About Me

Picture of me

I am a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University’s Center for Humanities and Information, specializing in the very early history of computation (pre-1900), Enlightenment studies, Romantic literature, and digital humanities. My work considers what intellectual history can tell us about contemporary technological issues, especially in regard to the relationship of computation to language, poetics, and culture. I also write software that puts my ideas into effect.

In 2018, I received a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. I also have an M.A. in English from NYU and studied literature, mathematics, and computer science at the undergraduate level. Before starting my PhD, I worked for five years in database programming and data visualization.

The Distance Machine shows how the words in a passage from Moby-Dick went in and out of common use over a period of two centuries.

If you want to get a sense of what my digital work is like, a good place to start is the Distance Machine. The Distance Machine is a web-based program (which you can try in your browser right now) that identifies words in historical texts that were uncommon at particular points in time. The idea is to find the opposite of archaisms—words that seem ordinary to us now, but that had not yet become common at the time when a text was written. I published an article about the project in American Literature; the source code is on GitHub.

I’ve also made some fun things like a poetry generator that can create rhymed verse and a depoeticizer, which makes texts more banal. Most recently, I used a neural network to reconstruct Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick from its individual sentences.

There is a longer list of my digital projects here; you can also view a list of my major publications or my full CV.

I am currently working on a book project, tentatively titled Modernity and the Algorithm, that provides a historical perspective on contemporary concerns about the automation of intellectual labor by examining the varying ways people dealt with the philosophical, educational, and economic aspects of algorithms from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. During the Enlightenment, algorithms were a politically loaded topic; radicals sought to replace the “errors” of the past with a more rational way of thinking that could be reduced to a mechanical process, while conservatives viewed such methods as tyrannical impositions of arbitrary rules on human thought. The Romantic turn around 1800, I argue, provided a new definition of culture in which these two conflicting positions could get along: the technical aspects of mathematical systems could be scientifically designed, whereas meaning could be enabled to develop organically. It is because of this compromise, I maintain, that the idea of progress plays such a persistent role in discussions of digital technologies; similarly to the Modernist avantgarde, computing machines have license to break with semiotic conventions and thus to lead culture in new directions. As an alternative, I call for a poetic approach to computation that embraces misalignments between algorithm and meaning.