Ecological metaphors run rampant throughout the digital humanities, shaping the way the discipline thinks about electronic space and time and how it maps interactions between humans and technologies as well as between different media. While ecological metaphors model the discipline’s paradigmatic self-understanding and underlying assumptions, there has been little discussion of the implications and consequences of this development for the field as currently constituted. Tracing modern ecological thought from its genesis in the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century evolutionary biology through the late twentieth-century emergence of media ecology theory within media studies, this chapter takes up the challenge of understanding what is at stake in the systemic presence of ecological metaphors circulating the field of digital humanities today, from the “trees” Franco Moretti cuts from evolutionary theory to the proliferation of “genetic texts,” “media species,” and “born digital objects.” Following the work of major promoters of ecological thought, I ask what it means to think about digital ontologies in terms of species—with life cycles spanning birth, evolution, and extinction and with complex interactions involving enmeshments, mutations, migrations, and adaptations across platforms and through time—as well as of environments, networks, and systems entailing massive and dynamic interactions of “processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter” (Fuller, 2).
A new cultural logic is emerging in the ecological metaphors for imagining digital experience as well as in practices of ordering, modeling, networking, and mapping a world characterized by ubiquitous data and responsive programming. Rather than representing a radical break with the past, this new rationality builds on and extends the connectivity and continuities analyzed in frameworks developed through modern environmental thought and the media ecology tradition. Ecology composes the forms of material culture that unfold in processes of continuity and ordering of disparate, discontinuous scales of existence from the local to the global, thereby linking the very nexus of the digital and the humanities to planetary consciousness. An interrogation of the momentous and material impacts of the traffic in ecology at the same time that the earth appears increasingly vulnerable to the effects of human-technological intervention emerges as a pressing task of digital humanities today.
I begin with two distinct ways of narrating the connection between the digital and the humanities. The first is exemplified by Alan Liu’s introduction1 to A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (“Imagining”), which characterizes the relation between the digital and the literary as a story of a “new media encounter,” one which is actually not new at all but rather a familiar retelling of “first contact” scenes between traditional and emergent media that have recurred through history. As Liu explains, “New media, it turns out, is a very old tale.” Liu’s quarrel with the veneration of the present is one that often underpins understandings of new media, a position that echoes Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree’s influential argument that “all media were once ‘new media’” (Gitelman and Pingree, xi). But Liu adds two important insights to the debate. First, he observes that the “first contact” scene of media transition is analogous to that of colonial encounter, one weighted with modernization processes that bear uneven power dynamics that cut across racial, gender, class, age and other social divides. Second, he argues, this scene unfolds formulaically, in a dialectical encounter of ideological oppression or “enchantment” followed by a reversal involving opposition, critique, and resistance, and finally, a mixing of the old and new in “whole imaginative environments” (Liu, “Imagining”). In short, the resolution to the allegory of “first contact” is a translation to the multidimensional and dynamic space of media ecology.
Liu provides a useful starting point for thinking about the ecological turn in the digital humanities because his analysis of its transformative force, as well as his exploration of its often surprising and unpredictable effects on what it means to be human, leans heavily on the trope of media ecology. Worried about literature’s potential extinction in a society where the “digital is the great new medium,” Liu sees media ecology as a space of hope for both literature and the humanities. In this formulation, media ecology denotes a mixed environment in which human identity can be asserted and sustained through imagination reconceived as poiesis, a term that blends technological and creative forms of making.2
“Macroanalysis,” the name that Matthew Jockers uses to describe his approach to large-scale literary computing and its revolutionary potential, could not be more different. Jockers’s application of large-scale computational techniques to the study of literary history is, of course, part of the quantitative trend associated with popular buzzwords like “distant reading” (Moretti), “culturomics” (Michel et al.),3 and “big humanities”4 (Marciano). Here the “star” of the digital humanities has shifted from the “new” to the “big,” from the accelerated temporality of media change to the scaled-up spatiality of mass data analysis. Yet Jockers, like Liu, also draws on the ecology metaphor to frame his methodology. According to Jockers, “the study of literature should be approached not simply as an examination of seminal works but as an examination of an aggregated ecosystem or ‘economy’ of texts” (32). While Jockers understands ecosystems as economic structures, he shares with Liu an awareness of the politically loaded stakes of his position, throwing down the gauntlet with a bravado that emphasizes the contentious entanglements of text mining within the ecological framework: Jockers writes, “At the risk of giving offense to the environmentalists, what is needed now is the literary equivalent of open-pit mining or hydraulicking” (9). Digging quite literally into data, Jockers eschews traditional literary hermeneutics in favor of analytical methods more common to the sciences, social sciences, and business. In describing his work, however, he employs terms that underscore the impossibility of employing such methods in a condition of complete objectivity, as some might hope. As Matthew Gold5 responds to this same passage, “one doesn’t need to be an environmentalist to be a bit uneasy about such a scenario” (“Facts, Patterns”).
Despite employing language that equates computational literary analysis with surface mining, Jockers exhibits no hesitation in subscribing to the traditional concept of imagination, or to the distinctively romantic sense of discovery also espoused by Liu.6 Indeed, Jockers imagines his macroanalytic method as a complement to familiar literary methods of analysis. When describing his own scene of encounter between the literary imagination and the digital, however, Jockers offers a rather different take. Remarking on the sudden and rapid migration of scholars to the bourgeoning field of digital humanities, Jockers notes that the motivation is the “promise of opportunity,” likely a “direct by-product of having such a wealth of digital material with which to engage” (11). Thus, “with apologies” to the “natives of the [digital] tribe” (of which Jockers includes himself), he explicitly acknowledges that “the streets of this ‘new’ world are paved with gold and the colonizers have arrived” (12).
