The Case for Software Studies: Digital Literacy for Humanists

Rochelle Terman
March 22, 2012
Comic of a woman whose attire reads "I C trained" pointing to a slideshow titled "Digital Literacy" before students.
What makes someone a humanities scholar? On one hand, we can think of the objects she studies: Shakespeare, Godard films, Spanish poetry or the Novel. But on the other hand are her methods: close reading, engagement with theories on knowledge and language, framing a text within time and space. This is the practice of producing knowledge; a process that creates and interprets meaning.
Now think of a digital humanist. What makes her so? Yes, there is the data: the troves of images, recordings, pages and stanzas that she digitizes in her micro-chip archive. She might also be known for the practice of analyzing such data through computer-generated aids such as word counts or information graphics. But where is her process? When speaking of digital media, what is the corollary to going inside the text, behind it or through it in order to grasp its meaning?

In reality, the “texts” that digital humanists deal with are, according to computer scientist Noah Wardrip-Fruin, simply expressions or “outputs” of machines, codes, and languages that make digital media possible. The words and pictures on the screen are the mere tip of a vast computational iceberg held together through processes – software that run our phones, laptops, and servers. As Wardrip-Fruin explains:

All the tools of our software society, from the document-crafting Microsoft Word to the architecture-designing AutoCAD, are enabled and defined by processes. Software processes operate Walmart's procurement system and Homeland Security's terrorist watch list. The interactivity of mobile apps and websites and video games is created through the design of processes. In other words, it is human-designed and human-interpretable computational processes that enable software to shape our daily work, our homes, our economy, our interpersonal communication, and our new forms of art and media. Processes even enable the data mining that drives much digital humanities work (and Amazon's recommendation system).

Considering the enormous importance these processes have in shaping our scholarship (and every other aspect of our lives), I am surprised by how little software competency is required for students outside of computer science, and especially in the humanities. It is true that humanities scholars often use digital technology in their work, and a number of scholars study the social and cultural effects of new media. But far fewer humanists carry basic literacy in software coding, much less the ability to sit down and write a program themselves.
Why should we care about this? Why should digital humanists – and perhaps even all students – be taught basic competency in software programming?
One reason appeals precisely to the ubiquity of software in our lives, and the tradition of critical thinking that a liberal education is supposed to foster. Software studies, Wardrip-Fruin argues, represents not only an interesting avenue of research for new media specialists but should also be incorporated as a basic activity of educated citizens making up an informed, 21st century democracy. To the extent that our contemporary experience is shaped by the algorithmic processes that drive our society, a basic literacy in algorithmic thinking and processes becomes fundamental.
As it stands now, literacy in computers, programming languages or code is relegated to the “geeks” among us – from the corporate IT guy that hooks up your internet access to the industry leaders in Silicon valley. For the rest of us, it is enough to be able to send an email or use a particular program to produce desired “expressions” or outputs. The more seasoned (read: older) among us are given even greater allowance to maintain their technological recalcitrance. Very few of us are expected to know – even at a very abstract level – the mechanisms at work behind the screen.

Is this relegation of software to the world of “experts” and “jargon” desirable? Is it even safe? To the extent that the vast majority of us are ignorant in the basic workings of a system that we encounter almost every minute of our lives, there exists, in the words of Ted Nelson, a digital “priesthood” that rules over the rest of the populace with power that cannot be adequately questioned or criticized. As a result important social questions concerning new media and digital technology are dealt with superficially and inadequately. Throughout public discourse, we continue to hear about the internet’s threat to privacy without mention of SSL certificates or IP addresses. We read about how Facebook is ruining social relations without a mention of how the Internet has historically provided a community space for socially marginalized groups. We learn that law-makers continue to govern the internet without knowing what DNS is.

The problem grows from urgent to emergency when applied to digital humanists. A scholar in Spanish literature is universally expected to carry at least basic competence – if not expertise – in the Spanish language. And yet few programs in new media require their students to obtain digital competency before they graduate. As new media begins to inhabit a more prominent place in humanities research, we might have to reconsider our conception of the “canon” or fundamental requirements in light of digital technology. After all, few of us would trust a scholar discussing the social ramifications of Shakespeare who left the actually reading of Shakespeare to her outsourced assistants. How can we comment intelligently on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technology if we lack a basic understanding of the ontology of that very technology?

It may be too much to ask that every digital humanists become fluent in C++. But scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles argue that a basic appreciation of the processes which enable new media is fundamental to our methods and practices as digital humanists. We cannot simply transplant the same literary theory to the digital text as we developed from the printed text. After all, the letter on the screen has little resemblance to the letter on the page: the later is a stroke of ink on a particular fiber, the former is the end-user expression of thousands of lines of code, communicated in multiple languages between many machines.

One may even go so far as to argue that the whole framework of sign/signifier/signified must be rethought in light of the enormous complexity that underlies the signifier in the digital context. But that question must be left to digital humanists who think about these things in light of the software that makes new media possible. Dismissing code as simply a string of zeros and ones that requires no extra consideration simply will not do. Such a perspective interprets the programmer’s end-goal of “elegant code” as a mere metaphor for brute efficiency instead of exploring what would it mean for code to carry aesthetic qualities such as elegance or beauty.
Finally, as more scholars partake in digital humanities projects, a basic literacy in software development will prove useful on a very practical level. Scholars desire certain “expressions” or outputs of a project but may have little clue as to how these outputs relate to the underlying processes. Thus these humanists rely on professional programmers not only for advanced coding and execution but also for basic project design and management. This results in a number of undesirable outcomes. Even a small change in output could require an enormous overhaul of the underlying processes, leading to crippling resource mismanagement. Projects tend to fade away after initial funding runs out because scholars lack the technical ability to maintain their own work.

Humanities scholars are already overstretched, so I do not expect that my suggestion of adding yet another requirement be met with outright enthusiasm. It is clear that the structure of requirements and expectations must change to support a basic software competency in our society and universities. As Doug Reside comments correctly:

The usual objections about lack of time express nothing so much as a lack of incentives, experienced as keenly by the assistant professor seeking tenure as by the English major just beginning his freshman year. Until granting agencies, hiring and tenure committees, and peer review panels reject as unqualified anyone without demonstrated software literacy, we cannot hope for a world in which the citizenry are able to evaluate whether or not the risks of false positives in a particular terrorist watch list generator outweigh the potential for increased national security.
Humanists are not the only ones to benefit from a more universal software literacy. The voice of the humanities scholar is urgently needed in programming and technology circles. Surely the software itself – and by extension its human end-users – will improve by virtue of the humanists’ input and analysis.