Technology or Archaeology? What am I studying and how should I study it?

As I type away on my keyboard, I feel pretty confident most of us are aware of the effects and affects that various technologies and technological advances have had on our lives; moving from pen to keyboard (Katherine N. Hayles qtd. in Bassett 116), from book to PDF, from newspaper to Facebook news feed, etc. In the short amount of time I’ve experienced this world, it has been concatenated by technological progressions, and my days have been defined by their developments. Hayles argues that the capacities of a simple word processor have radically changed academic research, while other technologies like blogging have created tensions that have yet to be negotiated within institutional practices (e.g., should an academically informal blog with a larger readership be considered above a peer-reviewed article with low or no citation rates?) (“How We Think” 2-5). It affects my studies, allowing me to access databases’ worth of articles without having to take one step, never mind quite a few toward the library and through its shelves. It allows me to watch Netflix on one screen while I search for sources in another.

For Matthew Wilkens, digital practices introduce new advantages to literary studies by allowing easy (i.e., computational) data mining, such as the quantitative visualization which plots the geographical places that are mentioned in American novels published between 1851-1875 (“Canons” n. pag, Fig. 14.2). It allows for the interesting proposal of a “revised understanding of American regionalism” (n. pag), although Wilkens rightly admits its hypothetical nature, and the need for further investigation. For Matthew Fuller, our culture’s reliance on digital media necessitates “software studies,” which Bassett summarizes as “an approach capable of exploring digital operations, structures, languages, and their intersections and connections directly” (118). Fuller’s Software Studies/A Lexicon provides a primer, advocating on the most basic level that “[s]oftware structures and makes possible much of the contemporary world. [Software Studies/A Lexicon] proposes an exercise in the prototyping of transversal and critical approaches to such stuff […] and to show […] the conditions of possibility that software establishes” (1-2). I don’t think it was until this morning, when I found an archived post from Vice’s Motherboard that I realized just how important these kinds of analyses could be.

The stakes of “software studies” literacy are quite high; according to software engineer Brett Thomas, not knowing how to navigate the internet, and not knowing the ramifications of traveling through cyberspace, can result in your porn-viewing habits being released, legally but without your consent. The reason? Because we don’t really understand digital navigation – we can type in an address, but we don’t know and/or fully get what happens when we type that address and press enter. It’s complicated and to be honest, if I were to try to explain it I’d probably muck it all up, but there’s a great comprehensive article about it by Panopticlick. Basically, websites request information from your browser, which freely gives information about you, like your IP address. Even if a porn website promises under its terms and conditions that it does not collect your data, third parties install tracking elements that do (they can range from Google to targeted advertisers).

Understanding how IP addresses work (or how to get one to look like it’s working somewhere else via VPN) becomes important. But so does, apparently, understanding that “incognito mode” is geared toward our reliance on interface-based digital interactions, and that the Incognito-user’s data is still read and written somewhere, just not within your cache of autofills and hyperlink histories. Knowledge of digital processes then, is as important as how we use digital media. In fact, when Brian Merchant reports for Motherboard, he repeats no less than three times that “incognito modes” in a browser does nothing to stop data tracking (this does not account for the two mentions of “private browsing modes”). His story attempts to prime readers in rudimentary software studies literacy, re-assessing how our culture uses digital media, and explaining that digital media is often used for different but no less important ways.

Literary studies might focus on what porn means, or how porn affects culture, or how culture affects porn, etc. Consider The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (2013); a cursory glance of the table of contents addresses neither web-design nor code, although it focuses on race, gender, queer studies, fat studies, sex education, topics familiar to literary and cultural studies students. Yet vast quantities of porn are available online: according to the Wall Street Journal, 70% of 18-34 year olds have visited a pornographic website within the past month (Wall Street Journal qtd. In Merchant). Even though pornographic data tracking has severe ramifications for queer individuals in jurisdictions where homosexuality is outlawed, queer studies have yet to address the connection between online pornography and the concerns Thomas raises (Thomas believes this data tracking could lead to an Ashley Madison-style data dump), perhaps because that would require a working knowledge of the internet that the average computer-user doesn’t seem to have. Thus I would like to finish by returning to Bassett, who argues for a mode of scholarship which aims to “re-focus the project to re-think, through a newly informed sense of what software is capable of effecting, what actors and what kinds of acts are possible – and perhaps whether it is convergence or its avoidance that might in some way be miraculous” (Bassett 120). What is software capable of effecting, in the case of online porn? What actors and acts are possible? Instead of considering, as The Feminist Porn Book does, how actors of colour fit into the porn industry, or fat porn stars have carved their own space within popular expressions of sexuality, digital humanities can ask, by addressing on the level of code, exactly who is an actor on a webpage – which third party is taking advantage of a porn star’s fame by tracking your habits? which kinds of acts are their codes allowing (are they recording data? which data? are they planting Trojans?)? which kinds of acts are legally possible, and do some need regulation (e.g., revenge porn legislation is finally catching up to the possibilities that the digital world so easily presents)? These are the kinds of questions that aren’t being asked, but as much as certain sexual preferences affect someone’s life, equally important sometimes is how the information about that person’s life is used.
Works Cited

Bassett, Caroline. “Canonicalism and the Computational Turn.” Understanding the Digital Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 105-126.

Fuller, Matthew. Introduction. Software Studies \ A Lexicon. ed. Matthew Fuller. 2008. 1-14.

Hayles, Katherine N. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Wilkens, Matthew. “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2012. <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/17&gt;

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