Digital Humanities Talk at CIS

Posted by Sara Morais at Aug 01, 2013 06:55 AM |
In an attempt to contextualize the digital humanities work within the CIS network of projects, Sara Morais held a talk on the advantages and problems in doing digital humanities work. Following is the transcript of the talk with a video of the presentation.

Digital humanities is a broad field which is difficult to summarize. However, this is an attempt to map out the field and make it accessible, so that it can possibly be used interdisciplinary as a tool and a value statement for other work happening at CIS. Starting from the term itself, digital humanities suggests a connection with the field of humanities research. So firstly I'd like to look at recent developments in traditional humanities, that may or may not have caused an evolution towards the digital prefix.

Humanities itself is a field that has undergone various forms of criticism in the last years. Some of them include people claiming that there is a lack of relevance in humanities work, and that it includes to much ideology or relativism, to say everything is a cultural perception. Others have said that humanities has sacrificed the quality of its research work for mere quantity and it has been said that enrollments in humanities fields have gone down a lot, mostly in accordance to an increase in enrollments in sciences. For maybe all of those reasons there has been a claimed lack of funding for humanities projects and researchers are finding it harder to make their research available to the public. Many humanists have therefore proclaimed the humanities to be in crisis.

Whether or not this is true can be debated, however, I would like to look at the definition of a crisis according to Thomas Kuhn as he describes it in The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962). Now the picture in the background is an illustration Kuhn uses to make his point. As you can see, depending on how you look at the picture, it can show a rabbit, or a duck. Kuhn uses this image to explain how the crisis merely introduces the beginning of a paradigm shift. A paradigm is something that is believed to be true at a certain time by the majority of the scientific community. It includes not only the theory itself, but the very worldview into which the theory is made existent. As we broadly accept knowledges to be submissive to change, the paradigm can come into crisis, when a large number of researchers have reason to believe that it can no longer be valid. Once this crisis is overcome, a paradigm shift has taken place, which can make the very same information to be seen in a different way. Going back to the illustration, this means that if everyone priorly believed for it to show a duck, they now see that it actually shows a rabbit. The crisis, therefore, is merely the rethinking of knowledges and information and is something fruitful to the development of knowledge production.

So if we accept that the humanities are in crisis, the question is: can the digital humanities provide a way out of the crisis?

The question is firstly, what is this thing called digital humanities. The difficulty that comes with mapping out this still emerging field is, that researchers are still reluctant to even summarize it in such broad terms. As it arises from a generally postmodern acceptance of diverse identities, the digital humanities themselves cannot agree on being summarized as one discipline. Rather, researchers agree for it to be a multi-disciplinary field, or even non-field, as one might say. For the sake of simplicity I will address it as a field, however it is important to state that it incorporates many disciplines that may or may not see themselves as part of the digital humanities, like games studies, librarianship, archival work, etc.

Then, looking at its historical development we can see, that digital humanities are derived from something that was called humanities computing. According to David Berry, humanities computing was often seen merely as technical support to the 'real' humanist work. So the computer was first mainly seen as a tool. With the discoursive transition to digital humanities, there was a suggestion of dividing digital humanities into waves, the first wave incorporating mainly the digitization of analog content and increased use of ICTs as tools, as has been suggested. With the second wave, the internet became the domestic and central medium, influencing research work to become more generative, producing online content and using web 2.0 as an interactive and more collaborative way of sharing knowledges. This includes looking at research objects that are 'born digital', as one would say, and therefore it is said that the second wave of digital humanities embraces the values of the internet. It remains to be seen if this division will be useful for future reference, however it has been suggested that possibly the digital humanities are entering a third stage.

This is yet to be seen, however it has become clear that current digital humanities research takes the computational and digital turn for granted, which means that technologies induce the very grounds on which theories are conceived. This has induced an increased focus on 'building' and access through digitization of work, as I have explained priorly. This building includes the creation of infrastructure for the digitizations, and revolves around tool-building for digital content. Therefore, digital humanities have put a large focus on multimedial forms of knowledge production and mostly try to lessen the textual input into knowledge productions.

