Tag Archives: ENGL 575

Whose ethics? False dichotomies of business & government in the machine learning debate

In their book Big Data, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier use the film Minority Report as a speculative lens to envision a society where decisions are driven by predictive algorithms drawing from a database of personal information. In a chapter titled “Risks”, they warn that “as troubling as the ability of business and government to know our personal information may be, a newer problem emerges with big data: the use of predictions to judge us” (157). Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier follow in the tradition of paranoid science fiction writers of the mid-20th century and sensational journalism of the 21st, forecasting that predictions generated by algorithms that draw from databanks of past behaviour will be used to to punish people for what they might do in the future. There are no second chances. No mercy from the machine.

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Criticism in a field which is not one

Last week, a classmate namedropped Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in class discussion and I had a bit of a fangirl moment. I’m not going to lie – Sedgwick’s article on paranoid vs reparative reading was a big influence on one of my term papers last year and continued to influence me while developing my major research paper for my masters, as it forced me to rethink how we approach texts. Texts and contexts, really; the “paranoid position” that Sedgwick articulates (building on terminology/theory from Melanie Klein to name it as a “position”) is one with which I am pretty intimately familiar both as an academic and in my own life.

However I think the label is slightly misleading: paranoia to me suggests fear and anxiety, and while I agree that those affects may be underlying factors contributing ultimately to the subject’s orientation towards the world around them, the “paranoid position” most often surfaces as critique. It is important to clarify that by critique I do not mean critical thinking in general, but a judgmental practice of approaching a text solely via its perceived faults. This negative approach, taught to most students in the humanities as the way to approach theoretical or literary readings, is very noticeably present in quite a few of the digital humanities texts we’ve been reading over the past while. I’m finding it useful to draw a few connections between praxis in affect theory and in digital humanities, so please bear with me throughout this post: it is not proposing any One True Way of thinking, but rather exists as an attempt to locate possibilities.

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Accessibility of Information: IT, Academics, and the Internet

We’ve all heard the stereotypes about the IT… not the tech department, but the Ivory Tower of academia. Even the name connotes its pristine and precious nature, its rarity, it’s high-and-mighty nature (not to mention its whiteness sourced from colonial oppression and illegal trade). Its halls, hallowed. Its customs, arcane. Its usefulness to the world, almost nil because nobody really understands it and can’t access it anyway.

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Love, literary canons, and gatekeeping behaviour

Canonical texts are beloved. Assembling the literary output of (what amounted to mostly dead, mostly white, mostly male) authors and examining their themes, their tropes, their references to politics and art history and so on, is what made English departments in the Western world historically great – their ability to take texts and relate their elements to the human condition, link them to social issues, make veiled political references, and advance philosophy and knowledge of what it means to be human. It’s true that there is something about these texts that speaks to the human soul, they comfort readers with familiarity and challenge them with new ideas, they give their readers and critics a sense of belonging to a larger community and their meaning changes and adapts through the years, allowing readers to come back and find new ways of looking at the text, the world, the world of the text.

And so the suspicion towards digital humanists held by academics and other book-lovers is completely understandable, as is the popularity of articles such as Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data. People are very invested in their love of these texts. This despite the fact that a lot of digital humanities projects such as the Emily Dickinson Archive actually can deepen readers’ engagement with and access to original manuscripts. The Transcribe Bentham project discovered never-before-seen manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham’s that had been thought “lost”, while going through his work to prepare it to be digitized.

The “text-and-text alone” approach of New Criticism in academia gave rise to a culture of exclusivity based around these texts. The texts belong in the canon due to their greatness; their greatness can be ascertained from textual evidence; this textual evidence is why they are in the canon in the first place. Et cetera. Close reading and evaluation of texts is useful to do, definitely, but not in order to separate the (human) wheat from the chaff or to institute a hierarchy of authors. As engaged thinkers, we need to be wary of those who defend canons: not to demonize them, but to recognize that, like any proponents of an ideology or belief, their investment can lead to peculiar hostile behaviour towards outsiders.

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PRIVATE – KEEP OUT: On digital / writing platforms and internet security

In one of my courses this semester (“introduction to digital humanities”) we are asked to make biweekly blog posts to “think aloud”, rant, engage in debate, etc. Several of my classmates balked at this (citing issues of security and privacy, mostly), and others were excited, especially with regards to the ease and informality of web publishing. Plus the tantalizingly dangled carrot of getting known in internet circles, publishing work on well-read sites, possibly leading to alt-ac* jobs in the future.

None of these debates and hesitations over issues of security and privacy ring especially new to me, as I hold them myself. When I first started blogging, on ye olde LiveJournal back in 2003, my journal entries were locked to “friends-only”: only other LJ users with accounts that I had approved could view my posts in their friends feed. Neither security nor privacy seemed to be a huge issue; the terms of service seemed legitimate to my grade-10 mind, and besides, I was fifteen: who would hack me? Or so went my thoughts.

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