Digital Humanities

Change brings angst.

The academy has certainly been undergoing a significant amount of angst around the transition to digital forms of research and publishing. Some believe that the online revolution will irrevocably change our relationship with source materials and published works. Others fatalistically view digitization as yet another alteration that scholarly disciplines will rise to meet. A few hold most everything other than the written word scornfully and actively resist further attempts to take advantage of the greatest advancement in publication since the telegraph. Whatever one’s opinion on digital humanities, the field is devilishly tricky to pin down.

I would suggest that “digital humanities” means, concurrently, two separate things: the first being “the study of humanities by use of digital methodology” and the second being “the publication of scholarship in the humanities through digital means.” While some literature treats both aspects simultaneously (Adam Kirsch’s “Technology is Taking Over English Departments,” for instance), most focuses on either digital methodology or digital publication. For the sake of sanity, I will also be treating them separately.

Computing facilitated new avenues for scholarly analysis. While, in the strictest sense, all the techniques currently lauded as “new” since the advent of computers were possible through brute human force, they were practically unachievable due to the sheer brute-ness of the force required. Digitized indices allow for sophisticated and speedy searching and creations such as optical character readers (OCRs) and handwritten text recognition (HTR) are constantly adding to the body of machine-searchable content. This newfound searching capability expedites the quest for knowledge exponentially, but is not without its dangers for a researcher who does not consider digital hermeneutics (a third layer of criticism to examine why a particular source was digitized and how it came to be selected as a search result). In addition to the speeding of effectively “traditional” research methods, programs such as Google’s “Ngram” viewer allow analysis of data at quantities beyond the reasonable scope of a human researcher.

Digital publication is, perhaps, much easier to grasp. The internet has given us the ability to transmit our thoughts farther and faster than we have ever yet been able. Personal websites allow us to cultivate and maintain an image of ourselves over which we have complete control. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter connect us with others in short-form engagements and conversation-starters. Online journals present the opportunity to publish entirely online, our work immediately available to any who want it and searchable by those employing digital research methodologies. The seismic shift with online publication is not so much the means itself, but rather the audiences it opens and the speed at which it allows communication. It is absolutely true that academics are from necessity learning how to communicate more effectively with lay and amateur audiences. Twitter threads are almost poetic in their attention to word choice and self-support. “Thumbnail History” is now a legitimate mode for a serious researcher wishing to present their work in digestible, but no less rigorous, packets that maintain pacing and flow. Fully interactive media now allow someone to follow their curiosity geographically simply by clicking around an online map, a new story around every virtual corner. The humanities grasped the printing press with both hands and employed it to its full advantage–it is only natural that the humanities are doing the same with digital publication.

Digital humanities are simply the newest expression and evolution of steady disciplines. It is absolutely the case that older methods of storing and engaging with knowledge–books, archives, and the like–will maintain their value to researchers. There is also no doubt that humans will remain essential to the humanities. Digitization allows for the expansion of our disciplines, not their depredations. Change brings angst, but beyond the angst lies the opportunity.

3 Replies to “Digital Humanities”

  1. Hey Neil,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Overall, it was quite informative and well written. I was however somewhat confused on what you meant by “brute human force.” Could you elaborate on this a little more? Personally, I found the advent of digital archives to be one of the most useful and rewarding areas of digital humanities. It is almost impossible to read a history book published in the past few years that does not include at least one digital archive. Clearly many exciting tools are becoming available to humanists, yet is this purely beneficial to the humanities?

    1. I struggled with the phrasing there… I mean that humans can, on a strictly technical basis, do any of the operations a computer does by simply doing them (brute force). It will just be drastically slower and less accurate.

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