Digital Inhumanities

An in-depth look at the debate over using digital technologies in the humanities

The above cartoon is an apt description of myself after reading several articles about digital humanities for my history class. I waded through various articles that gave detailed information using terms such as cultural analytics, media-theory of composition, computational linguistics, and digital curation. For a moment I thought that I may have accidentally been enrolled in a computer programming course. As I continued reading, I came across several more unfamiliar terms such as culturomics, philology, epistemology and hermeneutics. 

After having just received my bachelor’s degree in history this past spring, I considered myself reasonably qualified to enter into the world as an “educated historian.” After reading about digital humanities, I now realize that my safe undergraduate world of Kate Turabian, the JFK Library database, and Patterson Hall was nothing more than the dome that Truman resided in on The Truman Show. I was just made aware that there is a huge world of connected technologies within the discipline I love so much, history. It’s almost like learning for the first time that your beloved has been taking salsa lessons behind your back.  

While the actual definition of digital humanities seems to be constantly in flux, the following is a simplified version of the definition that can be found on Wikipedia: “Digital humanities is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities.” There can be no doubt that technology, in our society, is here to stay. Perhaps only a few of the academic disciplines could successfully say they are indifferent to an increase in the use of technology in today’s culture. However, the role that technology plays inside certain disciplines is yet to be decided. And apparently, at times, hotly debated.  

After a cursory look at the ongoing debate over technology in the humanities, it appears that there are two different camps over the issue. Adam Kirsch, in his article Technology Is Taking Over Our English Departments: The false promise of the digital humanites, sums up both sides rather well. He states on the one hand there are those who believe that digital humanities “can be simply the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts.” Then he goes on to say that there are those on the other side who claim that “digital humanities represent a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture itself, spurring a change not just in the medium of humanistic work but also in its very substance.” Kirsch also points out that these are the same individuals stating “either get on board or stand athwart it and get run over.”Whether or not this is true, there are some points of caution that are brought up that should be considered before blindly jumping off the digital diving board into the deep end of the humanities pool. For example: What is the process through which the digital source has been made available? How can digital humanities be applied in pedagogical terms? Is there a selection bias of search engines that influence the literature that is consulted? Is there a lack of racial diversity?

One disconcerting bit of information while reading these articles about digital humanities, is that the humanities in general are in decline in regards to funding, as well as a certain perceived “prestige.” It would be tragic if any discipline at any university changed its methods out of a necessity to meet financial demands. Speaking for the discipline of history, I view it just as important as any STEM class available. Should a push towards more technology into the discipline take place because it is in need of funding? I would hope not. Although I know that universities across the board are struggling. I would hope that the only reason that technology would increase is because it is good for the discipline and enables students to be more successful in studying history.      

There is a question that is posed on the Wikipedia page that I believe is the ultimate question that needs to be answered when it comes to digital humanities: How is knowledge transformed when mediated through code and software? It seems to me that if you are researching the Salem Witch Trials, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, or Jim Crow laws, the history is the history, regardless if technology is used or not. But who am I to say? I still don’t know the definition of hermeneutics. 

2 thoughts on “Digital Inhumanities”

  1. Brian

    Great Job on the blog! The picture you used as the display for the post basically summarizes how I felt when I was looking over our materials for this week and was trying to conceptualize just what digital humanities was. It certainly is quite the topic to wrap your head around. Digital humanities is almost like an organism or something, because it constantly needs to evolve, rely on human improvements and advancements and also needs to constantly update. It kind of takes me back to the history of disease, when summarizing it like that. However, digital humanities seems to be quite fascinating because it also relies heavily on not having a set definition. Instead of a blueprint, or having a written page to it with nothing left to add, it works more like a web – meaning that it has definitions and subjects and words attached to it, but not one specific thing that you generalize as the whole meaning. Digital humanities sort of works like the internet itself like that, because it connects all these different networks together and finds connections to its ends. I like the question you ended the post with:

    “There is a question that is posed on the Wikipedia page that I believe is the ultimate question that needs to be answered when it comes to digital humanities: How is knowledge transformed when mediated through code and software?”

    That is a very excellent question. It seems that digital humanities must also maneuver around the issues of both human and computer alike, which will require constant analysis.

    Lastly, I also wanted to note the excellent point you made, when you said: “One disconcerting bit of information while reading these articles about digital humanities, is that the humanities in general are in decline in regards to funding, as well as a certain perceived “prestige.”
    This is a great point to bring up. In C. Anneike Romein’s article, it was discussed that digital humanities did decline in enthusiasm in 1980’s. For a field that require constant analysis, supervision, adaptation, transformation and updating, it also needs the necessary enthusiasm to drive it. It will be interesting to see how multiple experts can resolve the issues of both computer, and the declining drive of humankind to further progress this field to maximize the preservation of data and research for the sake of the future.

    1. Hello Brandon
      Wow! Thank you so much for the very thorough response to my blog. I really appreciate it. I have to wonder if this assignment was Dr. Cebula’s way of throwing us in the deep end of digital humanities and making us swim (another pool analogy). Perhaps because it is such a wide and varied topic that not everyone is in consensus on, this seems like the best way to let us jump in and get our feet wet (there I go again). Nonetheless, it has been fascinating learning about this topic, which it is very clear to me now that I had no clue really as to what it was about. Should be an interesting class. It already is. Thanks again Brandon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *