Digital humanities and the Kindle experience

I have been curious about the field of digital humanities for a while, it sounds like something that would be right up my alley. But in the months since my first encounter with the term, I am still struggling to find some sample projects that I believe are interesting or have the potential to impact our everyday experience with humanities. Something that is not simply “whimsical” or done for the sake of snazzy research, but accessible and relevant to the way we pedestrians consume humanities content. In that regard, the only thing I have really been able to think of is the Kindle and other commonplace e-book readers. It is arguably the one “technological advancement” that has changed my experience in how I relate to content.

Besides the efficiency factor (being able to search text and your stored quotes, notes), what I’ve really enjoyed about the Kindle is its ability to show you popular quotes that others have highlighted. At first I felt slightly awkward about the presence of phantom strangers in my own reading experience— and the slight grudge that they may be subliminally influencing what I believe to be important or highlight-worthy in the book. But after a while, I really came to enjoy this feeling of presence and implicit conversation in the books. Reading, in its moment of progression, has always been a profoundly solitary experience; it is not a small feat that the Kindle has re-imagined an experience that has essentially remained unchanged for thousands of years.

This element of the implicit conversation (or sharing, if you want to usurp one of them social media buzz words) is probably one of the most transformative and interesting of the e-book experience. In a classroom setting, this could make consumption of a textbook or other class-assigned readings infinitely more interesting. The sharing and discussion of what is otherwise, by necessity, a lone experience no longer needs to be restricted to afterwards, but can happen in real-time. This could make for a more involved experience of reading than ever before.

I am not without wariness, though, of what we are also taking away in all of our electronic-aided sharing. In a world where we are guided by the bubbling of search engines and narrow reinforcements of our social networks, reading may be one of the last and most immediate sacred places for self-sufficiency and serendipity. It seems cruel to take away from a child one of the most magical facets of reading— that you can be on your own and enter another world entirely with not much more than bounded pieces of paper. The construct of an e-book also dictates chronological progression and make the random discovery of flipping through the pages extremely difficult. In a sense, it fails to liberate us but instead constricts us all the more— with the inserted viewpoints and opinions of others, with inability for us to skim and discover.

In spite of its limitations, I still have high hopes for what e-books can do to re-imagine an experience that has not really evolved for decades, centuries, millenia. I am not all that sure that snazzier, iPad-delivered textbooks are the answers, but we are at the beginning of a grand experiment (for a good summary of such experiment, see Open University’s recent report on Innovating Pedagogy). Sometimes I want to argue that there is value in the un-evolved— it feels like a common thread through history that keeps us authentic. Yet other times I can’t help but argue: we are humans, it is our job to imagine for more.

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