Cultural [Re]Mediation: Evolving Reading Practices in the Digital Humanities – by “Brendan S”

I thought I would use this week’s blog post to give a rundown on some of the things I learned this past weekend at the “Past’s Digital Presence” Conference on the digital humanities which took place at Yale. I was lucky enough to be there all day recording video of the conference, and got to see almost a dozen presentations; several of them are, I think, quite relevant to themes we’ve been discussing in this course.

On a broad level, the conference was concerned with questions such as access to information, methods of sharing and analyzing culture, and our evolving roles – as researchers, librarians, readers – in consuming via these new methods. I’ll focus here on two of the talks, both of which fell under the session on “Evolving Reading Practices,” and dealt with how new technologies are altering how we interact with creative works via the Internet – particularly relevant to the topic of gatekeeping and online intermediaries,

Patrick Redding – “Viral Meters: Reading Frank O’Hara on YouTube”

In this talk, Redding talks about how digital media can blur the distinction between primary and secondary sources. Digital texts are mobile, and mutate frequently; we frequently interact with digital facsimiles and annotated hypertexts. In many cases, in fact, our initial interaction with a text is not in the traditional form of a book, paper, or film, but rather with text as multimedia hybrid. He illustrates these points through an analysis of various adaptations of and responses to Frank O’Hara on YouTube, presenting us with new ways of imagining traditional poetic concepts.

Redding presents five videos as examples. The first is a high school teacher’s take on “Having a Coke With You,” in which the teacher has inserted Google-imaged photos in order to provide students with visual context for concepts in O’Hara’s poem that might be unfamiliar.

The second, “As Planned,” incorporates music, type, and motion graphics to create not only a visualization of the poem, but also a visual reading, interpreting aspects of the poem such as its tone and syntax through visual forms. Third is “Lana Turner Has Collapsed,” a poetic riff on the mashup genre, set to a Nirvana song (a quick YouTube search turned up one with Madvillain as well). The last two are produced by independent filmmaker Joseph Fusco, and provide two very different interpretations of the same poem; the narrator, background music and visuals actually change the meaning of the piece.

(Here are the other three.)

I would guess that most (if not all) of these videos, are technically in violation of at least one copyright, but none has enough views to merit bothering with a takedown notice; it’s likely anyway that the copyright owners either aren’t even aware that these videos exist, or recognize their utility and cultural significance. Since none of the videos are direct, unaltered copies of creative work, each adds a new level of interpretation or understanding to O’Hara’s poetry, and even the songs fall under a loose definition of fair use, I can’t see any incentive for a copyright holder to want one of the videos removed. However if YouTube (through some hypothetical new technology) were to start preemptively identifying every case of infringement, it’s more than likely that videos such as these would get taken down for no good reason.

Rachael Sullivan – “Dickinson Meets DoubleClick: Remediating Poetry”

Sullivan’s talk was particularly interesting to me because it looked at how texts (in this case, literature) are altered not only by how they’re displayed and accessed online, but also by their context. Sullivan elaborates on two aspects of literacy in the digital age – immediacy, the act of looking at the text; and hypermediacy, in which the text is mediated by external elements. One of the most prominent among these external influences is online advertising.

DoubleClick (now a Google subsidiary), Google’s own AdSense, and other services provide targeted advertisements to many websites, including online repositories of literature and poetry such as Bartleby.com. The challenge that arises when looking at poetry online in this context is sifting through the “noise” that distracts from the text. In addition to advertisements surrounding a poem, for example, and influencing its reading, advertisements are sometimes even hyperlinked to words within the text itself, creating a potentially unreliable version of the text. Of course, this is not an altogether new issue – there are discrepancies in manuscripts vs. typeset poems, and a history of advertisements or other contextual influences in printed texts. But with the proliferation of digital media we’re seeing an exponential expansion of possibilities for remediating a text; with everything hyperlinked and searchable, practically nothing exists in isolation anymore.

The omnipresence of Google, through which it sometimes feels the whole Internet is filtered, raises many questions about the influence of online advertising in how we navigate and consume content. Advertising is of course Google’s bread and butter; everything from run of the mill search results to YouTube videos to maps and news are dished up to us alongside a healthy slough of linked advertising. I’m not sure to what extent this actually influence our online behavior, given that we’re so desensitized to ads that we hardly notice them anymore. Besides, Google’s ads are about as innocuous as they come, a far cry from pop-up cascades and insidious spyware.

Sullivan may appear to be overstating the significance of this particular way of remediating texts, but the questions she raises are worth thinking about, if only to develop a more conscious awareness of the Internet’s effects on how we read. The texts in question aren’t just poetry, but everything we interact with online – and the mediating elements are not confined to ads, but include complicated systems of hyperlinks connecting information in an untold number of ways. Intermediaries such as Google have a profound impact on how we navigate the web, not only through advertising, but most fundamentally through the search and ranking algorithms themselves.

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One thought on “Cultural [Re]Mediation: Evolving Reading Practices in the Digital Humanities – by “Brendan S”

  1. I like how the two talks you discussed show the very different ways in which context can affect our perceptions of works of art. It seems that the internet has both allowed for positive transformations of works through mashups, etc. that purposefully take the original work to a new place, but also negative transformations of works via distracting internet ads, etc. that seem to only diminish our ability to appreciate the original work.

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