MITH is delighted to welcome Jeffrey Moro as the 2020 Winnemore Fellow. Jeffrey is a PhD candidate in English with a certificate in Digital Studies in the Arts and Humanities (DSAH). The Winnemore Digital Humanities Dissertation Fellowship supports work toward the completion of dissertations engaged with digital humanities or new media and the arts and humanities.
Jeffrey's research is at the crossroads of digital media studies and the environmental humanities. His dissertation, titled “Atmospheric Media: Computation and the Environmental Imagination,” explores how we imagine computation in terms of physical and cultural atmospheres. His writing has appeared in Amodern and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to joining UMD, he was the post-baccalaureate resident in digital humanities for Five Colleges, Inc. in Western Massachusetts, and holds degrees in English and Theater & Dance from Amherst College.
Jeffrey's Winnemore project supports the work of researching, writing, and building an interactive digital program for one of his dissertation chapters, titled “Machine Reading for Atmosphere.” The project pursues a cultural study of sentiment analysis technologies, or digital methods for classifying the emotional “atmosphere” of a text. Sentiment analysis is an increasingly popular tool in a range of industries, from marketing to AI research, for automatically analyzing a text’s tone, mood, or vibe. Drawing on diverse theoretical frameworks, particularly critical code studies and Black digital humanities, Jeffrey argues that sentiment analysis as it’s currently practiced intensifies existing lines of surveillance and imposes normative ideas about how moods are read online—or even what a “mood” even is.
This project is a bit of an outlier in his dissertation, which is otherwise interested in more literal interpretations of the word “atmosphere”: prior chapters look at things like the role of breath in digital media, air conditioning in data centers, and computational weather prediction. However, one of Jeffrey's dissertation’s gambits is that these more physical atmospheres are intimately intertwined with emotional and cultural ones—and that through pervasive digital infrastructures, such as those that undergird sentiment analysis, cultural moods can become all-too-real physical atmospheres that condition how we practice the arts of living.
When asked what draws him to the digital, Jeffrey shared the following:
When folks ask me to define the digital humanities, I usually fall back on Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s definition: “a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies.” Along this definition, I try to think about digital media as simultaneously objects and methods, so I’ll answer the question in turn.
As objects, what I find most compelling about digital media is how they often propose self-contained systems that link up to other systems in fascinating ways. One particular object, the poet and programmer J.R. Carpenter’s electronic literature piece “This is a Picture of Wind,” which I write about in my third chapter, comes to mind here. Carpenter describes “This is a Picture of Wind” as “a weather diary for smartphones”: the website generates different snatches of short poetry in dynamic response to wind patterns off the coast of Bristol, UK. As such, this piece is 1) a set of short poems; 2) generated by a computer program; 3) that plugs into wind speed measurements; 4) which themselves reflect geophysical systems of meteorological pattern; 5) all of which work within the literary historical genre of the “weather diary,” itself a system with its own fascinating sets of relation. I find these interactions exhilarating. I guess in a way they aren’t unique to digital media, these interlocking sets of formal relation, but the way that digital media synthesize and express them have always been fascinating to me.
As methods, I’m actually less compelled by digital media as the end-products of scholarly work than I am in using them as techniques through which to ask new kinds of questions about our objects of study. I am in awe of the tools, platforms, exhibits, and experiences digital humanists have managed to build, often under conditions of extreme duress, over the past decade or more. But my digital methods have always been more modest. To put this into an example: I’m going to try, as part of my Winnemore project, to build some kind of interactive interface that exposes the inner workings of a particular sentiment analysis program called TextBlob—but I don’t particularly care if that’s ever shared in a public-facing capacity, or if itself is “clean” enough to pass as legitimate scholarly work! Rather, I think that digital media’s affordances—abstraction, interactivity, its capacity to link up to other kinds of systems—make them particularly suited to asking questions _more so than _providing answers. This is a point of view I developed during my time at Five College Digital Humanities, where I worked with projects at all levels, from large faculty-led enterprises to one-off undergrad projects. The projects I always found most compelling were those that explicitly allowed the media to shift how they asked questions, even if the “output” in the end was something familiar, like a paper or a monograph.