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“How Did They Make That? Reverse-Engineering Digital Projects” with Miriam Posner (CUNY Graduate Center, March 27, 2014)

Starting with an image of a decidedly non-digital monkey wrench, Miriam Posner recently gave the presentation, “How Did They Make That: Reverse-Engineering Digital Projects.”  Her talk was part of a series sponsored by CUNY’s Digital Humanities Initiative and built upon her August 29, 2013 blog post, “How did they make that?”

Posner introduced her CUNY presentation as a way to enable digital novices to “pick apart” and begin to understand a variety of digital humanities projects.  She provided a framework through which practitioners of all experience levels might engage and query the work of other digital humanists.  The newcomer to digital humanities often does not know how to approach a project, what tools helped build it, what terms to use in describing it, or even how long its creation took.  More knowledgeable digital humanities scholars sometimes become captivated by technological tools and neglect to speculate on decisions behind the tools.

Drawing from the Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities, Posner listed several tools and techniques used by DH scholars:

  1. Exhibit building
  2. Data visualization
  3. Digital editions
  4. Text analysis
  5. Multimedia narratives
  6. Timelines
  7. Maps
  8. 3-D imaging

She also invoked Johanna Drucker’s Introduction to Digital Humanities course at UCLA when Posner explained that to design one’s own and understand others’ DH projects, the scholar must “break things down, start with the data, and work up from there.” The user/viewer can then examine how the material is manipulated into a human-viewable form.  As Burdick, Drucker, et al write,

“Digital Humanities is a production-based endeavor in which theoretical issues get tested in the design of implementations, and implementations are loci of theoretical reflection and elaboration.” (Burdick, 13)

Posner offered three steps, or “levels,” for discovering a digital exhibit.  First, the user identifies the sources: the files, data, primary records containing information on which the exhibit is based.  Second, the user determines how that material was processed. For example, was a manuscript enhanced and edited with text encoding? Were sources digitized?  Third, how is the material presented?  Has it been mapped using a geographic information system?  Has it been made interactive? Has a search function been added?

Posner used her levels first to examine Benjamin M. Schmidt’s project, A Year of Ships, in which he reworks datasets of shipping routes to create a set of movies that graphically depict those routes in motion.  She posed the question, how does a DH novice confront terms they do not understand?   Agreeing with those gathered that many simply “Google it,” she said, “now they have a slot for that term in one of the three levels.”

“When you start to pick apart a project, you notice how good, and how bad, the project documentation is.”

Posner then looked at the University of South Carolina Digital Libraries, Negro Travelers’ Green Book Map.  Level one, the source, in this example would be the 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green BookLevel two, the process, consists of transcribing and geocoding.  Level three, the presentation, is an interactive map developed with Google Maps, Fusion Tables, and Visualization JavaScript APIs.

By walking through the levels, Posner explained, users will be able to query the project, to ask why the creator chose that information, those tools, that presentation, and not others. Rieder and Röhle write of “black-boxing,” in which software and its code are unreadable and inaccessible for users unskilled in certain technological tools. (Rieder, 75)

For this and other demonstrations of her methodology, Posner fashioned a virtual 3-D black box that became a repository for the three levels.  With sources and processes acting as foundational layers, the presentation layer rests on top and is represented by the digital exhibit itself.  Through this imagery, Posner took the alienating black box and transformed it into a means of access and learning.

Hockey writes,

By its very nature, humanities computing has had to embrace ‘the two cultures’, to bring the rigor and systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies characteristic of the sciences to address problems within the humanities that had hitherto been most often treated in a serendipitous fashion.”

One audience member congratulated Posner, saying she had demonstrated a humanist means to query the methodology, breaking down and rendering the processes more transparent and replicable, as in scientific research.  “Humanists usually want to present their work as being ‘seamless,’” he said.

With each project, Posner had invited its creator to participate in the discussion via Skype.  Through the informal dialogue, Posner, exhibit creators, and audience became collaborators that took each project to a next phase of discovery.  Discussing her Memories/Motifs exhibit, Rachel Deblinger explained how she used Google Analytics to see what paths users follow in the project, often contrary to what she expected.

The question was asked, how does the creator deal with ambiguous data?  How is it processed?  Posner suggested that her three levels enable the user to understand better the time and effort of designing projects, and the effect design decisions have on projects.  She recalled Drucker’s term, “capta.”  “Data is captured from reality; it is not reality.” Human beings produce data.

After taking apart the three layers of the exhibit Kindred Britain, several attendees criticized it for what they saw as exclusionary data and an inaccessible presentation.  Said one person, “That’s not my kindred Britain.”  The brief discussion of British class structure brought to mind Alan Liu’s words:

“To be an equal partner—rather than, again, just a servant—at the table, digital humanists will need to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.” (Liu, 6/20)

As a relative digital novice, I found Miriam Posner’s presentation to be helpful and engaging.  She introduced terms and concepts that digital humanists of all skill levels could understand and use.  She brought in exhibit creators to reflect on their work from a critical distance and demonstrated that a collaborative “taking apart” of an exhibit can be educational as it enhances the work in unpredictable ways.


Burdick, Anne, et al. (2012). “Digital Humanities Fundamentals” in Digital_Humanities, 122–23

Davidson, Cathy N. (2008). “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions” PMLA 123(3): 707-17

Hockey, Susan (2004) “The History of Humanities Computing in Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew (2011). “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term” in Matthew Gold, Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)

Liu, Alan (2011). “Where Is the Cultural Criticism in Digital Humanities” in Matthew Gold, Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)

Rieder, Bernhard and Theo Röhle (2012). “Digital Methods: Five Challenges” in Understanding Digital Humanities, ed. David M. Berry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 67–84

1 comment for ““How Did They Make That? Reverse-Engineering Digital Projects” with Miriam Posner (CUNY Graduate Center, March 27, 2014)

  1. April 2, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Wow! Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful summary! I had a great time giving the talk, and I hope you found it helpful.

    — Miriam

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