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News about the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab

Photoshop Inscription Project: More than Software

Published by Alison Moore

This blog post was contributed by Sophia Han, a former Digital Fellow in the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab. 

The Photoshop Inscription Project sets out to trace the emerging vernacular/popular genres of communicative practice for defining how Photoshop can and should be used on YouTube.  The project collects metadata and captions from a sample set of videos and, alongside other interpretive methods, outlines a typology of genre profiles for these videos on YouTube.

We interviewed Fred Lesage to learn more about creative technicity and other insights from this digital humanities project. 

This project investigates the relationship between people and their relationship to technology. What can it tell us about how Photoshop is more than software? 
We found that when people had a technical question, they were turning more to video platforms and especially, YouTube. They’re looking for quick fixes, how-to videos, but they weren’t just turning to instructionals. They were turning to all sorts of things. 

The Photoshop Inscription Project offers an expanded picture of the kinds of resources people turn to when developing their practice in relation to Photoshop. We found that yes, a vast majority consisted of tutorials, but there were also Photoshop “fail” videos, and videos about Photoshop that are more for entertainment. These are videos that involve “messing around,” and the sheer joy of watching someone “Photoshop” really well. Even with the how-to videos, it’s fascinating how many and how varied they are. There’s a large variety of people providing their own version of how to do a particular thing. Aside from the rhetorical aspect of conveying functional, practical information, these videos provide entertainment and support identities. They project personality, culture, value, expertise, and the value of creativity.

Although this project focuses on Photoshop, does the work also include an examination of YouTube?
It’s really the convergence of the two. The example that hasn’t aged well is the example of PewdiePie. One of his recurring segments shows him Photoshopping himself or other people. Here’s a YouTuber who’s not presenting himself as a Photoshop expert, yet he is performing the practice of “Photoshopping.”

It doesn’t have the same kind of legitimacy, power or influence of professional technicity, but the mess of culture is still there, producing competing experimentation in different directions.

What does this tell us about cultural production, and the difference between amateur and expert knowledge?
Technicity has long been associated with expertise and a group of committed experts. What I find fascinating about creative practices, and cultural production, is that the line between expert and amateur can easily be blurred. You see this in popular technicity. Popular technicity involves people messing around, trying things out, sharing their heuristics. It doesn’t have the same kind of legitimacy, power or influence of professional technicity, but the mess of culture is still there, producing competing experimentation in different directions.

Can you give us an example of a creative technicity that people often engage with?
One area where you often see creative technicity is in gaming. There are studies of people who become game designers based on their life-long experience of gaming. Their creative technicity involves not just being familiar with the content or the genre, but also familiarity with the techniques and technical infrastructure of the industry. So this technicity settles into their habits and understanding about games, eventually translating into how they design games later on. We see this kind of technicity operating across many areas of cultural production. 

This also has to do with participatory culture more broadly, since technicity comes from having a shared sense of meaning.

How does this project help us to understand the role of technology in contemporary society?
What does it mean to have a shared reference point (like Photoshop) across different domains? I think there are interesting implications for our understanding of the role technologies play in our everyday habits, everyday dispositions with respect to culture and creativity.  We value creativity, innovation, and experimentation but we also tend to forget that these values depend on overlooking the boring, the infrastructures that enable or constrain creative practices. 

This could have implications for how we teach technicity. As a boundary object — a concept from STS studies and the work of James Griesemer and Susan Leigh Star — Photoshop is useful for drawing connections across different disciplines. A better understanding of how these digital technologies work as boundary objects could help us find new and better ways to foster communities of creative practice.

How is the study of technical infrastructure important to our understanding of creative technicity?
What we’re finding is that creativity is a new taken-for-granted shared value across society. No one would say creativity is a bad thing. In fact, one of the worst insults is to say to someone that they aren’t creative. So what does this (valuation) mean in a creative economy? What sort of assumptions are built around this valuation? I think the study of creative infrastructure can tell us more about this.

Why was taking a digital humanities approach important for developing this project?
I think that many people still have this conception of DH as being about digitization, that it’s about taking a computer science approach to the humanities. That culture is shifting to one where we’re now taking a humanities approach in order to understand digital culture. Taking a digital humanities approach offers us the chance to examine digital culture by drawing upon tools and concepts from the humanities, so that we can ask questions about creativity and society, using the support of digital humans.

Visit the Photoshop Inscription Project to try out some of your own figurations and learn more.