Tag Archives: design

What the hell, Drucker?

This is a very hot take and I’m only up to page 13, but I’m posting this anyway.

I want to like this reading selection because I think it’s important to question how our cultural beliefs about logic and computing affect social structures… but I don’t like it. I think the introduction comes off as overwrought, self-serving hand-wringing and it’s really putting me off.

As I was reading this I thought of Richard Jean So’s article “All Models are Wrong.” The picture Drucker paints of the DH world is a model. Maybe in 2009 DH was as unthinking as she portrays, or maybe she distant read digital humanities projects without close reading the thinking around them to test her assumptions. I’m not in a position to say, with my 2018 perspective and only 5 weeks of studying the field. What I can point out is that this piece is riddled with absolutisms and sweeping declarations that strike me as iffy. To me, it feels like Drucker’s read of the DH field and DH projects lacks the very nuance, sensitivity and interpretism (whatever spellcheck, it’s a word if I want it to be) that she claims are missing in the DH work she critiques.

Drucker claims that consideration of design as a means of communication and usability, “plagues the digital humanities community” (p. 6). This is a cheap shot on my part, but has she actually used many DH tools? The user experience for many of them quite closely aligns with design as meditation, freestyle, or opportunity for idiosyncratic thinking.

Also what the hell is that weird conversation on page 12 where Drucker is trying to demonstrate that XML doesn’t communicate flirting?

In the example Drucker gives, a woman is bewildered and a man is “graciously” giving that woman knowledge and validation. The woman has big blue eyes that drop submissively as she blushes and asks him to guide her. No aspect of the man’s physical appearance is described. As always, it’s women who are fair game objects of a one-directional, sexualizing gaze.

I’m going to go stress eat about sexism (haha, I’m such a woman!). If, when I come back to this, further reading makes me reconsider these POVs, I’ll mea culpa in the comments.

Designing for Difficulty

One thing that really struck me about the readings for this week is the general skepticism about ease of use. Ramsay and Rockman (“Developing Things“) argue that while a tool that doesn’t call attention to itself is useful, it’s less likely to be formally valued as scholarship. Tenen (“Blunt Instrumentation“)  is cautious about tools for several reasons, but his principal objection is that tools hide their inner workings in a way that can compromise the work done with them.  In order to do good, scholarly work using a tool, you need to understand exactly what it’s doing, and the best way to do that is to build it yourself.  Posner (“What’s Next“) takes this argument a step further, arguing that ease of use is often privileged above critical thinking.  The familiar is easy to use, but it doesn’t challenge the colonial point of view that the broader culture promotes.

Posner uses the Knotted Line as an example of a project that presents history in a more challenging way than the traditional timeline.  I spent some time looking at this website. It’s a history of freedom in the United States, and brings together information about slavery, education, mass incarceration, segregation, immigration, etc on a timeline that, as the title suggests, is neither straightforward nor orderly.  To reveal the different events of the timeline, there is a window that the website user must pull and tease until the image becomes clear.

Image of the timeline from the Knotted Line

Part of the timeline of the Knotted Line. Paintings are revealed by pulling on the line. Image taken from http://evanbissell.com/the-knotted-line/

The Knotted Line is more physically strenuous than most websites, and it can also be frustrating – much like the struggle for freedom in American history. Obviously, these things are far from equivalent, but the fact that the reader has to work for this information helps to challenge narratives of progress and emphasize that the struggle is still ongoing.

This is a different kind of difficulty than that experienced by users of NLTK in Tenen’s chapter.  I haven’t used NLTK yet, but according to Tenen, it’s difficult because you have to understand exactly what it does. It doesn’t hide its inner workings behind fancy interfaces, but provides lots of careful documentation to facilitate well-informed (should I say expert?) use.

Ramsay and Rockwell discuss the “transparency” of tools, meaning the ability for tools to fade into the background as the user thinks about the task instead.  Both these projects are specifically against this kind of transparency. Instead, they offer transparency of a different kind, the kind that comes from letting the user look behind the scenes.

I’m a librarian, so I spend a lot of time hearing about how library users want ease of use, how complex interfaces drive people away and nobody cares about how the searches work, and how advanced searching is for librarians only because it requires searchers to understand how a record is put together.  I’m uncomfortable with most of those arguments, so I found Tenen and Posner really refreshing from that perspective, especially since Posner is a professor of library science!

Some of this is audience specific. Both NLTK and the Knotted Line are designed with a very specific audience in mind, and an audience with which the people who designed the tools were very familiar. And then, a lot of it is about designing carefully and intentionally.  It isn’t always bad for users to be confused and even frustrated, as long as it’s for the right reason.