Glitching can give us deeper understandings of digital objects

Back in 2012, our fearless leader Professor Owens wrote this cool blog post explaining why glitching digital objects can give us a deeper understanding of their value and how to break them down.

As he observed, digital objects are encoded bits of information on some sort of medium designed for a software that can read it. But, if we play with those bits of information and break those digital objects down a bit, we can grasp a better understanding of the objects internal structure, how the computer understands it, and what the original object was meant for.

There are three ways to break down and alter digital files to give us a more multidimensional, ‘non-essentialist’ read of digital objects.

First you can alter an mp3. or wav. file that you either previously had on your computer or downloaded online and alter its file extension to .txt. I did this with both a mp3. of an Oral History audio I have from a few years back and then I tried it with the track “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton the Musical.

This is from the Oral History interview I conducted with a woman involved in a student led campaign at Duquesne University to save the school from financial collapse in the 1970s. The text is pretty unintelligible. This audio was created on a recorder and downloaded into Audacity so its format might not be super advanced.
This one is the track from Hamilton, still pretty unintelligible but here if we zoom in we can see text that says: (Original Broadway Cast Record):soar2data0Oringinal Broadway Cast of Hamilton and other tidbits of information. This is a professional recording so it kind of makes more sense that some of the metadata is recognizable here.

You can then try and alter the same file from a .txt to a .raw file which should give you a pixelated image of what the audio looks like. If you do this for .wav and mp3 files you should see a noticeable difference and get a feel for patterns in the data. However, my Macbook for some unexplainable reason can not read these files once I change them to the .raw format. No matter what files I altered to this format I got the same error notice.

Boo you Macbook
Sad face 🙁

I used both the Preview application and IPhoto apps on my Mac and got the same notice both times. I’m not sure if it’s just an issue with my Mac or Mac in general, but I’m hoping one of my co-practicum bloggers can give you a better idea of what this looks like. If not you can get a glimpse of it in Prof. Owens blog here.

My Mac did however allow me to try out the third glitching technique, which is to take a digital image in .jpg format and change its file extension to .txt remove some of the info, revert it back to .jpg and open it back up to see how your changes altered the image.

The images below are the original and two glitched versions of a photo of the narrator I interviewed a few years ago.

the original

The first level of damage which has made the image darker and kind of duplicates it?
In this third level of damage the image now has a magenta tone and we can see how it’s been duplicated and zoomed out? Cool stuff honestly.

By looking at these glitched files we can see how the original file was damaged by removing or altering its original data. We can also see how the image was intended to be viewed and how the data works to produce it and what happens when some of it is taken away.

In conclusion, glitching is really cool because it helps us read objects “against the grain” if you will– to see the digital object from multiple dimensions and perspectives to better understand it. It’s also just kind of fun and has led to some new pathways in the creation of digital art.

But to all my digital humanitarians out there, what do you think we can stand to learn from glitching digital artifacts and how might we use this technique in our work?

Sound Studies in the Digital Age

This week’s readings help us dive deep into the world of digital Audio. First, Doug Boyd gives us a run down on everything we should consider when designing an Oral History project. Then, Michael Frisch pushes us to reconsider how we use and organize the audio and video we collect. Finally, Wendy F. Hsu challenges us to think about sound differently to conceptualize a new methodological framework of augmented empiricism through Digital Ethnography.

 As Boyd points out, conducting Oral History is a great privilege and the work required to prepare, conduct, transcribe, disseminate, and relate the oral histories we collect to larger historical narratives is no small feat. But as they say, with great privilege comes great responsibility. The choices made in the design of a project influence the its overall success and development. Boyd thus encourages us to consider the following:

Why are you doing this project and what’s the desired outcome?

Think of a project mission statement and write it down (consulting and communicating with project partners where applicable.) This helps oral history project designers stay focused and on task. A mission statement works as a reminder of why the project was initiated in the first place. Along with that, will these interviews be used for broadcast or production? Will they be hosted online or adapted into another format? Figuring out the answers to these questions will influence choice made on the equipment purchased and used for the project.

What recording equipment works best for you and what are your budgetary needs?

What microphone, audio, or video equipment is best for your project? How familiar are you with these technologies and software? Do you have access to the necessary trainings? Another way of thinking about this question is to ask who the intended audience of this project is? Thinking about these questions will point oral historians to the direction of their most suited technology.

If the project will later be used for production, professional quality equipment will be necessary and this can add up quickly. Consumer equipment can work just as well, but this hinges on the project’s needs. You also have to consider how and where audio or video files will be stored. External drives and servers are also costly and if a transcription service is hired out to work on these files that’s another cost to consider as well. You also have to think about project dissemination, web space, and software

Next, you’ll need to consider your level of expertise.

If you’re unfamiliar with current audio, video, or computer technologies, you’re going to want to learn, attend workshops, read manuals, and practice. You’ll want to know how to use your equipment properly before the interview takes place. There’s nothing worse than completing an interview and realizing the recorder was off the whole time.

Your digital storage and archival strategy should also be thought out.

