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.
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 am currently working on a book project tentatively titled Symbols Purely Mechanical: Language, Modernity, and the Rise of the Algorithm, 1600-1900. Bringing together the histories of linguistics, poetics, and mathematics, this book examines the changing ways people thought about algorithms in the three centuries preceding the emergence of the modern computer. Starting around 1800, I argue, people began to draw a newly sharp line between the technical aspects of algorithmic systems, which are treated as changeable at will, and cultural factors, which are seen as existing beyond the direct control of any individual. It is because of this compartmentalization, I maintain, that the idea of progress plays such a persistent role in discussions of digital technologies; similarly to the Modernist avant garde, computing machines have license to break with the established meaning-making practices of a community and thus to lead culture in new directions. As an alternative to this technocratic arrangement, I call for a poetic approach to computation that embraces misalignments between algorithm and meaning.