As though responding directly to Liu’s invocation of Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” a poem of colonial mastery and technological domination, Jockers seizes the digital literary ecology unquestionably as a realm of opportunity, speculation, and ultimately, exploitation. His language invokes the ecological archetype of digital space as empty, virginal, uncharted territory mixed with a memory of the mythical American frontier and the rugged individualism that it supports.7 Here, data is figured as a natural resource, one that can be exchanged in a cultural capital market. In a reading that conflates form with the economic forces and political power of resource capitalism, Jockers appears to collapse data interpretation into abstraction, reduction, extraction, and conversion. Alternatively, perhaps Jockers’s targeting of environmentalists is intended as a challenge to the affective labor that binds some humanists to an organic ecological worldview.
The contrast—between Liu’s assertion of the human at the center of digital ecology and Jockers’s reinstatement of the instrumental attitude toward the environment that has dominated Western culture since the Industrial Revolution—might give us pause, especially since the Industrial Revolution is also one of the proposed dates for the beginning of the much vaunted anthropocene8 era.9 What are the purposes served by this framework within the bourgeoning field of digital humanities, we might then ask? Why are we building and analyzing digital systems as ecosystems at the moment when entire natural ecosystems are being eradicated, “living as we do in a continually worsening state of environmental crisis verging on catastrophe” (McKusick, 34).10 Is there a relation between these developments?
In referencing Keats and the romantic concept of the imagination, Alan Liu implicitly gestures toward the significance of the English Romantic poets in the formation of contemporary conceptions of nature, even as he disregards it as a nineteenth-century source of media ecology. On the alliance between technology and Romanticism, we must instead turn to Walter Ong, an influential figure in the media ecology intellectual tradition who, in a 2002 speech to the Media Ecology Association11 (http://www.media-ecology.org/), declared that we live in an interconnected “ecological age.” According to Ong, Romanticism’s mirroring of technology is the product of domination over nature through the noetic abundance, both the buildup and bringing forth of knowledge, enabled by the rise of print culture and the spatialization of information, including the development of knowledge storage and retrieval systems (Rhetoric, 279). It is well worth our attention to consider how this nexus of communications and information technologies and the speculative disposition of romantic knowledge toward other worlds (e.g., Keats’s “wild surmise”) continues to manifest in various social and institutional settings today, including in emergent academic fields of inquiry such as the digital humanities.
“Media ecology” is an ambiguous term that circulates in multiple ways to describe the dynamic complexity of media difference, media change, and media systems, and that helps foreground key features of information and communications technologies. Among the most crucial is how media forms constitute vital and dynamic cultural environments. Thus, a central tenet of media ecology is that media are not mere tools but function rather both within and as environments, and thereby shape human perception and cognition, forms of discourse, and patterns of social behavior. A medium’s physical properties therefore define the nature of communication; any changes in modes of communication have an effect on individual perceptions, expressions, values, and beliefs, as well as those of the society as a whole.
While it is not the aim of this chapter to compare media ecology with digital humanities, clearly there are meaningful links to be made. Just as the “big tent” of digital humanities is loosely organized around “a common methodological outlook” (Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities,”12 4) with a high degree of heterogeneity and inclusion of other epistemic traditions (Svensson,13 37), media ecological perspectives and practices emerged out of a range of disciplines from communications, literature, and media studies to education, history of science and technology, behavioral sciences and psychology, urban studies, sociology, anthropology, cybernetics, and information studies. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that media ecology—perhaps more than digital humanities—has been shaped by certain key individuals: Marshall McLuhan, whose proverbs would come to define the digital age, and Neil Postman, who is strongly influenced by McLuhan.14 In a statement reminiscent of John Muir, the American naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club,15,16 Postman defines media ecology as the study of “media as environments”17 and their effects on “people’s cognitive habits, their social relations, their political biases, and their personal values” (“The Day Our Children Disappear,” 382). In common with the founding spirit of the modern environmentalist movement, Postman’s definition suggests a holistic understanding of ecological connectedness through media, whereby technology operates as part of the material landscape in which individuals and social groups interact.
The substantial stakes in any figuration of what counts as technical or medial knowledge and the conditions of its production, whether in the form of new media or data, are apparent in the digital humanities from the start as well and feature prominently in the discipline’s self-proclaimed inaugural 2004 volume, A Companion to Digital Humanities,18 which marked a “turning point” by bringing together a wide range of theorists and scholars to examine and reflect for the first time on “digital humanities as a discipline in its own right” (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, xiii). Exploring possibilities and problems arising from attempts at designing “built environments” for humanistic inquiry, the Companion especially foregrounds epistemological and infrastructural questions of standards for creating taxonomical systems and metadata structures crucial to electronic reliability, sustainability, and interoperability. Computers could thus seem reassuringly familiar, enabling “a very old impulse” (Crane,19 46) toward enlightenment forms of systematic knowledge management and classification, only at a more intensive and expansive scale. The counterpoint to the quest for technological control is, as Ong points out, the romantic domination over nature, which is not far removed from aims of progress, expansion, and gain inherent to the scene of new media encounter critiqued by Liu and the spectacle of data extraction described by Jockers. Not surprisingly, voices emerge in the Companion calling for reflection on how computational tools and techniques participate in the making of the world and thus become problematic when they are insufficiently critiqued or allowed to remain invisible (Smith,20 315).21
Extending this awareness that computers are more than tools but instead function, in the tradition of media ecology, both within and as environments, Matthew Kirschenbaum conceives of digital space as its own milieu, observing that “the desktop environment governs the behavior of the browser software, whose features and functions in turn directly affect many aspects of the user’s interaction with the site’s internal design and content” (“So the Colors Cover the Wires,”22 524) or, by extension, is housed within other social or institutional ecosystems. Importantly, such gestures toward ecological thinking in the early phase of the developing digital humanities render the object of knowledge stable and identifiable, a thing to be queried and managed within the realm of comprehension. While these perspectives are consonant with the tropism of environments and effects instituted three decades earlier by Postman in the founding moment of media ecology, they do not necessarily see it as their responsibility to understand the implications of digital work in the context of systems and infrastructure with broader social, political, or cultural implications.
