s recent MIT Press “book,” Learning from YouTube.” For me, certain disciplines seem primed to continue these trends and experiments in scholarly publication, especially scholars in film, television, and new media.

I would love to hear about other examples around experiments in publishing, along the lines of Concord Free Press and the Level 26 franchise.

As We May Publish: My Reflections on AAUP’s Sustaining Scholarly Publishing Report

This blog post is a response to questions posed to me via Twitter by Shana Kimball, Head of Publishing Services, Outreach and Strategic Development at MPublishing, University of Michigan Library (http://lib.umich.edu/spo) She asked me in a tweet: “Curious about what you think authors should take notice of in the AAUP report? How should it change their publishing habits?” My immediate reaction was: great questions. But I realized quickly that my response was not likely to fit into a tweeted reply.

Some background: Since last week, I’ve been commenting on a new report from an AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing. The members of the task force, representing several well-known university presses, have written a report entitled “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses.”[1] The focus of the report is on university presses as a “keynote species” in the scholarly ecosystem, and the report’s conclusions speak to the need for collaboration and experimentation at and among university presses. So, there is a lot to digest in the report for the presses themselves and for their future, but why should any of these issues matter to authors, scholars, non-publishing faculty members, or even University administrators?

First, while most authors probably know (or at least sense) that university presses are in a transitional period and facing severe challenges, the report provides background and case studies about what is actually happening behind the scenes at the presses and discusses some of the new publishing models and strategies that are already being tried. The report seeks to address the challenges of a changing landscape for university presses from “new technologies to new economic conditions to changing relations with stakeholders.” While some might suggest that university presses—like many other businesses or academic enterprises—will just need to adapt to new economic and publishing realities, the report notes that the long-term sustainability of scholarly communication is not solely a question for university presses to answer, but in fact, requires a larger conversation between all shareholders in scholarly publishing, including authors, researchers, universities, funding agencies, and librarians.

And the stakes in the evolution of scholarly communication remain high for faculty members since university press publication remains one of the primary ways we establish our reputations as scholars. The importance of publishing with a University Press is a major criterion in many promotion and tenure decisions and is still a major conduit by which we review, edit, share, and archive our research and our scholarship among our peers and within our various disciplines. Therefore, I would argue it behooves us as an academic community to be very concerned about what is happening at university presses. To use the report’s “ecosystem” metaphor, authors are an important species in that system as well.

Moreover, change in scholarly publishing is already being driven by faculty—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—especially in the context of our everyday campus-based requests and needs. The scholarly ecosystem is deeply interconnected. For example, changes in how we access other people’s research (the demand side of the equation) is being felt by university presses (the supply side). If the demand rises for PDF files, then presses need to consider not only how to meet that need now but be able to have in place economic models that will allow them to meet that need in the long run.[2] In this regard, I would cite what Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, wrote earlier this year in Library Journal: “Times have changed. The migration to electronic formats untethered to physical libraries has already happened—so far as readers are concerned. How often these days does one encounter even the hoariest of scholars insisting that print journals in the library are preferable to electronic access at their desk? But the publishing system (and much of the prestige bound up in it) remains tied to archaic production processes, largely because librarians and their budgets have managed to throw together make-shift bridges to close the gaps between scholars and the resources they need. We’re good at making things work for our faculty, for now, and we do it quietly, making compromises behind the scenes. We’re not so good at meeting the needs of future scholars. They aren’t able to raise a stink, so we ignore them.” Faculty members are not neutral or disinterested parties in this conversation—we already impact the system.

Digital publishing realities are here today. This is no longer quite the horizon issue it was ten years ago. Many of us are already exploring and adopting open access (OA) models and utilizing open publishing formats and platforms. Therefore, I would argue that it is valuable to have the perspective of how open access (among other shifts) are impacting the university press system.

One reaction I had in reading the AAUP report and its growing body of comments is that a “healthy scholarly ecosystem” may very well look different, depending upon whether you are a librarian, an editor at a university press, an author, a grant administrator, a member of a scholarly society, etc. We may find broad agreement on what qualities we would all ideally want in a “healthy scholarly ecosystem.” But in the comments I’ve read so far, I detect thornier issues when the conversation switches to different university press missions, press priorities, scholarly agendas, and economic realities (among other things). I believe the report’s strength is in starting these conversations now and trying to bring all the shareholders to the table for the discussion.

