Review of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (2014)

Ryan, Marie-Laure, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2014. Print.

Current scholarly activity in digital media reflects a convergence of cultural and political critique with technological investigation, engagement, and practice, and the challenge to creating any guide or introduction to digital media that it risks codifying — and thereby diminishing — the diversity of approaches, methodologies, and theoretical approaches to be found. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson, resists collapsing the many and varied potential trajectories of digital media studies into singular narratives by weaving intellectual diversity and vibrancy throughout its representation of the disciplinary fabric of digital media studies.

Poignantly, Jussi Parikka captures the need for such a multivariate approach in his entry “History of Computers” when he writes: “There is just too much for a single history of the computer. Any history of computing becomes suddenly a metaquestion of how to write a history of such complexity” (249). By extension, digital media studies is best served when it resists representing affiliated scholarly activities through essential or normative practices; therefore, the entries in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media do well to reflect the intersections of multiple, interrelated inquiries and approaches that cohere along various, productive constellations. Readers of the Guide will find that many entries intersect in purpose and topic, even as they diverge along historical, theoretical, and methodological lines of inquiry.

With entries on media types ranging from sound and video games to code and poetry, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media surveys a recognizably diverse and evolving field. Entries, however, extend beyond media type elucidating key properties, such as immersion, mediality, and avatars. Other entries explore cultural and theoretical issues, ranging from cyberfeminism and gender representation to ontology and cognition. The Guide includes a combination of short and long entries by scholars whose work represents historical, empirical, theoretical, computational, and archival approaches. Taken together, this plurality of intellectual engagements opportunes multiple points of entry into the field, offering readers what the editors describe as “a GPS and a map of the territory of digital media, so that they will be able to design their own journey through this vast field of discovery” (xiii). To this end, each entry comes embedded with in-line references to other related entries in the Guide to facilitate the type of exploration and discovery the editors describe. The result is a highly accessible resource for both newcomers to digital media and seasoned scholars in the field looking for a snapshot of its current state. Students and teachers in search of a comprehensive guide will also find great pedagogical value in this book.

In addition to plotting related instances of digital media scholarship and creation, the Guide unpacks digital media, itself as a territory in which coordinates are enmeshed in humanities and social sciences research. At once historically aware and methodologically reflexive, the entries collectively situate the Guide’s two key terms as complex zones of intellectual discovery. For example, in his entry on music, Aden Evans complicates neat compartmentalizations of the digital, suggesting: “Entirely digital music is out of the question, but the intersections of music and the digital are numerous and telling” (344). A similar troubling of the newness of new media comes from Jessica Pressman, who argues: “the work of the new is precisely what inspires us to reconsider the old and to recognize the intersections and convergent histories of old and new” (365). As a result, throughout the Guide, an awareness of digital media as comparative and hybrid in nature evolves.

Usefully, entries often situate contemporary technologies in relation to the historical and material practices that inform their development. Kristyn Leuner, for instance, traces the scroll bar to Pliny’s documentation of turning papyrus into scrolls in “Book to E-Text”, while Mark Nunes’s entry unpacks the early modern development of postal routes and the Victorian-era telegraph as early instances of networking. Comparative approaches in other entries offer accessible examples of digital media concepts, such as Jake Buckley’s documentation of the move from measuring to calculating time to explain the shift from the analog to the digital in “Analog vs. Digital.” Likewise, Bethany Nowviskie draws from the everyday problem of searching for lost keys to offer a particularly lucid explanation of the difference between a heuristic and an algorithm, exemplifying the range of accessible material available throughout the book.

Complementing the many entries that unpack their topic’s historical contexts, diverse disciplinary approaches are also brought to bear on digital media. In her entry “Graph Theory,” Ryan demonstrates a rich combination of theory and practice as she works through the concept of the rhizome in light of the contrast between tree and network structures. Other contributors situate digital media in relation to important cultural and social contexts that inform their emergence, which they, in turn, influence, as well. Charles Ess’s entry “Ethics in Digital Media” documents the evolution of the Pirate Bay from a file-sharing website to a Nordic political party advocating copyright reform. Brian Croxall similarly offers examples of political events documented in real time via microblogging, as well as mass social actions organized through social media platforms.

Throughout, contributors demonstrate not only the extent to which digital media is enmeshed in diverse sets of material practices, but also illustrate the key role media play in reshaping those practices. As Anna Munster writes of new materialist scholarship, “digital theorists, writers, media producers, and artists…[engage] the digital as a mode or cluster of operations in consort with matter, a way of materially doing things in the world” (330). In perhaps the most representative entry of such an approach, Matthew Kirschenbaum outlines “strategies or approaches for preserving bits and their contexts” in the digital preservation community, by unpacking the preservation of born-digital material as both a technical and cultural field of investigation — a move that becomes emblematic of Ryan, Emerson, and Robertson’s editorial strategy (405).

The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media represents a valuable and lasting contribution to the field of media studies by revealing current attitudes toward media as digital and material, preserved in bits while moving through multiple communities of practice, and key in unraveling the multiple entwinements between culture and technology. Comprehensive and accessible, there are an impressive 154 entries in the Guide that in combination offer a glimpse of the current state of scholarly work in digital media that is both detailed and broad.

The disadvantage to the multitude of entries, however, is that emerging scholars may find it difficult to trace nuanced distinctions between topics that are closely allied, but that represent distinctions between multiple modes of inquiry. For instance, the Guide’s numerous entries on interactive media document different media types, but cover shared theoretical and methodological topics across those types, repeating content. These overlapping entries stand in contrast to those with the “Cyber” prefix, which demonstrate clear points of disciplinary convergence and divergence in the field. Indeed, such contrast speaks to ongoing discussions about the status of interactivity in digital media and digital humanities scholarship, identifying a rich zone of intellectual activity reminiscent, at least in part, of previous disciplinary discussions in the realm of cyber scholarship. Yet, the Guide’s strength is its ability to negotiate these closely allied but historically distinct scholarly lines of inquiry.

One additional challenge the Guide faces is the lack of a keyword index. For example, terms such as gamification, ambient intimacy, and identity tourism represent highly focused topical areas, while entries such as “Cognitive Implications of New Media” are much more opaque. Tracing key terms and their intersections across related entries would make the Guide even more accessible.

Nonetheless, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media serves as an important scholarly reference, offering multiple points of entry into a complex area of intellectual activity. More than a comprehensive look at the detailed threads of inquiry in this field, it will serves as a key resource to which future students and scholars alike can turn for its representation of the current state of digital media studies.

About Alex Christie

Alex Christie is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Victoria. He conducts research on 3D geospatial expression and scholarly communication for the Modernist Versions Project (MVP) and Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) in the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL). He is developing an open source toolkit for digital humanities pedagogy with grant funding from the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH); his dissertation traces experiments in rule-based literary expression across modernist poems and manuscripts.