Digital media aesthetics now play a big part in the production of knowledges and digital humanities put a lot of effort into designing their projects to include videos, graphs and data that can be examined through non-textual media.

With this new form of knowledge production, new values have been declared for the digital humanities, to conform to the working ways of the internet. These values include openness, collaboration, diversity and experimentation, to accommodate the main question which is: what happens at the intersection of computing tools with cultural artefacts?

Now the first problem I have with this question stated in the digital humanities quarterly magazine, is that in my opinion the computer and computational tools are cultural artefacts themselves. But lets first have a look at what digital humanities do and are doing with these suppositions. During our digital humanities consultation 2 weeks ago it was suggested that digital humanities work can roughly be clustered into four different research areas. One, concerning modes of scholarship and academia, one creating knowledge repositories and archives, then as a research modality or methodology, and lastly as a set of skills, with which questions of the humanities and what it means to be human can be regarded with.

As one can see, a lot of these suggest digital humanities to be creating knowledges outside of traditional academic structures, and creating tools to reproduce these knowledges online. The question is therefore, is digital humanities only about building infrastructure? Or more harshly phrased: Where's the content?

According to what I have said up until now, the main activities of digital humanities seems to be archiving and digitizing content for the sake of increased accessibility. While doing so, digital humanities are deconstructing the hegemony of text over the visual and giving designers an equal position as co-authors, thereby changing the perception of authorship as it has been used in academia and for textual work. So the perception of a single author is deconstructed, as designing and publishing your work in some way adds to the way knowledges are perceived. This of course impacts on the way credit needs to be given to authors, which is why the traditional academic notion of granting credit is being challenged. So a lot of the questions evolve around acknowledging alternative knowledges that are being produced outside of the classroom and within its new digitized realms.

As we have seen, however, a lot of the proceedings of digital humanities up until now have made questions arise. Is there really a connection between traditional humanities and DH? Is DH all about infrastructure? From these and many other questions, a critical way of reviewing the digital humanities has arisen, which articulates the problems when doing digital humanities work.

First of all, many digital humanists in teaching positions have articulated difficulties in curricularizing the field. As it is constantly changing and evolving and the digital itself is a very contemporary medium, summarizing it as a course curriculum is not an easy task. This is a minor complication which gives rise to many other questions, like whether or not the digital humanities are really something new in a sense that their values, the values of openness, collaboration, experimentation and diversity might suggest novelty. Stating for example collaboration to be a value, implies that before knowledge was not being produced

in a collaborative way before. But then, no knowledge is created from the genius of one single author, humanities have always called upon priorly existing knowledges to state their case and tried to make their own points openly accessible to a broad spectrum of people. Placing diversity as a value, too, can be problematic, as diversifying always implies that there is a norm from which one is straying. The same can be said about experimentation, as it implies a laboratory sense of knowledge production. Within the laboratory and the sciences that work in those, experimentation is a try and error procedure, which hints at there being an objective truth, which needs to be found. In that way the values proclaimed by the digital humanities are either not necessarily new values, or actually take a step back towards seeing knowledges as a given and not a construct.

Also, there has been the claim that merely providing access in form of producing content online, will not resolve social inequalities. It is the quality of access that needs to be scrutinized and also that one cannot simply provide gadgets but must look at the social structures which allow or prevent people from being included in the digital discourse.

Furthermore, building implies a lack of theory, in a sense that digital humanists are just creating content, building websites and making videos, without really theorizing why it is they are doing so and what needs to be accomplished with this building. If building is the main goal of digital humanities, are only people allowed to be DH if they can code? And surely, if it is not possible to summarize the digital humanities as a field, how can there even be theory on it?