If, as Gitelman and Jackson suggest, data have always been in some sense “precisely not the domain of humanist inquiry” (3), the ubiquity of data today only serves to heighten the relevance of the media ecologists’ attempt to comprehend the planetary magnitude of networked information and communications structures. Media systems understood at such scale and complexity point toward enormous social, political, and cultural fragility, instability, and risk, which Postman articulates in cataclysmic terms of “assault,” “threat,” and “crisis”:
Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean “ecological” in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. . . . A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything . . . when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. (Technopoly, 18)
While Postman’s dramatic rendering of the consequences of technology gone awry may seem a world apart from the concerns of digital humanists, that is far from the case. Rather, Postman’s technological angst is very much oriented toward digital humanities debates over the status of digital tools and whether they are commensurate with humanities research. Whereas in the previous volume of Debates in the Digital Humanities,23 Johanna Drucker24 describes the assumptions embedded in platforms and protocols built by nonhumanists as “at odds,” “hostile,” “an anathema,” or “antipathetic” to humanistic thought and values (“Humanistic Theory,” 86), Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell25 counter that the various roles involved in making, conceiving, and transforming are hardly clear-cut, and a “fear of automated scholarship—an automatic writing” may underlie such objections to humanities tools and tool building (“Developing Things,” 83; Ramsey, “On Building”). As different as these perspectives may be, they share a desire for humanists to make tools in their own image alongside a simultaneous awareness that those tools also make us. Ramsay and Rockwell’s spectre of automated scholarship and Drucker’s story of how research instruments and technical environments convert “relativist” humanists to “positivists” (“Humanistic Theory,” 88) represent scenarios that differ in degree rather than kind from Postman’s dark ecological vision.
Postman’s technological pessimism is thus a version writ large of central unresolved concerns around techne within digital humanities today, an unease that brushes up against the limits of the conceptual contradiction inherent in the concept of romantic nature that Ong first identified. The computer as a tool or medium can only enable mastery if humans (and humanists) retain control over its operations. Within this familiar Gothic allegory, the computer will take on more lifelike capacities that will put it beyond restraint, becoming potentially threatening and dehumanizing. As such, the romantic sublime, the space of “wild surmise” and Frankensteinian experiments, cannot help but breed monstrous offspring with the capacity to mutate, adapt, and evolve beyond human intention, thereby wreaking havoc on their makers and the world. Directly challenging this perennial cautionary tale against controversial technologies, Bruno Latour reminds us in his post-environmental rereading of Frankenstein that this modern narrative of increasing “human mastery over and freedom from Nature”—with “Nature” understood in Ong’s terms as an outcome of modern technology—can be redescribed as the increasing “attachments between things and people” (“Love Your Monsters”).26 It is not the invention that is flawed but rather the failure to cultivate and care for the technological creation. Drawing hope from Latour’s prospect of ever-increasing intimacy with the new natures we are constantly generating, Bethany Nowviskie persuasively argues that now is precisely the time of the digital humanities—that we are living in the moment when the work we undertake, the systems we create, and the tools we build have deep and enduring connections to the incomprehensible scale of geological time precisely because our practice potentially grapples daily with the technological, environmental, and ethical conditions of the present (“Digital Humanities at the Anthropocene”).27 As such, what is needed now more than ever is a searching and actively engaged digital humanities.
The entanglements of nature and technology thoroughly overdetermine ecological metaphors, but that should not blind us to the epistemological and practical work they perform. Returning to the polarization within digital humanities around the concepts of “new media” and “data driven,” it is not hard to see how it becomes impossible to separate the rhetoric of resource extraction that Matthew Jockers deploys from environmental politics. Ironically, Alan Liu’s views on the mediated status of nature have also long functioned as something of a lightning rod for ecocritics. More than twenty-five years have passed since Liu declared that “there is no nature” except as “the name under which we use the nonhuman to validate the human” (Wordsworth, 38). His much-contested new historicist position that nature is politically constituted through particular forms of government (Wordsworth, 104) continues to provoke those unwilling to give up the faith in an authentic, autonomous nature.28 In our present moment, when historians and theorists of deep geologic time are calling for a radically different kind of historicism, one that would take account of massive temporalities and tangled human and nonhuman influences in the shaping of the planet, we might do well to turn to the past in order to situate the ecological metaphors that run rampant through the digital humanities. In so doing, we might also begin to realize the rich potential—as well as the challenges—suggested by the intersection of communications, globalization, and the quest for a sustainable future.
As with the term “media ecology,” the history of “ecology” is itself also deeply rooted in the past. German zoologist Ernest Haeckel coined “oecology” in 1866, belatedly naming the modern history of ecology that began more than a century earlier as a more comprehensive view of the “earth’s fabric of life” (Worster, x). Two broad perspectives arose alongside ecological thought: balance and coexistence on the one hand, and dominion over nature through reason and industriousness on the other. Religious beliefs and scientific tenets combined during the Enlightenment to support emerging social values that associated nature with productivity and efficiency in keeping with economic aims of progress, expansion, and profit—goals conducive not only to the spread of industrial capitalism but to imperialism and globalization as well. The historical and ideological undercurrents of Haeckel’s scientific coinage thus extend well beyond Darwinian evolution and Linnaean taxonomy, or “economy of nature,” to mix with values of industrial capitalism. The contrasting branch of modern ecological thought, arising during the Industrial Revolution and often referred to as “romantic ecology” after Jonathan Bate’s influential 1991 study, follows eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White’s understanding of the physical world in terms of interdependence, connectedness, and holism. Proponents of harmonious balance run headlong against the modern faith in technology, while the hierarchical perspective sees nature as an instrument at the service of maximum human production and progress. Significantly, however, romantic nature is a divided concept, torn by an understanding of the world as “a place of vital sustenance and peaceful coexistence,” on the one hand, and on the other “a nightmare vision of a world threatened by imminent environmental catastrophe” (McKusick, 29). This dialectical critical tension within romantic ecology challenged scientific rationalism, the values and institutions of liberal capitalism, and superiority over nature in Western religion and continues today to provide inspiration to environmental activism.