But this set of concerns leads to Shana’s second question: “How should the AAUP report change publishing habits?” I have two responses to this question.

First, I think, for many of us, our publishing habits have already been changing. We look to university presses today for support of new experiments and new forms of scholarship. Here, I am definitely influenced by my own experiences in scholarly publication. I have been involved in alt-scholarly publishing since 2005 when I began using podcasting as an open access platform for my scholarship on film noir. That project has generated a forthcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (November 2011, University Press of New England). The Maltese Touch of Evil engages in experiments around publication and reception, including considerations about how we might take advantage of digital logics to extend our critical methodology. Finally, I am also working this year to launch a new open access journal dedicated to multimedia work in film and media studies that utilizes open peer review. As I have experimented with new forms of publishing, I have found organizations like MediaCommons to be sites for collaboration, encouragement and support, and the AAUP report becomes another link in that chain. The report and its use of CommentPress is part of that community-building effort.

Community building around newer models of scholarly publishing should remain a priority in my estimation, since it is unlikely that a “one size fits all” publishing approach will emerge in the future. As the AAUP report acknowledges:

“The one evident conclusion that emerges from the various reports on the current state of scholarly publishing, as well as in the research undertaken for this report, is that no single new business model will replace the traditional print-based model. Rather, a mix of revenue sources will be required to sustain scholarly publishing in the future, and that mix is likely to vary for different kinds of publications.”[3]

Second, for authors who haven’t changed their publishing habits yet or are not particularly interested in doing so, I hope the report and its surrounding discussion encourages curiosity and consideration about what is happening in academic publishing in the digital age. I hope authors throughout academia want to learn more about the benefits of open access publishing, experiment with digital publishing projects, or talk with their editors about how to release their books in new digital formats. And even beyond a publishing issue, I hope reports such as this one help educate senior faculty about the changes that are greeting the newest members of our profession: graduate students and junior professors. We no longer can afford to have overly conservative promotion and tenure committees that are not giving adequate consideration and scholarly weight to new forms of publication. As university presses meet the challenges of a transformed publishing landscape, the projects that are likely to emerge will be like paper-based books in content only. As we ask our presses and our libraries to meet the challenges of digitally enabled scholarship, let’s advocate for faculty governance that will review and reward this scholarly activity appropriately.

Finally, I hope the report opens a few eyes about the new realities at university presses. Some of these changes are likely to be quite transformational, and will be a major part of our evolving scholarly ecosystem for years to come. If you haven’t considered it before, maybe now is the right time to start asking how your next book or journal article might benefit from open access as the primary mode of publication, or how might the content of your research benefit from being published in a digital format.

I would also love to hear responses and reactions from other authors and scholars on what the AAUP report might mean for their publishing habits and needs.


[1] The full report is being published at MediaCommons.org using the CommentPress software. You can read more about CommentPress and its functionality here, but the key feature of CommentPress allows readers to leave comments at the paragraph level and engage in a targeted and threaded discussion of the report’s findings and conclusions.

[2] In support of this contention, I think the report’s section on “Open Access as a Primary Model of Publication” is particularly illuminating with its case studies of publishers associated with the National Academies and RAND corporation.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

Inception and the Shared Dreams of the Digital Humanities

“What’s the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it.”

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), from the movie Inception (2010)

As part of its critical reception, Inception has been frequently linked with the film Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). A.O. Scott’s review at The New York Times was one of many that touted a connection between the two films. Beyond cinematic comparisons, I want to consider how Inception might, like Blade Runner, inspire new academic discourses and commentaries on digital culture. In this regard, I am thinking about the plethora of scholarly articles and books on Blade Runner by scholars such as Giuliana Bruno and her famous essay on Ramble City and postmodernism, or Scott Bukatman and his book on Blade Runner, or Mike Davis’s use of the film to describe actual scenarios in contemporary urban environments. In a similar vein, I believe it is worth considering Inception as a film that reveals something important about our current cultural moment. What is the hermeneutic power of Inception? Does Christopher Nolan’s film have the same capacity as Blade Runner to inspire new ways of thinking about technology, media, and culture?

