Casting Out for the Leviathan

Casting Out for the Leviathan

Mastodon - Leviathan [1920x1080] hd wallpaper Image Source

In our very first Hack Lab, our class was introduced to the concept of “Browsing.” Our only instruction was to look through the “Extracts” at the beginning of the text, Moby Dick, and, if something caught our eye, surf the web to see what we could dig up. So that’s exactly what we did. We embarked on our browsing experience without a clear goal in mind, or explicit motivation to guide our hands, merely swaying by happenstance through what we saw as pertinent, or semi-pertinent, information in relation to the text. For myself, an interesting effect began to develop as I focused on the browsing activity. I began to notice repeated themes and trends occurring as I followed the keywords from the "Extracts." The information uncovered took on aspects of serendipity, because the connections generated through browsing experience appeared as purely accidental. At the same time, I wondered if I was merely investing these connections with meaning because I had been sensitized to them due to the residue of similar concepts still fresh in my psyche. It seemed to me that I was looking at browsing in a very linear, analog way, where the information is only transmitted through a single pathway, instead of realizing that the browser is a digital device that sifts through this chaos of information to focus on what it has been programmed as the most relevant material in relation to the keyword(s) I had inserted with the guidance of Melville. As a result of my subjective approach, the information generated by browsing took on almost mystical proportions, because I wasn't consciously searching for one answer to one question, but encountering connections by what seemed like chance. However, the results of my browsing are not a randomly generated sequence of information encountered by chance, but the result of a intricately formatted algorithm created by a computer programmer (in this case, at Google), with the help of the keywords provided by Melville. Any illusion of randomness was merely the result of how I was interpreting the output of information. Yet, at the same time, this seemingly random output was what kept me engaged in the process. The allure of the browsing activity in an academic setting is that it can bolster a sense of intrigue in students, leading to a process of self-generated discovery rather than forcing instructors to impose strict guidelines which can estrange students from the material they're being presented.

In a word, browsing could be summed up as “stumbling"; namely, encountering a piece of information that the browser (in this case, the person doing the browsing) was not intending to find. Ergo browsing is very different than searching. When an academic searches, or researches, a topic, there is a clear objective behind the search. The academic is looking for the definitive answer to the question he or she has theorized—a resolution to the enigma he or she has postulated. This is the route of traditional scholarship. Browsing doesn’t answer the question because the browser (still referring to the person doing the browsing) doesn’t have the question to answer beforehand; he or she is merely uncovering information. Consequently, questions of determinacy and indeterminacy arise by browsing due to the fact that the keywords and search engines employed have been designed and programmed by others, predetermining the results of the search; however, those keywords are being chosen by a human agent, seemingly at random. To complicate matters even more, we must take into consideration that we translate the results of our browsing through our own interpretative lens, and the question of the inherent bias in human subjectivity comes into play. This conflict between the determinacy implicit in the machine running against the idea of the indeterminacy inherent in the human agent seems like a perfect metaphor for the battle between traditional scholarship and the Digital Humanities. Traditional scholarship fears that the incorporation of the machine into the humanities will somehow dehumanized it, producing a bastardized version akin to Ahab and his prosthetic leg. Yet are humans less human because they seek guidance through the efficiency of the machine? And in this age of digital innovation, doesn't the humanities also need to adapt to the times in order to survive? These are some of the questions that the Digital Humanities are trying to answer.

Before diving into the results generated by my browsing experience, let's start with a quick history of the browser. The "Internet" before the browser can be depicted as this chaos of information. In order to access the information, you had to know the web address, and the web pages typically only offered text. A good analogy for the state of the internet at this point would be walking into the Library of Congress and finding out that the information is neither systematized nor can you access it without a code. It was nearly impossible to find what you were looking for unless you knew where to look. The first browser was brought to the world by the good folks at CERN (although this is a point of contention with many) and called the WorldWideWeb. It was a quick way for the scientists to transmit data back and forth through the massive research facility, but it was very technical and inaccessible to average interloper. In 1993, Mosaic was developed and its easy to use format, sans all the technical jargon, and presentation of text and images together became the prototype for most of today’s browsers. The first big breakthrough in browsing came in the form of Netscape Navigator in 1994, which allowed on-the-fly page loading where the text and graphics were displayed before the web page was fully downloaded. Through incorporating the 14.4-kbps dial-up modem, it became available to just about everyone, proving to be a vast improvement over Mosaic. In 1996, Microsoft came out with Internet Explorer, replacing Netscape Navigator as the most widely used browser. By the 2000s, browsers like Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome would overtake Internet Explorer in the browser wars. Through the various transformations, browsers went from being a tool employed by technical researchers and the computer savvy to a functional platform in the search for information, and became accessible to just about everybody. However, browsers are also quickly mutating from a source to access information to a tool which mediates our interaction with the world, as can be observed in the subsequent video.