This 200-year tradition, one that opposes the tendencies of enlightenment ideals of conquest, industrial capitalism, and technological progress to ideas of a nature associated with physical and psychic health, wholeness, and refuge, is the major impetus behind both the modern environmental movement and the reflections of media ecologists. It is therefore no coincidence that media ecology emerged at the same time as environmental ecology was rapidly popularized as a source of ethical guidance in the wake of widespread recognition of environmental crisis of the 1960s. The political, economic, and social connotations of ecology running through the twentieth-century media theory intellectual tradition and spilling over into the digital humanities today were thus imbued in its very origins—including its complicity with Western ideologies of development (Huggan and Tiffin)—and intensified under the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1960s and 1970s.29
Reflecting one of the major tendencies of romantic ecology, a central premise of media ecology is that the way in which a society organizes and transmits perceptions and knowledge about the world strongly affects the nature of those perceptions and the way we come to know the world. As a result, any environmental change will ultimately impact the survival of everything within the ecology as well as the system itself. The holism usually attributed to romantic ecology gets incorporated in the reflexivity of media ecological thought, which Ronald Deibert summarizes as premised on:
the basic materialist position that human beings, like all other organisms, are vitally dependent on, and thus influenced by, the environment around them . . . [and] approach their environment . . . through a complex web-of-beliefs, symbolic forms, and social constructs into which they are acculturated and through which they perceive the world around them. (Parchment, Print, and Hypermedia, 43)
Deibert additionally emphasizes that such transformations must be approached historically, contrasting media environments across time and tracing changes in the technology of communication for their effects on the evolution of the social and political order. This humanist strain is especially strong in Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day’s examination of the ecological metaphor for the way it attempts to make greater space for human intervention in a technologically oriented world, turning a spotlight on human activities served by technology rather than technology as tool (Information Ecologies, 49). Nardi and O’Day’s emphasis on human agency at the local level of information ecologies parallels the privileged attachment to place in much environmental thought and summons the ecology metaphor to counteract the opposing tendency within the medium theory tradition, which expresses a pessimistic view of media based on a deterministic logic of technology that is systematic, all-encompassing, and autonomous.
These fundamentally different ways of implementing ecological thought both within the environmental tradition and media studies have significant implications for the use of similar metaphors in the digital humanities, offering potent vehicles for the kind of searching, engaged, active stance Nowviskie advocates for digital humanists toward the materialist, political, and ethical conditions of our practices. When the emphasis is on the systemic interpretation, the resulting view is that of technological determinism. If, on the other hand, the emphasis is on the local particularity of the ecosystems and the situatedness of human actors within it, the focus shifts toward a more agential, activist view. The point here is not whether an anthropological perspective is better than a technocentric one, but rather that both are anthropocentric, suggesting an impossible separation of ourselves from the nonhuman world. Given that we, our technologies, and nature cannot be disentangled, as Latour suggests, we might examine the ecological metaphors we similarly live by in digital humanities contexts in order to understand how they both limit and open our understanding of, and active engagement with, the new intimacies and attachments that are emerging in an era understood not only on a digital scale but an environmental one as well.
Whereas for Postman there is a hierarchical separation between humans and the environment to which they are subject, even as that environment is understood as a complex message system, for McLuhan the personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new spatial awareness introduced in the electronic age, which he thought could be best described as a technological extension of the human sensorium “to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us” (Understanding Media, 4). This new sense of scale drives McLuhan’s belief that the world had turned into a “global village” and cannot be dissociated from the impact of space exploration and the images of the planet it engendered.30 Reflecting on the significance of this moment when new media technologies enabled humans to see the earth as a whole from space for the first time, providing environmentalist and imperialist alike with a powerful icon supported by the slogan “think globally, act locally,” McLuhan writes:
Perhaps the largest conceivable revolution in information occurred on October 17, 1957, when Sputnik created a new environment for the planet. For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born. “Ecological” thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art. (“At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators only actors,” 49)
Published in 1974, the McLuhan article anticipates Liu’s sense of nature constituted in politicized acts of mediation, here seen not through landscape politics but rather through the impact of the Soviet launch of the first artificial earth satellite, which in turn set off the space race, the creation of NASA, the Apollo project, and the first moon landing. Encapsulating the Western inheritance of global meanings, the enduring achievement of the space project was not so much knowledge gained about the moon, which was its ostensible purpose, but rather an altered image of the earth (Cosgrove, 257), the most iconic of which is the famous photograph variously referred to as the “blue marble” or “blue planet” taken during the final Apollo flight in 1972.
Despite its Cold War origins, the affectively charged and deeply political image of a precious, isolated globe suspended alone against a stark, black background was quickly appropriated and turned into a commodity. The environmental movement (Friends of the Earth31 founded in 1969, Earth Day32 inaugurated 1970, and the whole-earth movement associated with James Lovelock’s Gaia, 1978) and institutions wanting to advertise their own technological advancement (airlines, telecommunications and computer companies, government offices, and global financial corporations) together embraced the visual allegory of the planet’s harmony and fragility, a permanently destabilized, networked globe at once bearing the hope of human aspiration and the potential for human destruction. Crucially, this static image of ecological unity and vulnerability, imperial inclusiveness and domination, conjures a dynamic system of informational exchange, rendering networks and nature alike both figurative and rich sources of figuration or metaphor (as McLuhan suggests) and thus endlessly available for a range of cultural, political, and commercial purposes.