Digital records create massive files and you’ll want to be prepared and have pre-planned strategy for storage. Consulting your archive partner can help with this. They should have the means necessary to undertake the expensive and complex digital preservation and curation of audio and video materials. You’ll also want to ask them about the work flows, protocols, and release  policies they follow.

One of the biggest questions you’ll want to consider as a part of your project design are the legal and ethical issues you might encounter over the course of your project and how you plan to confront them. As Boyd points out, oral history can be incredibly intimate and the life stories that interviewees share can have wider implications after project disseminations. This is something that should be thoroughly contemplated by the project staff before making interviews publicly accessible with informed consent.

Boyd’s point about the end product of an oral history project is something Michael Frisch has many thoughts on. Frisch encourages users to think about the life of an oral history interview once the recorder is turned off. In many cases, interviews are transcribed, and its meaning and interpretation is derived from the transcript. The layers of meaning found within the context and setting of an interview and the interviewees gesture, tone, body language, expression, pauses, and movements that enrich and fully contextualize an interview are lost. Text has become the go to mode for the life of an oral history due to ease of use and sharing, but Frisch shows that with the digital revolution, we can put the oral back in oral history.

In the digital age, all data is relatively the same and can be expressed as digital information that can be organized, searched, extracted, and equally integrated and instantly and non-linearly accessible Because of this Frisch calls for a “post-documentary sensibility” for oral history, where digital audio and video are annotated, cross-reference, and organized by other types of descriptive or analytic meta-data linked to specific passages of interview content. In doing so the audio or video itself is the source that is searched, studied, and referenced by researchers and users, returning the actual voice and embodied meanings to oral history.

While these projects have been approached differently due to scale, Boyd provides several examples of what this can look like. You can look at the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and work done by the Randforce Associates to compare.  These projects, and those Frisch hopes to see in the future, can provide accessible, meaningful, fluid, and non-privileged access to the content of oral history.

Wendy F. Hsu steps out of the oral history framework and thinks about sound a little differently than our friends Boyd and Hirsh. Hsu is an ethnographer who wants to further develop the methodologies of digital ethnography and expand the term’s definition. She looks at digital technology as a platform for collecting, exploring, and expressing ethnographic materials. Her project on Asian American Musicians and independent rock music shows how digital technology can provide new empirical perspectives on space and place to develop new methods of inquiry and visualization.

Hsu found that the Asian American musicians she studied spent much of their time on Myspace networking and promoting their music, rather than performing. She then built a webscraper bot to extract information on the location of users engaged with these bands. The bot was able to crawl through the information of more than 2,500 “friends” of the band which enabled her to physically map their location and thus the digital environment that these users exist in. This visualization allowed Hsu to uncover patterns of social behavior and cultural meaning that would otherwise be inaccessible. Her quantitative findings answered how and what questions while her ethnographic training helped her figure out the why.

Hsu was also able to look to the music of these bands directly to uncover new insights as well. Hsu used digital audio software DAW and Audacity to learn more about a group of nakashi musicians entitled The Wandering Blind Singers.[1] Hsu was able to identify that the recordings she had access to were recorded in mono, a form that was typical to the Taiwan music scene in the 1970s. She realized that these recordings likely took place in a tv studio which shed light on the fringe position of these musicians in the music industry and their lower-class status in society in general.

These are but some of the conclusions and observations that Hsu was able to make using close and distant listening, digital visualization, and other digital technologies. Her work shows that new methodological frameworks are necessary to expand the breadth of digital ethnography and its changing landscapes.

Boyd, Frisch, and Hsu gave us a lot of unpack. There are so many ways to think about and work with sound in the digital age. Share your thoughts about these readings on sound and the digital world below.

[1] Nakashi is a postcolonial itinerant music-culture in Taiwan.

Prototyping an Oral History Archive: NATO Bombardment in National Memory and Nostalgia

Like many graduate students, I am currently in the midst of applying for summer fellowships and research funding. One of the fellowships I just applied for would grant me funding to conduct an oral history project for the 20th Anniversary of NATO’s bombardment of Serbia. In the event I’m awarded this grant, an important part of this project down the line is building a digital space for these interviews to live. I want these stories to be publicly accessible so that people can hear and engage with them, educators can use them as teaching tools, scholars can utilize them as primary sources, and policy makers can reference them when making important decisions in foreign affairs. For my digital project for this class I’d like to build a prototype of what this site would look like and how it would function.

Project Description: This online oral history archive would live on an Omeka S server (access provided by American University.) It would host the fifty or so oral history interviews collected through my (potential) summer fellowship research. The site would have important contextual information about the project and NATO’s bombardment of Serbia. It would also provide a timeline, so users can understand the series of events that took place and a glossary to provide reference for terms that often appear in interviews but are unfamiliar and/or unique to this event. The archive itself would host each oral history interview. It would provide biographical information on the interviewee and eventually a transcript of the interview. Each video would be tagged based on interview content and the oral history archive would be key word searchable. Users could search based on theme, places, gender, and birth year. An educational section of this site would later be created and geared towards high school and university instructors.

Audience: This site would be built for several audiences. First and foremost, it’s for the interviewees themselves. Having a space where interviewees can go and listen to their interviews and share them with people important to them is a vital aspect of this project to me. The second audience this site would be built for is the public. This would be a site that anyone trying to learn more about the NATO bombing could easily access and navigate, but also a space useful to educators, scholars, and policy makers.