Video Source

I equate the browsing exercise we used in the Hack Lab as equivalent to casting out into the great sea of internet information in a search to catch a glimpse of the almighty Leviathan. The keywords are my bait; of which, I am solely dependent upon to lure in details about of the sea-beast. The keyboard is my rod and reel: a tool that allows me to cast into the great referential sea. My eyes scan the horizon of the screen, trying to uncover the whereabouts of the sea-beast by its wake. The browsing experience helps to sort through the enormity of Melville’s work by anchoring us to the wealth of information found both inside and outside the text, but, at the same time, the wealth of information stored on the internet to sort through is as bottomless as the indomitable sea. For roughly an hour in class, we used the browsing exercise as a way to glean what we could from the "Extracts," which offer various quotes referencing whales throughout literary history. For keywords we browsed the names of the authors quoted, and/or searched terms we thought significant or were unsure of their meaning. On a whim I searched the name of Scoresby, an author quoted in the "Extracts," and discovered a William Scoresby whose father was a man that had made his fortune in whaling. As a result of being the son of a prominent whaler, William Scoresby also took to the seas, but his real passion was the sciences. Being a resourceful fellow, he took advantage of the whaling trips by making scientific observations and discoveries about polar waters and the Earth’s magnetism. I thought it seemed fitting that he stumbled onto these discoveries while whaling, because I stumbled onto him while searching for a whale. It's amazing what we find when we're not looking.

The next keyword I searched was the author Johann Peter Eckermann who had written a book called Conversations with Goethe, which was quoted from in the Extracts. Being familiar with Goethe’s work, I decided to find out something about this Eckermann and began hacking his text where I stumbled upon the following passage:

It has been said that animals are instructed by their very organization; and so may it be said of man, that, by something which he does quite accidentally, he is often taught the higher powers which slumber within him. Quote Link

Again, this theme of serendipity. It was as if I was bound to find the text, as though the white whale was somehow guiding my search. Or could it be that I had stumbled upon these very texts before, but, because I wasn't cognizant of their significance, I merely blew past them? Or is the hand of providence involved? Hmmm--are there forces at work here, or is it merely my imagination? There may be some magic in this Moby Dick. Yet there exists this tension between what seems like the mere accidental discovery of the information and the fact that this information has been systematized in such a way to make it accessible to the average viewer typing in the keywords, which, in the case of Moby Dick, have been provided by Melville. When browsing we run the risk of attaching meaning to entirely unrelated phenomena due to the natural predilection to interpret the findings through our subjective lens. The findings can then take on this quality of justifying our preconceived notions. This is why it is wise to keep in mind that there is a certain amount of determinacy in the search itself. However, serendipity can be the exact tool that piques the students' interests. Instead of merely poring over texts to find "the" answer to "the" question, while constantly being filled with frustration and contempt for the coursework, the student can let the process of discovery happen organically. There may be a better chance of student engagement with the process if the impetus for discovery is self-initiated rather than viewed as being forced upon him or her by professors and the curriculum. This may be the true significance of browsing as an academic exercise: it will allow the student to formulate their own questions, and, instead of finding "the" answer to "the" question, they've be able to find "an" answer to the variable plethora of questions floating throughout the ethernet.

The results of my browsing experience made me think about Ishmael’s accidental involvement in Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. I wondered what higher powers Ishmael may have stumbled upon through the ordeal? I also thought about the role of fate in the text. The character Elijah informs Ishmael about how Ahab had “[lost] his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy.” Is Moby Dick somehow an agent of fate? Are the characters in the text controlled by fate, or are their fates the result of their actions? Ahab himself states in the chapter titled "Sunset," “I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one.” A question of personal agency comes into play. Does Ahab truly believe that he can fully control the circumstances of his world? He exhibits a degree of autonomy. He functions in a place of leadership and possesses the power to shape the crew to his will; however, ironically, by asserting his control, he forces men like Ishmael and Starbuck to surrender to his obsession, thereby robbing them of their own autonomy. Yet Ahab also seems trapped. Whether he wants to admit it and not, he’s become subservient to the will of the whale. What is Melville claiming, or suggesting, about human agency? Can we ever really be free when we are in fact imprisoned by our own phantoms? The malignity associated with the whale may just be a manifestation of Ahab’s obsession in the first place. So then the question becomes, “Whom or what is Ahab really hunting?”