Inception contains big ideas and offers a more complex narrative design than the typical summer blockbuster. Director Christopher Nolan’s digitally-created dream worlds required an extensive budget (reportedly around 200 million dollars), so its big ideas are embedded in a film that tries to have it both ways: entertaining mainstream audiences while also trying to appeal to the art house crowd. While I have issues with the film as a film (i.e. I would probably not put its cinematic accomplishments on the same level as Blade Runner, or even The Matrix), I have a hard time putting the film out of my head. I find myself returning to the film, and can easily recall many of its most potent moments: like the van, in extreme slow motion, going off the bridge into a river; or Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) in the zero-gravity dream-space of that hotel hallway. These set pieces are visually captivating and the work of a talented visionary, like Ridley Scott’s take on 2019 Los Angeles or the Wachowski Brothers’ innovative use of bullet time in The Matrix. And while this blog entry doesn’t need a spoiler alert, you will likely follow my argument better if you have seen this film.

But I do not analyze Inception through the lens of film studies. Instead, I take some of the film’s ideas and use them to think through the current state of the digital humanities. A lot of the potential of the digital humanities right now lies in a dream state, and there is still much work for humanities scholars in transforming their digitally-cathected dreams into reality. And since the digital humanities are the featured topic of this blog, I won’t get too much into defining the term in this particular post. I am more interested here in ways that Inception may help us frame our understanding of the digital humanities.

Yet I can’t avoid the “definition problem” entirely. As an umbrella term, the term “digital humanities” encompasses many different disciplines and approaches. Patrick Svensson has written an excellent overview of the topic: “The Landscape of the Digital Humanities” published in Digital Humanities Quarterly. Svensson notes the terrain of the digital humanities results from “…a rich multi-level interaction with the “digital” that is partly a result of the persuasiveness of digital technology and the sheer number of disciplines, perspectives and approaches involved. Humanists are exploring differing modes of engagement, institutional models, technologies and discursive strategies. There is also a strategy-level push for the digital humanities which, among other things, affects university research strategies, external funding and recruitment.” [1] Furthermore, as does Svensson, I find Tara McPherson’s typology of the computing humanities, the blogging humanities, and the multimodal humanities useful for making distinctions and for navigating this large and growing field. McPherson also makes the case for how certain projects in the digital humanities expand the scholarly imagination.

There is yet another level of connection between Blade Runner and Inception: both films owe a big debt to film noir and noir studies. Many interesting science fiction films of the last thirty years have had a noir element to them. I have argued elsewhere about the link between new media and film noir, in a talk entitled The Noir Logics of New Media. This connection is not unexpected as there are many points of connection between new technologies and the noir phenomenon, starting in the 1940s when the noir style developed in the era of postwar cybernetics and in the shadows of the atomic bomb. Just as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was caught up in the noir-tinged discourses of cyberpunk in the 1980s, Nolan’s noir sensibilities add new insights to noir’s continuing power in the digital age. In many ways, noir is experiencing a renaissance in films today and provides a roadmap into our contemporary culture of fear and uncertainty. Noir logics bring with them dark and menacing undercurrents that serve a valuable function—especially vis-à-vis readings of digital technologies and digital culture—as a caution against having too much optimism, or as a corrective towards utopian notions of technological progress.

There are three key ideas I wish to extract from Inception to help frame the current state of the digital humanities:

Idea #1: It takes great skill and imagination to implant a new idea

I love this idea from Inception. The film follows the actions of a team of technologically adept thieves who steal, or “extract,” information from a person’s dream. The film begins by showing how these techniques are useful tactics in corporate espionage. You can literally enter into a person’s dream and steal their most private ideas from within their deep subconscious. But as the characters in the film discuss, it is easier to extract an idea from a dream than to plant a new idea into a dreamer. If you implant an idea, the dreamer tends to reject the implanted notion as a foreign and unacceptable thought. In fact, the word “inception” refers to this more difficult dream task. While both dream tasks, extraction vs. inception, require skill and training, it takes greater skill and imagination to induce the inception of an idea. I find this useful in thinking about the introduction and adoption of new ideas and projects in the digital humanities.

Inception literally takes us step-by-step through a key difficulty in the implantation of a new idea: it requires the construction of an entire world—a world that must be complex and believable. For inception to work at all, Cobb’s crew has to create dream worlds of amazing detail and make that world feel like part of a “normal” dream. In fact, to accomplish their objectives, Cobb’s team needs a dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page). The name Ariadne itself is meaningful: in Greek mythology, she is the person who gave Theseus the thread by which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. In Inception, Ariadne creates the labyrinthine dream world that Cobb’s team enters in its attempt at inception. The film shows the level of detail that an architect must command in order for the dream world to work. The architect must also remember she is designing for a dream, so she must build imaginative Escher-esque city spaces and structural impossibilities like the paradoxical Penrose stairs.