Existing Projects: So many oral history projects are now hosted online as either archives or through digital story telling platforms. My vision of what this site would look like draws both on the Croatian Memories Project and Oral History Kosovo. Both of these sites are well done and easy to navigate. They make different historiographical interventions than this project, but they provide good models of what a successful online oral history space looks like.

Plan for outreach and publicity: This online oral history archive would be shared among its interviewees, which would hopefully produce a ripple effect and allow its reach to grow. It would also be advertised to the numerous former-Yugoslav communities in the U.S. and abroad. Links would also be sent to secondary education facilities and universities. Specifically, I’d try to be in touch with university libraries who could link the projects on their main sites. I’d also utilize social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram (#twitterstorians) to gain a base of followers.  

Evaluation Plan: The success of this project would be measured over time and in a variety of ways. First, I’d most want to see traffic on the site grow, as long as there is a steady increase of traffic, that’s progress. Second, I’d be interested in receiving feedback from instructors who use the site. Their comments would indicate how useful the site actually is to the public and what changes need to be made. Finally, down the line, I’d be interested in seeing if/how these interviews are being utilized by scholars. I’m not yet certain how this would be tracked, but I think it’s a reasonable way to measure success since this project aims to add to the historiography and body of literature on the former-Yugoslavia.

Crowd-Sourcing Jasenovac: Wikipedia as Memory and the Production of the Past

Our discussion about crowdsourcing really got me thinking about the construction of historically memory online and what influence this memory has on historical narratives and national identity. My project proposal below digs into that a little deeper and I look forward to hearing any comments or suggestions you all might have!

In 2018, popular online magazine Balkan Insight reported historical revisionism found in Croatian Wikipedia’s article on Jasenovac Concentration Camp. Jasenovac was the concentration and death camp where at least 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist political prisoners were executed and/or interned by the Ustaše– a Croatian proto-fascist, ultra-nationalist, Nazi collaborationist organization that ruled the Independent State of Croatia from 1941-1945. These news articles showed that Croatian Wikipedia misrepresented the nature of Jasenovac and the Ustaše and omitted facts crucial to understanding the crimes committed there, sparking outrage among Serbs, Jews, and other representative groups.

As an open-source, community-built space, Wikipedia functions as a public venue where Serbs and Croats engage with their contested past. Examining their representations of Jasenovac and the Ustaše grants insight into public memory of the Second World War and the Holocaust in Serbia and Croatia that exists beyond official memory and suggests its influence on contemporary conceptions of national identity. Using J.M. Winter’s idea of “collective remembrance” and Benedict Anderson’s framework of imagined communities, this paper assess how Wikipedia has become a forum for the cultivation of historical memory in Serbia and Croatia in the post-Yugoslav era.[1] As numerous scholars have found, contested memory surrounding the Ustaše and Jasenovac occupies a distinct space in ongoing animosities among Serbs and Croats. Their studies, however, have generally only examined official spaces of memory like commemorations, museum exhibitions, political rhetoric, international criminal courts and other politically charged sites of memory.[2]

         Wikipedia articles are built on three policies: users cannot contribute original research, they must provide a neutral point of view, and all information must be verifiable (cited secondary sources are preferred.) ‘Neutrality’ on Wikipedia is loosely specified and generally regulated by other users and site administrators, while the quality of information users contribute to Wikipedia is not held to any precise standard. This paper thus uses Croatian and Serbian Wikipedia to examine the narratives of Jasenovac and the Ustaše contributors have crafted. It considers what elements of these narratives are left out and how they are positioned within each framework of national history. It further traces the evolution of these pages to determine how these narratives have developed over time and examines the interactions and points of debate among contributors to further grasp what elements of Jasenovac and Ustaše memory are of greatest concern and why. Placing this study within existing literature ultimately reveals conflicts and continuity within the existing memory framework and its place in current conceptions of Serbian and Croatian identity.

[1] Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 3-5; Benedic Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Press, 1991).

[2] Lilijana Radonić, “Croatia – Exhibiting Memory and History at the ‘Shores of Europe,’” Culture Unbound 3 (2011): 355-367,; Rob Van Der Laarse, “Beyond Auschwitz? Europe’s Terrorscapes in the Age of Post-Memory,” Memory and Post-War Memorials: Confronting the Violence of the Past, ed. Marc Silberman and Florence Vatan, (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 71-92; Stipe Odak and Andriana Benčić, “Jasenovac- A Past That Does Not Pass: The Presence of Jasenovac in Croatian and Serbian Collective Memory Conflict,” Eastern European Politics, Societies, and Cultures 30 (2016), 805-829; Heike Karge, “Mediated Remembrance: Local Practices of Remembering the Second World War in Tito’s Yugoslavia,” European Review of History 16 (2009): 49-62; Đurašković, Stevo. “National Identity-Building and the ‘Ustaša-Nostalgia’ in Croatia: The Past That Will Not Pass.” Nationalities Papers 44, no. 5 (2016): 772–788.