A celebrated image of space enterprise, one simultaneously intimate and macrocosmic, sorrowful and hopeful, the “blue marble” thus leaves a legacy that captures the complexity that media ecology has to offer digital humanities. As a summary of the abstract density of global systems in a relatively simple and concrete image that emphasizes synthesis, holism, and self-regeneration (Heise, 63), the photograph points toward its counterpoint in the history of technical evolution: not Bethany Nowviskie’s cosmic elegy of “common ground and shared fate” (“Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene”),33 itself a beautiful and haunting expression of romantic ecology, but media archeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s visualization of the collapse of space and time that occurs with the change in perspective from a humanized earth to an insidious human-made instrument of destruction (Deep Time of the Media). Shifting from an anthropocentric view of earth to the deep time of the anthropocene, Zielinski imagines that the 35mm camera used to take the “stunning pictures of the blue planet” from the Mir space station “was simply thrown out the escape hatch” while the space station continues its orbit (2).34
Where media theorists such as Zielinski, as well as Ursula Heise, see allegory and narrative in the iconic images of technical excess, information specialist Paul N. Edwards perceives global data. For the latter, the “blue marble” prompts the question: “How did the earth become a system?” The epistemology of digital space suggested by the ecological understandings evinced in the exemplary work of Liu and Jockers (outlined at the outset of this chapter) implies that electronic environments have a cosmology of their own, opening a space to deterritorializing moves that make it hard to situate and historicize the work that goes on there. While it would seem that the pathway linking media ecology and environmentalism with digital humanities could go no further than the deep time of outer space, the rise of big data and systems theory ensures there is another way to read the mediated informational abundance that constitutes the “blue marble” moment. Which is to say, the connections linking media ecology to digital humanities arise as much out of the pattern seeking and analyses of big data, specifically in communication sciences of cybernetics, as it does from the new media encounter.
Jerome McGann takes up precisely this task of locating the meaning of digital knowledge work in the dimensional space of electronic environments in his contribution to A Companion to Digital Humanities. Also embracing ecological metaphors, McGann invokes systems theory to describe the differences between electronic coding practices and bibliographic environments:
Like biological forms and all living systems, not least of all language itself, print and manuscript encoding systems are organized under a horizon of co-dependent relations. That is to say, print technology . . . is a system that codes (or simulates) what are known as autopoietic systems. (“Marking Texts of Many Dimensions,” 200)
In framing his critique of digital textual editing with the cognitive biological theory of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, McGann evokes the earlier convergence between media ecology and cybernetics, starting in the mid-twentieth century when biological metaphors were deployed frequently to describe parallels between complex organic systems and emergent computer architecture and, more importantly, to attempt to mimic the former.35 The term “cybernetics,” coined by Norbert Weiner and developed in the 1940s and 1950s to denote the study of homeostatic mechanisms governing systematic behavior, focused on information, irrespective of content, and the efficiency of its transmission. The media ecology movement reinserted communication back into its social, political, and historical contexts, and especially through the work of Gregory Bateson, ecological systems came to be understood not only as natural but also as social and technological (Kaizen, 87).
For Maturana and Varela, who apply systems theory to living organisms, biological systems are circular and self-referring by nature, continually self-reproducing according to their own internal logic using their own material, as when a cell self-divides and thereby reproduces from its own elements. McGann glosses this process of autopoiesis as “self-maintenance through self-transformation” (McGann, “Marking Texts,” 201). As such, all living organisms are “autopoietic” unities or closed systems while remaining open in material exchange with their environment. Through interactions with the environment (openness) while nevertheless maintaining circular integrity of organization (closure), autopoietic systems, and thus all living things, are “cognitive systems, and living [is] a process of cognition” (Maturana and Varela, 13).
In urging the liveliness of traditional textual systems, McGann maintains that manuscript and print technologies provide “arresting models for information technology tools”; in so doing, he also echoes Bateson on artistic production as a special means of communication precisely in its self-reflexivity. Art self-consciously reflects on the conditions of its own transmission in the very act of transmission.36 Sifting a similar perspective through the life sciences work of Maturana and Varela, McGann argues that traditional textualities, “like gene codes,” make of themselves “as part of their simulation and generative processes . . . a record of those processes.” A poem may be “like biological forms and all living systems,” but it is a special case, as “a machine of creation and reflection” (McGann, “Marking Texts,” 202).
Electronic models have yet to be developed for displaying and replicating the self-reflexive operations of bibliographic tools, however. Markup models like TEI impose on dynamic textuality an abstract taxonomy of hierarchically organized elements defined in advance and cannot take account of the multiplicity of the work as it is produced through the interpretive process. Consequently, McGann calls on digital humanists to build dynamic, topological models for mapping the space of digital operations (203), but the question remains today whether the particular limitations of digital processing that he identifies can be addressed adequately by such important infrastructural projects as TAPoR (Text Analysis Portal for Research). Tools for text analysis, though indispensible to tasks of archiving, record keeping, searching, and linking, remain bound, according to McGann, by the hierarchical, two-dimensional limits of their basic markup structure.37 Returning to this topic a decade later, McGann’s position has not changed: text processing has not yet exploited the possibilities of digital space to develop equivalent textualities that would be analogous to the codex form in complexity and expressiveness (McGann, New Republic, chaps. 5 and 6).38
Whereas McGann insists that the ideal topological approach needs to be imagined as “applied textual autopoiesis,” of which the codex provides the most effective model, Andrew Piper argues that only by letting go of the bibliographical will we be able to move toward a topological hermeneutics. Rather than seek digital tools that can imitate the dynamic space of the book, we need to alter “our visual and cognitive relationship to the text” (“Reading’s Refrain,” 377). Piper elaborates a specifically literary topology comprised of familiar conventional literary features; topology is concerned “above all else” with textual relationality and, “like a book, it is a technology of reading” (378). However, the similarities end there. Topology does not refer directly to real space, is not accompanied by a stable textual referent, and lacks a basic ontology (378). Literary topologies are spatial, numerical, historical, graphical, and explicitly ecological. In fact, Piper explains that because topologies attempt to observe relations between books beyond their discrete material boundaries, they are “far more ecological [than books] in nature” (378).
Beginning, like McGann, with the question of the basic unit of textual analysis, Piper similarly loads his argument with biological metaphors, for example, “lexical molecules” (the basic units of the literary topology can extend from a word, such as phoneme or letter, to larger analytical categories, including publication or genre) and “lexical chromosomes” (a set of the most frequent significant words of a work). However, he quickly emphasizes that a literary topology is not interested in fixing the meaning of words or in creating controlled vocabularies and taxonomies; rather the focus is “fields” rather than corpora or archives of language and texts. The redundancy and ambiguity inherent to traditional literary hermeneutics of representation but expelled from TEI, to McGann’s regret, is released in Piper’s literary topology into “a field of contingent multiplicities” and a “more nuanced sense of discursive being” (Piper, “Reading’s Refrain,” 383). Here then would seem to be the answer to McGann’s call to imagine a digital processing program that would, autopoietically as it were, “short-circuit a number of critical predilections that inhibit our received, commonsense wisdom about our textual condition” (McGann, “Marking Texts,” 203).
