By CDH Guest Author on June 21, 2016
“What is Digital Humanities?”
I asked myself this question three years ago as a Communications Studies major at UCLA. The name itself seemed to be a compound of two paradoxical words, considering our general understanding of humanities studies. Many people I encounter to this day continue to ask me this same question. At the time, all I knew was that it was a novel field of humanities, rich in technology, yet without the intimidation of computer science and engineering classes. As I came to learn, it allowed me to delve into the kind of social, historical, artistic, and literary work I loved. Yet, it also introduced exciting modern toolsets I had been yearning to dabble in for years. Finally there existed a synthesis of digital, logical left-brain, techniques mastered with humanities, emotional intelligence and right-brain activity. By the end of my minor certification, I had completed two research apprenticeships, six projects, one published work, and worked with groups of students from all disciplinary backgrounds. It was no surprise that I felt ready for my embarkation into the workforce. In the midst of my senior year, I signed an offer to become an Oracle Sales Engineer. From that moment, I knew I owed much of my selection for the position to the skills I had acquired in the DH program.
I was selected to be in a group of Technology Sales Engineers, dedicated to specializing in products related to hardware, databases, and middleware. Most of college hires in this group had varying experience with these topics, yet I was one of the very few that lacked either an engineering or science background. I inferred from this that the research and skills I acquired in the DH program must have given me a leg up. Oracle is primarily a database company, yet many universities do not offer a wide range of database classes for undergraduates. The opportunity with Oracle, however, seemed to favor my background due to the database skills I had gained in DH courses. It was in these classes that I first learned the fundamentals of database structuring. Through my study of Chicano artwork and the visual topology of Los Angeles (2012), I learned the techniques of how to maintain a centralized repository of historical artwork, images, maps, timelines, and narratives. I learned to pull SQL queries from a live Twitter feed of the 2013 Kenyan Presidential Elections. I studied the frequency of violence-triggering language in order to predict whether social media could engender violent or peaceful collective action. These two examples convey precisely how Digital Humanities provided me with a logical understanding of databases and applications. Now as a humanist, one devoted to humanities and literary culture, DH also allowed me to apply these technical skills to highly impactful real world scenarios. As a result, I gained both technical dexterity and social awareness, a combination I believe our tech-driven world at times lacks.
The DH program also led to my specialization in Business Intelligence, Analytics, and Big Data at Oracle. Through my research I gained hands-on experience using data visualization software. I used this software to create compelling visualizations of artwork geolocations, survey data, and used Twitter, Reddit, and news data to illustrate public sentiments of the 2013 Boston Bombing and 2014 Santa Barbara Shooting. By engaging myself deeply in the process of quantitative data aggregation and analysis, all the way to the qualitative act of storytelling, I witnessed the way DH and technology are together changing the way we communicate our discoveries to audiences. Presenting data is more meaningful, interactive, and immersive than ever. The parallels were clear when I arrived at Oracle. My daily interactions required me to evaluate a business’s IT landscape and understand how Oracle BI software could aid a company in telling a powerful story, whether it lives in their marketing data, operational data, or big data. Data can be deemed futile if it lives in an Excel sheet, virtually indigestible to the human eye. These concepts captivated me, and when I learned that I could specialize in data analytics at Oracle, I quickly requested to be placed.
Since then I have moved on to diversify my product knowledge by moving into the Cloud Database and Infrastructure Implementations team. I now drive maximum adoption and ensure successful implementations of Oracle solutions. Here, I continue to profit from the insights I gained in DH. The program seemed to solidify my identity as a true humanist, which I believe has an underestimated importance in our increasingly automated world. A strong theme in DH was remembering the physicality and social impact of technology. Wi-Fi networks and LTE Data live all around us, but few seem to ask where the once-dial-up cables now lie today. In DH150, I visited two major network provider data centers in Los Angeles, which house fiber optic cables and servers for thousands of consumers. These cables travel underground and across ocean beds to reach distant locations and find their way to our living room Wi-Fi modems. Understanding this notion reminds us that our seemingly ever-connected world is in fact very limited by the natural resources around us.
As our world is filled with Internet-of-Things network devices that monitor all imaginable metrics and give us remote access, the line between our digital world and real world blurs. I experienced this firsthand when I became a Google Glass Explorer and studied its effects in DH150. While it has highly impressive technical features, like the digitization of our surroundings through GPS and real-time translations of words in front of us, technologies like Google Glass can obscure our perception of the physical world. Our goal in DH was to explore social and human implications of virtual reality, in addition to simply its technical capabilities. Again these logical and social understandings have given me a unique keenness in the tech industry. Oracle’s cloud, for instance, is not just a cloud floating over our heads, as we’d like to think of it. Rather, its origins lie in a physical location that requires human labor. I consider these important elements when I speak to my clients daily. What would adversely affect an optimal supply chain needed to provide our cloud services to our customers? Where do the bottlenecks lie in our cloud operations that might cause network latency?
Digital Humanities honed my ability to lead a research project from ideation to completion. And more importantly, it taught me to constantly think critically and ask unconventional questions: What social implications does this technology have? How can our tools advance and widen the scope of our research? How can data be visualized and communicated effectively to support our story? These are the intellectual skills that led to engaging and successful projects that incited fascination. Much more than that, the program was an immersive experience that provided me with a humanist sensibility, a technical aptitude, and collaborative skills that thrive in the modern working landscape. I learned to ultimately answer the question we have all asked, “What is Digital Humanities?” It is an intermediary between hard and soft skills, and the technology and the people who make them. It illuminates the critical role technology is playing in expanding our reach as humanists.
Photo courtesy of opensource.com on Flikr. Used under terms of CC BY-SA 2.0.
Stephanie Wong was a speaker at the spring 2016 HumTech Donor Day event. Stephanie graduated from UCLA’s Class of 2014 as a Communication Studies major and Digital Humanities Minor. During her time at UCLA, she enjoyed contributing to the HumTech program through various research apprenticeships and as a Lab Consultant at the HumTech Learning Lab @ Rolfe. While now working and living in the Silicon Valley, she aspires to continue her exploration of technology and communication through a Masters in Data Journalism.