I bring up the world-building aspect of Inception, because frequently in the digital humanities, from game design to virtual world building to new media curricula, the successful inception of a digital humanities project requires the scholars and their teams to successfully project visions of “new worlds” into the collective imagination of their colleagues. The process is not unlike what Ariadne the Architect does in Inception. As the character Eames (Tom Hardy) says, “if we’re going to perform inception, then we need imagination.” In the digital humanities, we need to use our imaginations not only to build better projects, but to help colleagues understand how these projects will transform the future of the humanities. Cutting edge research is always a dream projection, a view of the world as it may become in some potential future. And this is some of the hardest work in the digital humanities, because you not only need to introduce a better idea or a novel approach, but simultaneously create the entire world that will come to surround and support it.

Idea #2: Time slows down the deeper you go into a dream

Inception’s ideas about “dream time” really got me thinking about the demands and time commitments of digital humanities projects. The dream logic of the movie states that as you go into a deeper level of a dream, time is literally expanding. For example, you might be only asleep and dreaming for 15 minutes, but the events in the dream take place over an entire day. This idea should sound familiar to anyone who has worked for any length of time in the digital humanities.

The film’s labyrinthine depiction of space and time has generated a host of attempts to graph these spatial and temporal dimensions: user-generated fan activities that try to make sense of the film’s complicated narrative dynamics. My favorite is this one, which is a beautiful example of graphic design. Another useful infographic depicts five different levels of space and time in Inception, and yet another tries to capture the film’s branching narrative design in a flowchart.

But Christopher Nolan’s playfulness with dream time suggests that even though time is experienced as “normal” on each level of the dream, the deeper you go into a dream, time actually moves by much more slowly. So seconds at the beginning of a dream can stretch into minutes, then stretch in hours, drag on into days…you get the point. This is a great way of thinking about the digital humanities because these kinds of projects have a way of expanding over time, or making time feel like it is going by slowly. I don’t think this is a reason to avoid working in the digital humanities, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address the “time bleed” that digital projects tend to have. They take much longer than anticipated, and scholars need to have realistic time expectations. I have worked on many projects that I thought would get done in a semester’s time, only to see the project spread into a new year, or continue to evolve over my entire career in unexpected ways. In fact, the truism that “a work of art is never done, just abandoned” is equally true of digital humanities projects. Like a neverending story, when should one post the last blog? Or create the last version of program? Or make the last episode of a series?

Nolan pushes his conception of dream time to its very limits: at the very bottom of a dream, one’s perception of time is similar to that of “being in limbo.” In the film, characters can age an entire lifetime at this stage of a dream. I’m sure every digital humanities scholar has had that feeling of “being in limbo” on one of their digital projects. But, like Cobb, we must always fight to get out of those kinds of limbos.

Idea #3: It takes a well-trained, well-organized team to make it work

Another idea that might be easy to overlook in Inception is that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) does not act alone in this movie. This is not about a single individual who pursues a solitary goal on his own. Rather the film clearly demonstrates that Cobb can’t do his work without the ensemble talents of the team surrounding him. There is the architect, the pointman, the forger, and the chemist. And they must work together in complete synchronicity. In fact, their very lives depend on their ability to work as a team. And the team requires very different kinds of expertise to function properly. This is collaborative activity at its best. Inception shows the impact of “shared dreaming,” as all the members of the team occupy the same dream spaces.

This reminds me of the best practices behind successful digital humanities projects. The best projects are the shared dreams and concerted efforts of teams of scholars and dedicated personnel, more than the work of single individuals. And yet, institutions of higher education have not yet caught up with the underlying processes necessary for long-term success in the digital humanities. There are still too many barriers in the academy for initiating team projects, and there is still not enough scaffolding in undergraduate and graduate programs for research that requires interdisciplinary collaborations. Some of this is changing, though I suspect it will shift naturally as new forms of connection and scholarly exchanges (such as blogs and social networks) proliferate and mature.

The ideas in Inception help me think about the shared dreams of digital humanities scholars. While it might be hard to implant new ideas, and projects take a tremendous amount of time, and digital efforts require well-trained and well-coordinated teams, the benefits and potential for the future of the humanities are dramatic. As Cobb so powerfully states in Inception: “An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” The digital humanities is one such idea.