We can use digital tools to do things we couldn’t before do otherwise ... there is no reason that the humanities, not just science, can’t use them effectively.

John Hunter with a student

John Hunter has long been interested in the connections between neuroscience and the humanities, particularly how the nature of memory has changed along with our technologies for storing and exchanging information.

Recently, though, this interest led the comparative humanities professor to notice that films he was seeing were particularly avoiding the technology he feels is changing the way we tell stories — the cell phone.

“Take the latest Star Wars film, for instance,” says Hunter. “There are laser blasters and things moving at the speed of light, but you would be hard pressed to find a character using anything like a cell phone. We want characters communicating face to face in a film. That just seems more cinematic, even if it isn’t at all plausible.”

Hunter, however, didn’t just want to muse on the idea — he wanted to find a way to quantify it. He is using a grant from the Mellon Foundation to have student researchers set up a database that will allow him to search for any words on the closed-captioned versions of 70 recent films, using 2000 as a start date — and he’s starting with the phrase "cell phones.”

Ultimately, though, he would like to see the database contain thousands of films, and be available to other researchers who would want to key into any term or word in the closed-captioning. Beyond that, he hopes that eventually there will be a way to capture images from the film itself — a cell phone might appear in a shot, for example, without the words being said.

Given his background, he is particularly excited that his student researchers are experts in programming, while he contributes the humanities expertise.

“I could take five years out of my career and learn about programming, but what happens here is that together the students and I can do something we can’t do ourselves alone,” says Hunter. “For the students, it is a real-world application for their expertise, not just a piece of class homework.”

Hunter says that it is also gratifying that the model provided by the grant to answer his initial question about cell phones and their use in storytelling is becoming a resource for all sorts of inquiries.

“The good work that comes out of this is that we can use digital tools to do things we couldn’t before do otherwise,” he says. “This is just a tool, but it is a potent tool, and there is no reason that the humanities, not just science, can’t use it effectively.”

Posted Sept. 22, 2016