Given that Piper’s collaborator, Mark Algee-Hewitt, and Matthew Jockers both hail from Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab39 and are associated additionally with Piper’s .txtLab40 at McGill University, it is not surprising that some of their reflections on quantitative analysis and text mining are imbued with Moretti’s evolutionary methodology (see Piper and Algee-Hewitt). Addressing recent debates around the relative values of close and distant reading, Piper contends that topology offers a method for the systematic analysis of large amounts of data but also, unlike close or distance reading, makes scale itself an object of knowledge. He offers “scalar reading” and “dispersive reading” as alternatives (Piper, “Reading’s Refrain,” 382, 394), with the latter bringing into view the vast majority of words, typically articles and prepositions, often filtered out of computational analysis as stop words.
Piper’s topological approach is ecological in its understanding of the complexity of literary systems and linguistic environments as well as in its balance between systemic modes of analysis and attention to the local and particular: the dynamic, the emergent, the multidimensional. Through his nuanced theorization of literary topology, Piper attempts to sidestep the controversies associated with text mining. Despite careful attention to language, as well as to the critical tension surrounding the application of computational techniques to humanities questions, Piper does not, however, reflect explicitly on the implications of his invocation of ecology metaphors to frame and express his argument. The failure to do so occludes the significance of ecology as a mode of analyzing quantitative reading in terms of processes of mediation and also formally segregates topology from the political and ethical imperatives implied in its dynamic continuities with material practices and environmental impacts of the kind writ large in the “blue marble” moment.
In spite—or perhaps because—of the semantic richness and ideological thickness of the term “ecology,” it may be the best word we have for the “massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter,” as Matthew Fuller suggests (2). Fuller, who has explored contemporary media ecologies more thoroughly than anyone, understands media environments as each having and creating its own dimensions of relationality, a multitude of forces that might be political, material, aesthetic, historical, affective, and so on. The space of digital media may appear infinite but, according to Fuller, it is fully contingent upon the supposedly “inevitable” interpretative perspectivalism of the human subject (or critic) that grasps the dimensions of relationality which constitute and intersect that space. Fuller’s insights into the nature of digital media ecologies exemplifies McLuhan’s statement that the “‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (Understanding Media, 8). Fuller’s version of media ecology also resonates with McGann’s grasp of the potentiality of digital space as n-dimensional, and is echoed as well in Piper’s scalar literary topology—that is, in the multidimensional “textual relationality” that would allow the compositional dynamics of the topology to travel in more than one direction.
If Fuller’s perspectivalism would seem to move toward anthropocentric fantasies of disembodiment, his work insists that the materiality of media hinges on their existence as both informational and physical objects. Media in their particular specificity can be grasped then by paying attention to the way they connect, mix, interrelate, create patterns and variations, and open new conditions of interactions on various spatial and temporal scales. This technological dynamism arising from concrete matters and circumstances, which in some cases may look like the liveliness of life itself, is best described as ecological. Fuller’s work is thus pivotal to thinking about the ubiquity of computation and mediation in everyday life and points toward three important material thresholds for digital humanities today: the new materialisms of bioinformatics and the “trans-corporeality” of human/nonhuman relations;41 the new topologies of architectural and infrastructural spaces; and the new temporalities of the archive or evidence of the human record. Some of the most important work in and around the digital humanities is moving in these directions.
New materialisms call attention to how the intermingling of biology and technology has launched a wealth of metaphors that circulate widely through popular and academic culture. Fuller himself draws on this metaphoricity when he declares that “a media ecology is a cascade of parasites” (174). Katherine Hayles makes a similar point, that owing to their deep interpenetration, print and “born digital” media are “best considered as two components of a complex and dynamic media ecology,” which operate like “biological ecotomes” in a wide variety of relationships, including competition, cooperation, mimicry, symbiosis, and parasitism (Electronic Literature, 160). Pushing the evolutionary metaphor further, Lev Manovich considers how biological adaptation models the way algorithmic software collapses distinctions between form and matter to combine available techniques and thereby produce unique media “species” (Software Takes Command, 167 ff.). Alan Liu’s “first contact” allegory with its generic attraction, repulsion, and synthesis flourishes in this ubiquitous computing context, switching easily from imperial to organic and informational materialities. Translated into software environments, media techniques become unbundled from their physical bases and translated into data elements through algorithmic generation or other technical means to produce new unforeseen combinations attracting a host of ecological metaphors variously highlighting biological, reproductive, and evolutionary functionality. Liu’s allegory reminds us, however, that such new digital processes and products are hardly free from political, economic, and other socially motivated stakes.
For Jussi Parikka, self-generating worms, viruses, bugs, and parasites reveal essential traits of the logic of digital culture. Taking his cue from Bruno Latour’s attention to the nonhuman actors that inhabit digital society, Parikka argues that the virality that abounds online today holds “essential keys to unraveling the logics of software that produce the ontological basis for much of economical, societal, and cultural transactions of modern global networks”(“Universal Virtual Machine”).42,43 Viruses, like McGann’s poems, engage in autopoiesis, whereby they self-reproduce and, in interacting with the digital communications environment, regenerate the whole media ecology, networking, copying, or self-replicating. While the cultural fascination with such uncannily lifelike processes has popularized monstrous autonomous mutations of mythic (and memetic) proportions, the biological basis of digital culture participates in distributed life processes on dimensions that are technical, social, political, and commercial, “changing the landscape of the living” (Coole and Frost, 16). In calling into question the nature of the human subject of the digital humanities as well as the tools and techniques we have used to generate that concept, new materialisms help us grasp the blurring of bodies, objects, and contexts as well as the interactions of different orders of matter in the biotechnological and digital technological developments that define our networked existence. In addition, new materialisms encourage digital humanities to reflect on McLuhanesque anthropocentric incorporations of the world in us (e.g., the global village) and actively foster an understanding of how human and nonhuman assemblages and systems that are fundamentally open-ended and generative, with a constant propensity for change, are enmeshed in dense webs of historically situated social, economic, and technological relations.
