About Me

Picture of me

I am an interdisciplinary scholar 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.

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 Symbols Purely Mechanical: Language, Modernity, and the Rise of the Algorithm, 1600-1900. This project examines the changing ways people thought about algorithms in the three centuries preceding the emergence of the modern computer. Through readings of texts from the histories of semiotics (Condillac, Humboldt), poetics (Wordsworth, Poe), and mathematics (Leibniz, Boole), I show that computation as we know it is founded on a dualism between culture and science that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since around 1800, I argue, culture has been seen as arising organically from the life of a community, whereas the technical details of algorithms are treated as changeable at will. 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.