I Made Something

I believe, as I heard a mother say on This American Life this week, in doing the things you are capable of, so I’ve created a digital essay about how we teach information. Click this thing to see it:

How do we learn what’s true?

Let me now use this space to write a bit about the essay’s motivation.

Liberalism maintains that once we collect enough data, we will arrive at the correct models. But the increasing importance of narratives—and the consequent decrease in the importance in their underlying facts—has thrown this epistemology into doubt. Much contemporary writing seeks to recover a sense of reality from the soup of competing truths that defines postmodernity. Seeking to disclaim bias and reassert the regime of factuality, writers of all ideologies have begun to speak of argument as the act of staking out territory in an information war, proving that postmodernism is here to stay. As a crude example, here I’ve concatenated a paragraph from a right-wing conspiracy site with an opening passage from a mainstream liberal essayist:

The manipulation of facts and the slow relentless war on reality is being waged on this landscape of the mind. When those who seek to control humanity can convince the world that what they say is true, we will rapidly descend into the most oppressive tyranny ever seen.

Most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair; but who said history was fair?

(Solution: The first paragraph is from InfoWars. The second is from the introduction to Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.)

Media-literate readers can tell the authors’ ideologies apart by the change in shibboleths: the right’s prophecies of battle, chaos, and Armageddon become the left’s boring sympathy for unpaid domestic labor. But both agree on one thing: that only a dark era of epistemological chaos can follow the sunset of objectivity. Whether they tell the leftist story of identity- and class-based oppression or preach brass-tacks Evangelical nationalism, modern ideologies claim veracity by positioning themselves as rocks of intellectual certainty amid a tumult of postmodern confabulation. It’s not the correct ideology that wins the most followers, but the one with highest degree of narrative fluency—the one that knows who to talk to and what tone to take.

I wanted to do something about it.

Things You Can’t Teach Yourself

Remember that moment a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, everyone was listening to podcasts?

Podcasts weren’t a new technology; there was no PR campaign. Rather, it seems like they benefited from a lucky coincidence of forces: The election of a contentious president made everyone care about the news. The release of the Apple Podcasts app put an easy subscription tool in everyone’s pocket (I don’t miss middle school, when I subscribed to all the tech podcasts via RSS feed and painstakingly downloaded a fresh batch of .mp3s each week). Serial happened. Nowadays, all you have to do is say Quip electric toothbrush in a crowded urban space to hear a concert of groans.

I bet that online courses will be the new podcasts.

My evidence? My mom is now taking online courses, and it was around the time Mom started listening to podcasts that everyone else did.

I, too, am taking online courses. Something I’ve observed is that open-access, labor-of-love sites tend to surpass paid MOOCs. Paul’s Online Math Notes, for example, is more legible and better paced than any of the other online calc courses. I’m in differential equations now, and the only reason I’ve paid to enroll in an online class is to issue myself quizzes; Paul doesn’t have any diff EQ practice problems yet. Likewise, I did a course on data analysis using Python, and its best part was the link to An Introduction to Statistical Learning, a free machine-learning textbook that doesn’t shy away from the algebra that Python packages are designed to help you shy away from. I’ve also been working on HTML and CSS (W3Schools) because I’m the web editor for Fulbright’s Infusion litmag, which is working on its first issue of the grant year. (This blog might also be due for a facelift … )

A second observation: STEMmy things like math and coding are easy to learn online, but the resources are more paltry if you want to work on the humanities or social sciences. Ironically, this might be due to humanists’ high aesthetic standards. People who know Python usually know how to write HTML, too, so they start by tossing their notes online, then beautify them in stages. On the other hand, lettered-arts nerds love the feeling of beautiful typography and layout, but they lack the skills and confidence to code it themselves, so they rely on expensive print journals and paywalled websites to host their research—and then wonder why people call the humanities out of touch.

There’s this thing called the digital humanities, which in theory is about getting academics to design websites and compile online databases. But the movement falls short by yielding to humanists’ anxieties about code. Rather than take actual web-design courses, typical grad programs encourage students to attend one-shot DH workshops, where they learn WYSIWYG tools like Scalar (sorry, alma mater) and Wix. These are great ways to get your feet wet and explore the possibilities of web design, of course, but truly lit projects in DH usually combine solid underlying research with attentive, material-aware design well beyond Squarespace’s capabilities. A favorite is the Slave Voyages Database, although I must admit I preferred its web-1.0 look to last month’s AirSpace-informed redesign.

Another mistake of the DH movement is to reduce to the web to a content-delivery system—and miss its potential as a medium unto itself: I won’t @ any individuals here, but while uploading PDFs of your journal articles to Scribd or Academia.edu is better than nothing, it probably doesn’t count as digital humanities.