I woke up in Spokane to rain. A wet, cold day to mark the beginning of Fall. I reached for my phone and swiped through digital spaces for a respite from waking. On the last app of my digital routine – Reddit – I encountered a livestream. A user in Kenya was broadcasting his walk home from work. When it’s morning in Spokane, it’s evening in Narok, Kenya, and this schoolteacher was strolling through town at dusk. A cow ambled past him. Motorcycles whirred through the frame. Shops blasted tinny music. A friend waved to the camera as the live-streamer cheerfully fielded questions about life in his hometown from hundreds of real-time viewers and commenters located around the globe.
It was an auspicious way to start learning about humanities in the digital age.
Disruption is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the private sector. We spend less time considering technological changes in social institutions such as education and scholarship. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were perhaps the most familiar novelty until COVID made online learning a sudden necessity for students around the world – myself included.
It’s an interesting time to join the discussion that’s been simmering among humanities scholars about their relationship with the digital world.
If humanities weren’t a broad enough term in the first place, try adding digital to the front of it, and you’re left referring to an uncomfortably large swath of scholarship, uncertain of its own benefits and limitations.
In the academic journal History, the article “State of the Field: Digital History” by Romein, et. al does a great job of stressing the tremendous range and complexity of the field.
This new assortment of tools exists both in the creation and dissemination of humanities scholarship. Information can be translated into formats like TEI (text) or RDF (data) and collected into something like the LOD Cloud. Google’s Knowledge Graph is an example of the accessible outcome. Deep/Enriched texts are another great demonstration of this brave new world. This post uses hyperlinking for enrichment, modernizing a referencing process as old as the Library of Alexandria.
Simultaneously, the field’s shortcomings are on display. The Valley of the Shadow – considered the earliest digital-first history text – is breaking down, with numerous dead or outdated links. Success stories, such as Ngram or wordhoard have a questionable utility beyond the field of linguists.
The novelty of something like easy quantitative analysis, done rapidly on a massive scale, recalls McNamara’s charts during the Vietnam War: It’s far easier to present statistics than it is to learn something new from them.
Hence the uncertainty in humanities regarding these very new digital tools. The Wikipedia page for Digital Humanities does a great job of surveying these criticisms, and in his article for the New Republic, “The False Promise of the Digital Humanities” Adam Kirsch inflates these same criticisms to pearl-clutching extremes: the death of writing! The death of scholarship! the death of individualism itself!
While Kirsch’s hysterics (the humanities are revolting!) are easily set aside (it’s worth noting that Kirsch is trying to interest a public audience, compared to Romein’s staid academic readership) there’s truth beneath his hyperbole: the novelty of new technology easily distracts or detracts from the necessary work of the humanities.
The real mess in these bird’s-eye overviews is their tendency towards absolutes. There’s an either/or attitude in Kirsch, certainly, and in the digital proselytizers he opposes. But scholarship is not a zero-sum game (unlike funding…) a reality easily demonstrated by anyone who takes the time to view a specific example of a project, like Oldham’s “San Juan County – Thumbnail History” from the excellent Historylink.org website.
Oldham didn’t burn any books to publish this historical primer. It’s a well-written text enriched by easy accessibility, great illustrations, and an embedded google map. The same can be said about the many geo-tagged stories on islandhistories.com.
While a cocktail of fallacies (slippery slope, black-and-white, etc.) stains Kirsch’s rejection of technology in the humanities, the publicly vetted criticisms listed on Wikipedia provide a more even perspective. Anyone relying on computer code, algorithms, or search engines in scholarly endeavors has an obligation to comprehend the functionality of these tools. Technology’s problems with accessibility, cultural hegemony, and implicit bias are all realities that cannot be ignored. Nor can they be regarded as insurmountable obstacles to creating and disseminating the very necessary work of the humanities now and in the future. In the creation and consumption of humanities scholarship, the digital world is here to stay.