New topologies bring into focus the changes in the conceptualization of space in the era of distributed and ubiquitous software. These changes extend well beyond the textual dimensions explored by McGann and Piper, and even the cosmic exploration of big data encapsulated in the images of the whole earth from space. The intermingling of species begins at home, layering the experience of even the most mundane and familiar physical environments.44 Given the increasing integration of the digital, what we now call the “Internet of Things” and “cloud computing” into the built and experienced environment, as well as whatever might be called a natural one, we are no longer able to ignore the effects of “the systems ecology of interface and our mutating adaptations,” Johanna Drucker explains (“Reading Interface,” 218–19). For Drucker, interfaces will increasingly saturate our experience of the world—no longer representational but performative and constitutive—and thus a fundamental problem for human identity.
Proliferating interfaces link the sensorial capacity for feedback with the users of intelligently networked space (Halpern). Out of emergent biotechnological ecologies spring a range of new forms of administration, management, and productivity. In this way, data becomes the site of abundance once attributed to nature, with an almost palpable sensual appeal that has no relation to its content, a reminder of Jockers’s zeal for “open-pit mining” of literary texts. Alan Liu focuses on large-scale online social networking to ask about the nature of the new knowledge produced by the collective intelligence of the “the hive mind,” given that the crowd has been a “core problem of modernity” since at least the French Revolution (“The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” 412). Tobias Blanke’s research on digital infrastructure is also interested in the unpredictable and unknowable nature of crowd knowledge, not as a problem but as a source of energy that might be harnessed through networked cloud infrastructures to power the new digital economy (Digital Asset Ecosystems). And Steven Jones explores the disciplinary effects within institutional ecologies of “platform thinking”; as it turns conventional forms and formats of scholarly communication inside out, scholarly production today frequently takes place in collaborative, networked workshops, now called makerspaces, of creation (Emergence of Digital Humanities, 174).
New temporalities of media archeology point us toward insights from past new media, searching for “the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious, practices and inventions” (Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology, 2). Media archeology is thus also about history making, cultural memory, and the storage systems of the archive as well as the creative practices about and shaped by mixing with technical media. It takes its methods from geology as much as evolutionary biology, thinking in terms of the sedimentation and layering of time and matter. Through excavations of the past, the old suddenly becomes new and innovation speeds headlong into obsolescence. In this context, Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation helps illuminate how old media never die and new media are never fully distinguishable from the resurgence of past forms they embody, and Alan Liu’s new media encounter is an event that is enfolded within, rather than an exchange between, artifacts. Media archeology especially involves refocusing attention radically on the technical thing and its nonhuman temporality, ascertaining its potentiality for material agency in history (Ernst). Media are thus nonscribal record keepers of culture, storing traces of the political and social conditions of their physical origins and epistemological orientations.
Media archeology enriches the digital humanities by including software, data structures, and interfaces in addition to hardware in cultural heritage archives while complicating its anthropocentric emphasis with a nonhuman privileging of (digital) object time and space. Even more than we might find in the posthumanism of the new materialities, the trajectory of media archeology points directly to media ecology. Parikka’s work offers an exemplary meditation on the ways that media have helped us grasp earth as an object (as in the “blue marble” photograph) at the same time that the earth provides the materials that enable media (Geology of Media). No less important, it explains how calculation-based and data-centric forms of recording history will ultimately conflict with the humanist tradition of recounting the past through stories—not only those that envision hope for humanity through technological progress, but also those that narrate the post-apocalyptic tragedy of a future that begins with the end.
Ecological awareness challenges the digital humanities to think big—bigger than big data to a perspective that, as Timothy Morton suggests, is simultaneously vast and profound yet intrinsically uncanny (The Ecological Thought, 50–58). Such a perspective asks that we consider how orienting ourselves toward a sense of scale might provide a method of thinking about the particularity and limitations of the intellectual work we do and technical things we make. In so doing, it might also encourage advocacy, engagement, action, and participation as well as an ethics of responsibility, sustainability, and conservation. But added to this process are also questions about human and nonhuman interactions, distributed networks, and complex systems, to which humans—however the term may now be defined—adapt along with other species and orders of matter with the capacity for evolution, mutation, self-replication, and migration. On the one hand, this points to a world of interdependence, coevolution, holism, even balance and harmony; on the other, it suggests risk, vulnerability, impending crisis, and catastrophe itself. In an age when mass extinction and environmental destruction is a fact of daily life, and when the devastating record of human presence is written into the earth’s crust for what would seem to be time immemorial, ecological thinking offers a point of entry to the planetary relations of our most quotidian affairs.
As the possible implications of the ecology metaphor suggest, the tradition of ecology has a rich cultural and political history, with deep roots both in science and the humanities. The challenge for digital humanities is to sharpen its use of metaphor so that its arguments can be made more carefully and more exacting. Digital humanists are well aware that metaphors embody dispositions toward the world and that our concepts of technology are often interlaced with highly charged figurations. So why has this issue not yet been taken up more explicitly? If one of the implications of the ecological metaphor is activism, action, and responsibility, perhaps Alan Liu got it right after all when he chided digital humanities for not being ready to take up full responsibility because:
the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake. The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness, and the side that descends from new media studies is indiscriminately critical of society and global informational “empire.” (“The State of Digital Humanities,” 11)
Ecological thinking demands more than this, calling out for ethical awareness as well. It pushes against our humanist reluctance about new ways of creating meaning through human-machine collaborations of simulation, modeling, and probabilistic topologies.
Perhaps Johanna Drucker is correct when she qualifies the theoretical apparatus deriving from systems ecology and new materialisms as “not strictly speaking, the domain of humanists”—an odd position given that her work has become increasingly invested in ecological metaphors (“Performative Materiality”).45 Perhaps ecological perspectives can too easily serve what to some seems a clichéd “holistic” or naïve cultural politics, a battle that, according to Tanner Higgin, many digital humanists take as having “already been won,”46 or, as Gary Hall would have it, merely become an “accepted convention of political critique” (“Has Critical Theory Run Out of Time,”47 130). Certainly one of the most frequent uses of the ecological metaphors occurs in defining the field of digital humanities itself, positing the field as a system (Charlie Edwards, “The Digital Humanities and Its Users”)48 or as a media ecology specifically, as we have just seen (Jones), although it is just as likely that digital humanities is more than one ecology. Whether the ecology metaphor serves to express action and intervention or substitute for action or critical reflection; whether it serves systematization and classification, cross-disciplinary knowledge or capitalist and entrepreneurial values; or whether media simply serves to beget media (Hayles and Pressman, xi) or software (Manovich) or some other digital mutation, the ecology metaphor does all these things and then some. More than any one answer, we need to pursue the uses that the ecological metaphor has and continues to serve in framing the field of digital humanities, what sorts of arguments and positions are implied in its deployment, what conditions of possibility it enables, and what affordances it offers for users.
2. This line of thinking clearly has affinities with utopian thought. On the utopianism of the digital humanities, see chapter 33 in this volume by Brian Greenspan, “Are Digital Humanists Utopian?”
6. In fact, one of the most popular appeals of literary text analysis of large corpora is precisely this amenability to “the rhetoric of discovery” (Gold).
7. The same charges leveled against Franco Moretti’s model of “distant reading” apply here too, of course: charges of covert imperialism and globalizing imperatives along with promotion of the inequalities of neoliberalism and statistically based so-called rational ideology. See Bode and also Serlen, “The Distant Future?” Importantly, however, Matthew Gold (“Facts, Patterns, Methods, Meaning”) notes a marked difference between Moretti’s “sense of wonder, showmanship, and play” and Jockers’s more precisely scientific approach almost a decade later, which he attributes to the “increasing pressure on DH researchers to find, present, and demonstrate results.” Scott Weingart similarly notes a shift between Moretti and Jockers, but for him the difference rests on the switch from “reading” to “analysis” (“Liveblogged Review of Macroanalysis by Matthew L. Jockers”).
9. The term anthropocene is attempting to define the human species as a geological force; see Crutzen and Stoermer. It is a source of much debate as to whether such a geological period exists and, if so, how it should be defined, and a great deal has been written on the topic; of particular relevance to digital humanists are Chakrabarty; Boes and Marshall; and especially Nowviskie.
10. See Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter for a Marxist take on similar questions in the context of the digital gaming industry.
14. Indeed, this may have contributed to media ecology’s survival during the decades of McLuhan’s decline (roughly mid-1970s to mid-1990s) as well as his recuperation as media prophet of the cyber age, represented in his resuscitation by Wired magazine in the early 1990s as the patron saint of digital culture.
16. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, is known for observing that “when we try to pick out any thing by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. See Muir, as well as the Sierra Club website for a discussion of this quote and its source: http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/favorite_quotations.aspx; http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_6.
17. Media Ecology Association, “What Is Media Ecology?” http://www.media-ecology.org/media_ecology/#What%20is%20Media%20Ecology?%20%28Neil%20Postman%29.
21. In chapter 31 of this volume, “‘Black Printers’ on White Cards,” Molly O’Hagan Hardy argues that book historians (without whom the bibliographic metadata infrastructure of the humanities would not exist) have always been keenly aware of how data is structured; data not only emerges from a partial and historically specific place but cannot be separated from what Johanna Drucker terms “capta” or interpretation (“Humanistic Theory,” 89).
28. On the longevity of this debate see, for example, Gifford, 15; Bate, 19; McKusick, 15 and 17; Dewey Hall, 121.
29. On the ecological tradition see, for example, Worster; McIntosh; Clark; Egerton; and Westling.
30. Heise, 22–28. See also Jasanoff, 310–22; Cosgrove, 254–67; Paul Edwards, 1–3; and Sloterdijk, 19–26.
34. For more about the anthropocene, see the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, http://www.igbp.net/globalchange/anthropocene.4.1b8ae20512db692f2a680009238.html.
35. See Laue’s brief but excellent discussion of the centrality of biological metaphors that inform cybernetics and systems theory and in turn frame computer architecture (“How a Computer Works”). The history of twentieth-century cybernetics presented in N. Katherine Hayles’s now classic study, How We Became Posthuman, is reworked in provocative new directions in Johnston (The Allure of Machinic Life); Lydia Liu (The Freudian Robot); and Halpern (Beautiful Data).
36. Gregory Bateson, “Creative Imagination,” cited in Kaizen. In his analysis of play among animals, Bateson concluded that “metacommunication” was necessary and thus not unique to humans; see “Theory of Play and Fantasy,” also cited in Kaizen.
38. Johanna Drucker similarly argues in A Companion to Digital Humanities in favor of exploring and incorporating speculative methods of inquiry into digital humanities scholarship and especially to experiment with procedures that might produce “aesthetic provocation” (Drucker with Nowviskie “Speculative Computing,” 443). Almost a decade later, she finds not much has changed. Interface design is “stuck in print imitation” limiting explorations of new hybrid, fluid, and n-dimensional screen spaces (“Diagrammatic Writing,” 100).
41. Eugene Thacker defines “bioinformatics” as the science and business that arises at the nexus of molecular biology, math, statistics, and computing methods applied to solve biological problems (Biomedia, 32–62). Stacy Alaimo defines “trans-corporeality” as the contact zone between human bodies and more-than-human nature, underlining the enmeshment between humans and ecologies (11–22).
43. See also Thacker’s essays on the conceptual underpinnings of network thinking in relationships between technology, biology, and politics (“Networks, Swarms, Multitudes: Part One” and “Part Two”).
44. Johanna Drucker examines the notion of interface as a boundary space, suggesting that the “ambient triggers” and “smart” environments offering commercial and cultural opportunities for the integration of stored and programmed information into daily life will “increasingly make the world we navigate into an interface” (“Reading Interface,” 218).
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