Tag Archives: New Media

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
(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.