In the last few years, the field of digital humanities has emerged to some prominence. “Digi Labs” are suddenly appearing all across the academic landscape, and one now meets graduate students who are not only writing PhDs in one of the classic disciplines, but who also belong to digital lab or institutes of some sort. What I want to do in this post is define in an expansive way what I think this new field of “digital humanities” is, and why it has suddenly in the last few years become more visible.
My own background in relation to academia and “the digital” is a useful tool for reflection in tracing this story. I am a historian, trained in the craft of intellectual history, and I have always also been a programmer. When I was quite young my uncle taught me to program in the popular and very simple language BASIC. I subsequently continued to program, building a database for a research lab in highschool, studying computer science alongside history and literature at university, and then working just prior to entering graduate school as an “integration specialist” – a great bureaucratic job title if there ever was one – in a company that built Ask Jeeves-style “Virtual Representatives” for companies like Coca Cola.
For much of my life these two domains of interest, the world of computing and the world of books and ideas, were miles apart. In fact, they represented opposing ideals. Books and ideas represented humanism and learning, and I realized later a specific kind of authority that emanated from “Culture.” Computers, by contrast, were initially a toy and a novelty for me, and then, as I began to understand them, a source of power, both because of the things that they could do and because of my ability to understand them when many others found them frustrating and unfathomable. But for all the power they contained, the culture surrounding computers seemed to me unable to compete with the deep well of humanistic cultural authority that emanated from the great works of history, philosophy and literature that I read more and more of. Computers may have been powerful but in the culture that surrounded me they were also understood to be dull and inhuman; they could crunch huge amounts of data at amazing speeds but that, by itself, was of questionable value.
Indeed, this great chasm between the world of thought and the world of computation seemed rather obvious for a long time; it was part of the general culture. “Nerds” liked computers. Liking computers meant you possibly had less interest in the beautiful, the profound, or the political; and given the gendered nature of computer culture, as a teenager, it also meant you probably were a young man who was less into dating and romance, that you were socially awkward and stilted when it came to the social world, to sexuality, to human interaction. You were in the grip of the purely technical, of the special fascination that computers themselves offered. You were, in essence, into computers for computer’s sake.
Even the place of the PC in the typical middle-class home in the 80s and 90s made this great chasm evident: as genuinely amazing as the PC was, they still seemed rather cumbersome and segmented off from life proper, sitting in their special corner of the house, just like the piano perhaps, something to play with and practice…if you were into that sort of thing. At university, where I took computer science courses, whilst seeing myself more culturally ensconced in the humanities, I therefore looked with suspicion at the self-confident young programmers in the computer science department, who talked joyfully about algorithms & data structures and seemed convinced that the future was theirs. I knew they were right somehow; that their authority was on the rise. But I couldn’t quite see it.
Now, however, this whole cultural constellation that maintained a chasm between computers and the more expressive parts of our culture has changed radically. The smartphones we carry around around in our pockets are vastly more powerful than the PCs that graced our living rooms. They mesh subtly with our daily lives. We today are already essentially cyborgs, augmented by computers in a way not unlike the Terminator. Programming, or what is now more commonly referred to in its more hacker-chic variant as “coding”, is no longer a nerdy subculture; in fact, it has become sexy and sleek. Silicon valley has become a byword for all that is dynamic, exciting and new. A recent article in The Nation on the digital humanities and culture, referred to “Silicon Valley sex appeal”1 – certainly a radical shift away from the nerds of yore. Indeed, it’s not just that the now enlarged culture surrounding computational technology has become cool or acquired some cultural sheen, but the culture around computers and around software development, and the sense of the power and possibilities of computation that once was the primary domain of computer geeks, has migrated to the center of our economic way of life.
In the same way that critical theorists like Thomas Frank, Boltanski & Chiapello, and Blair Taylor describe the ways that capitalism has “recuperated” for its own purposes the creative ethos of the artist, the anti-hierarchical and identitarian critiques of the New Left, and the radical anarchism of the alterglobalization movement, the market has also taken into its core the ethos of the software developer.2 One instance of this process becomes evident when looking over the “agile manifesto” – the source of the latest en vogue managerial style on the lips of every entrepreneur from Silicon Valley to Berlin to Moscow. One realizes through its elevation of “Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools” and “Responding to change over following a plan” that there were always large overlaps between the 60s New Left and hacker culture.
This is a realization that in turn reveals the historical logic that has made Silicon Valley & San Francisco the new core of market innovation – San Francisco of all places! Where once Mario Savio, brimming with anger, stood up to the Berkeley administration for subordinating free-speech on campus to the bureaucratic logic of the military industrial complex, now the agile manifesto takes a similar emphasis on individual freedom and builds it into a managerial ethos for Silicon Valley. Bright young college grads stream to the city, not in search of political change and sexual liberation, but as a playground for technological innovation and as a place where the individual creativity and motivation can be liberated (if you are lucky) in the context of high volumes of seed money.