As several of these discussions are held online, the question of longevity of knowledge is also an important one. When using twitter to have a DH discourse, how does one preserve this knowledge for the future? Is it legitimate to quote a twitter feed?Within the digital realms it is very difficult to achieve the authority priorly obtained through citation and textual publishing. Online, one cannot perceive who produces what with what authority, and there is little or no engagement with what has been left out for what reason. Also, a lot of the metadata created is not available to human reviewers, as it is only read by computer algorithms. What to do with that data, when one cannot just read it but should not simply ignore it as it is creating the very realms within which discourse takes place. What does this created metadata mean for humanity and for the social or the political? /slide

Mike Kent has claimed that a new digital divide has come up, which summarizes all subalternity under the umbrella of people who cannot use digital technologies (properly). Properly is in brackets, as using digital technologies without a proper awareness of what one is doing and creating can not only exclude a person from a discourse but can also make that persons technological infrastructure fail through for example viruses or cyberattacks of which one might not be aware without proper computer literacy. We are using computers, although many of us do not understand them properly. Therefore computer literacy is very limited and many of us cannot say we are literate as we would be with books we read. Other than that, of course there are many people who do not feel the need to go online, or cannot for lack of infrastructure. The subaltern – which is being summarized by Mike Kent to include all oppressed and dispossessed – therefore becomes one diffuse category, which makes it even more difficult to create an equal environment, as the understanding of what it is those people need is lacking. Moreover, this exclusion is not visible and people being excluded might not be aware of their position, as the knowledge distribution happens somewhere they do not have access to. The only possibility of addressing this, therefore, is speaking on behalf of the subaltern, which never really gives them a possibility to speak for themselves, and addressing the issues of others always means something or other will be omitted, mainly race, gender and class as categories of inequality. This reaffirms the perception that the internet is a male-dominated, white and western space, which is mainly english-speaking. These beliefs are mirrored in the capitalistic production of infrastructure, as computers are not being produced with for example Indian language keyboards or language options and people have little reason to think of the internet as a space in which their local language is represented. With this come the problems of translation of meaning and so it is difficult for digital 'intellectuals' – to use that word with care – to fill the existing knowledge gaps.

Some of these problems have however been articulated within the community and the one or other solution has been proposed. For one, George Williams has proposed the concept of universal design to become more inclusive on the technical side. Universal design proposes to view all technology as 'assistive' and therefore designers should include not only visual material but see their work as overcoming all barriers one might have, be it visual or other impairments.This breaks with the normative perspective of the body functioning in a certain way and deconstructs the understanding of disabilities as an aberration of the norm. Universal design therefore benefits not only disabled people, but all people. As Williams puts it, “whether in a physical or digital environment, designers are always making choices about accessibility. However, not all designers are aware of how their choices affect accessibility. Universal design is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all, and it is a philosophy that should be adopted more widely by digital humanities scholars”.

Johanna Drucker suggests a linguistic transfer from data to capta, to include the notion that data is something that is being produced and to stop the naturalization of data. With that she suggests a change in the way e.g. graphics are produced, so instead of using a bar diagram one should consider making those bars more fluent to include the possible overlapping of research categories.

Also, once we have accepted the fact that we are all cyborgs and no one exists without technology, it is impossible to view the digital apart from humanity, or humanity apart from the digital. So mere tool-building and the dismissal of content as something we'll worry about later in DH, is and should not be possible. It is important to engage in critical tool-building, activism, content and theory.

Therefore we need to find a way to deal with data, and the complex relationship it has with reality. Data is producing this reality we are moving in and therefore inseperable from it, and yet we cannot see or engage with it. We must however accept that it is one of the main things constructing online reality and data development has great impact on social development, the two are inseparable.

So, to summarize, there is not necessarily a direct development from humanities to digital humanities. Digital humanities may and may not include questions of the social, the political and the human. Tool building in digital humanities should, however, always be critical, social and political. It is important to get minorities actively using digital tools, and awareness to the social inequalities preventing them from getting access is a first step. So digital citizens should not only consume but also produce knowledges from their perspective and add to the online discourse.


Suggested readings:

Burdick, A. et. al (ed.)(2012): Digital_Humanities. MIT Press

Gold, M. (ed.)(2012): Debates in the Digital Humanities. U Minnesota Press

Kolko, B. et. al. (2000): Race in Cyberspace. Routledge 

Drucker, J. (): Humanities Approach to Graphical Display. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Accessed on 1st August 2013: