Speclab and Drucker: Theoretical and Practical Design and Computation

Patrick Grady O’Malley

Like the littérateur concerned with their prose, a Digital Humanist seeks to express their humanistic interests with the digital tool-kit provided by modernity and the laws of technology. How does one use HTML appropriately to express ones thoughts and vision? Which markup language is most appropriate for the task at hand? Not only must the language be spot on when creating a digital work, language referring to that of a literary project, but also its code. Understanding expansive (and growing) digital languages to put one’s dream on a screen is the plight we all face as emerging Digital Humanists.

In order to successfully render a quality project, consider the rules of design that dictate the visual arts. Aesthetically pleasing work is mandatory not just in fine art or graphic design, but also our world too. “Features such as sidebars, hot links, menus, and tabs have become so rapidly conventionalized that their character as representations has become invisible. Under scrutiny, the structural hierarchy of information coded into buttons, bars, windows, and other elements of the interface reveals the rhetoric of display, [9]” reiterates the importance of design choice but also brings to light the notion that certain design elements may easily be overlooked by the user as something of a commodity to be expected. In other words, our hard work in choosing how to visualize our project may barely be noticed, at least by those who aren’t really looking. Nonetheless, these tedious decisions must be made for the relevance of the project and the objects it represents.

Users expect good-looking interfaces that are founded in functionality. When coupled with text to be explored, I could see how it would be easy to overlook the functionality of one versus the other (design/text), but I suppose that is the nature of collaboration amongst experts that bring to the project different skill sets. Only then can something worthwhile and exceptional be achieved. The coding of both the design and the text is a skill in and of itself, furthering the idea that “Humanists are skilled at complexity and ambiguity. Computers, as is well known, are not. [7]” A computer will only do what you tell it to, so artistic and intellectual integrity remains with us, and for as much as people say that computers make people lazy, I’d say we all have good evidence that such is not the case by any sense of the definition.

With regard to all of these considerations, the author clearly takes the stance that attention to detail is of the essence. When discussing how to chunk or tag texts in XML, the author states that “Such decisions might seem trivial, hairsplitting, but not if attention to material features of a text is considered important. [13]” In other words, while it may be tempting to leave certain elements alone, only the finished project suffers and worthy reputations become diminished. This is certainly not the path I hope to travel, even though in my daily life I’m frequently looking for nice ways to cut a corner. But we do what we do for the expansion of scholarship, “art for art’s sake!” so to speak.

The modeling and structuring of a project is the true core of what is being visualized. “It is all an expression of form that embodies a generalized idea of the knowledge it is presenting. [16]. Without a thorough intellectual plan that takes into account the many considerations of design (“visualization, psychology and physiology of vision, and cultural history of visual epistemology [21]”) and computation (statistics, coding, logic theory), the end result is not thorough… “the metatext is only as good as the model of knowledge it encodes. [15]” I have heard of TEI and been exposed to it “under the roof” in a minimal sense, but I know little of the dictations of the “organization setting standards for knowledge representation. [14]” in a broader sense, or really in any way that I could work amongst it at this point in my early career. But I am aware there are rules of functionality that must be interpreted for appropriate text layout. As I broaden my skillset in text analysis, I’m sure the process becomes more and more intuitive, however, I’d be lying if I said now it wasn’t a bit intimidating.

Are the objects we are creating tangible in nature? Or do they only stem from tangible products (books, paintings, song lyrics)? Is there value in discerning between the two? Is the output we create secondary to the primary source it is coming from? Or do our projects take on a new life of their own? “A discourse field is indeterminate, neither random, chaotic, nor fixed, but probabilistic. It is also social, historical, rooted in real and traceable material artifacts. [28]” As Digital Humanists, without having criterion of standards that dictate the work we do, or, the underlying philosophy of a project, what are we left with? There is little point in even bothering to make anything if you can’t summarize what its purpose is, intellectually, from the outset.

Every object has its place in history and I believe it is our job to bring that historicity into modernity in order to illuminate the changing nature of the humanities over centuries. “We are far less concerned with making devices to do things-sort, organize, list, order, number, compare-than with creating ways to expose any form of expression (book, work, text, image, scholarly debate, bibliographical research, description, or paraphrase) as an act of interpretation ( and any interpretive act as a subjective deformance). [26]” In other words, we are learning to read between the blurry lines of theory and practicality, and create work that harbors the two amongst a host of scholarly concerns and quandaries.

3 thoughts on “Speclab and Drucker: Theoretical and Practical Design and Computation

  1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

    Thanks for this clear and thoughtful discussion of Drucker’s difficult and thought-provoking text. As you note, design and the way we model our visualizations is at the core of digital humanities work, for “all forms of interpretation and scholarship are design problems premised on models of knowledge that make assumptions about what their object of study is” (36).

  2. Patrick Grady O'Malley Post author

    Exactly, I am kind of a design nerd. I haven’t been formally trained in it or anything, but i love the theoretics of art and design… I have a really cool text book i could bring if i could find that shows some incredible examples of line and format in fine art. I have to find it in my apartment though lol

    1. Sabina Pringle (she/ella)

      I love art and design and think I have a good intuitive sense but lack theoretics. Please bring your book if possible before the mapping assignment. I have a couple of cool books that a friend gave me on data viz design. I’ll bring them to class.

Comments are closed.