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Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts

Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts

by T. Bartscherer & R. Coover, Editors
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011
448 pp.  illus. 44 b&w.  Trade, $85.00; paper, $30 USD
ISBN: 978-0-226-03830-8; ISBN: 978-0-226-03831-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle

harle@robharle.com

Not many scholarly books I review invite the reader to physically chop-up parts of it with scissors! Less unusual possibly is how the respondents to the main essays chop-up, intellectually, the previous essays. If that's not all, there are poetry, games, dialogue, scholarly essays, and short fiction all thrown in together. What is the world coming to? Switching Codes goes a long way in helping us understand this question by discussing side-by-side  — digital technology, the humanities and the arts.

As the editors of this important and most enjoyable book state, “The aim of this volume can be simply put: to bring together scholars, scientists, and artists to reflect on the impact of digital technology on thought and practice in the humanities and the arts”. There is an anti hero .. . or maybe hero, exposed in the Epilogue which is perhaps, “a foil for you, dear reader” (p. 1).  It is difficult to generalise about the book's readability as the contributions are so varied in style:  Some are complex and require prior academic knowledge; others are easily digested. Having said this, I think the book will be accessible to most reasonably well educated readers.

Switching Codes has 10 main essays, followed by critical essays in response to these. They are arranged into four parts:
Part 1 – Research, Sense, Structure
Part 2 – Ontology, Semantic Web, Creativity
Part 3 – Panorama, Interactivity, Embodiment
Part 4 – Re/presentations: Language and Facsimile
Following the texts is a List of Contributors and an excellent Index. There is a smattering of black & white images to illustrate points made in the essays.

Time for the scissors! Interlude, between parts two and three is a game - Figment: The Switching Codes Game by Eric Zimmerman. This is a bona fide card game designed specifically for this book, and you, dear reader, are invited to cut out the 200 cards, read the rules, and play the game with friends. Scissors are not provided with the book, probably because of Custom's security regulations? If you do not want to cut-up the book (the historical use of this cut-up methodology is the basis of the game), you may photocopy the pages or download them from Zimmerman's website.

All the essays are thought provoking and add important understanding to our world's current — technology < > humanities divide. Two essays however really stood out for me.

Firstly, Scholarsource: A Digital Infrastructure for the Humanities by Paolo D'Iorio and Michele Barbera, this is a “Skype Dialogue” between a fairly traditional English, Oxford Philosopher and a much younger, “Google Generation”, Computer Scientist. The latter writes sentences like, “r u kidding i'll multi-task while u talk lol”. This essay really brings to the surface how difficult it is going to be to fully integrate digital technologies and the humanities into a new discipline, honouring both, but existing in its own right. Fortunately these two disparate characters find some common ground and show that the task is not impossible.

The second essay, Rewiring Culture, the Brain, and Digital Media by Vibeke Sorensen sums up the global situation as it actually is. It is easy to forget amongst all the hype about how great the Internet is, and “always on, always available” will bring about a better world politically, that the majority of people on this planet are not connected to the net. “But statistically, 75 to 90 percent of the world population remains not connected” (p. 242). Sorensen sees, correctly in my opinion, that the present growth of digital global networks is similar to that of twentieth century colonialism and imperialism. The bottom line is that while some things may be gained through colonialism, a great deal is lost and this is usually irreplaceable. “The tendency to fragment and deconstruct cultures is still progressing. It is also reinforced by strong and persistent neocolonial tendencies” (p. 243).

Understanding the impact of rapidly changing information technology on intellectual and cultural life is increasingly difficult.  For me this book is a successful attempt to provide a basic understanding of the issues involved and also give tentative suggestions of ways to proceed into our uncertain future. “ Automated computation may in certain respects change “what it means to be human.” “This possibility — both a promise and a threat — is clearly on the minds of many of the contributors to Switching Codes” (p.5).


Last Updated 1 December 2011

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