This is a really excellent lecture by Bernhard Rieder about what Digital Humanities and Media Studies have in common, how they are different, and why it matters.

Since starting to work in a group that has traditionally seen itself as firmly planted in the digital humanities I’ve sometimes found myself a bit perplexed by the disciplinary walls that seem to come up in projects, when the object of study isn’t a traditional media form like a book, or a piece of art, a piece of music, a dance, etc. I’ve come up against this a bit in my own research into how archives function on the web, because I chose to see web archives as part of set of practices that extend back in time, to the pre-digital world of paper and print (which of course are information technologies as well). One thing I like about the media studies approach is it sees various forms of media as part of a continuum of technologies, where the digital isn’t necessarily exceptional or privileged.

As Rieder points out, the debates around what is, and is not, DH are widely recognized to be a bit stale now. But understanding the similarities and differences between digital humanities and media studies is still highly relevant, especially for interdisciplinary, collaborative scholarship. I very much liked Rieder’s approach of laying out the differences and similarities in terms of his Mapping YouTube project, and the theoretical and methodological influences that guided the work he and his collaborators undertook.

The key message I took away is that the primary difference between digital humanities and media studies has traditionally been the objects of study. For example, asking questions about a large collection of printed books is fundamentally different from asking questions about a social media platform. But the way one goes about answering these questions (the methods) can actually be quite similar in both areas. In fact digital methods, and the theories they draw on, are something that bring these two disciplines into alignment, and make them vibrant sites for collaborative work. I used the past tense has there because I agree with Rieder that the differences are breaking down significantly as digital humanities research increasingly analyzes the contemporary, and media studies itself has a historical component.

A few things I learned about that I want to follow up on:

  • The idea of platform vernacular developed by Gibbs et al to describe the ways that communicative practice evolve in platforms.

  • The practice of exploratory data analysis which I feel like I’ve understood intuitively in much of my work, but am somewhat abashed to admit I didn’t realize was written about by John Tukey back in 1977. The goal of EDA is for data analysis to help in the formulation of hypotheses, rather than the testing of a hypothesis. It is also useful for gaining insights into what more data needs to be collected. I’m kind of curious to see what relation, if any, this idea of exploratory data analysis might have with Peirce’s idea of abductive reasoning.

  • I’ve known about Rieder’s book Engines of Order for a few months now, and really need to move it up the to-read pile. In my own recently completed dissertation work I looked at how algorithms (fixity algorithms) participate in complex systems of control, and knowledge production. So I’m interested to see what argument Rieder makes, and hope to learn a bit more about Simondon, who I’ve had some difficulty understanding in the past. (Although, I did enjoy this offbeat and accessible documentary about his life & work.)