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.
The sex appeal of Silicon valley, in other words, comes largely from the fact that it is now the culture of “coding” that helps constitute the core of capitalism as an economic and managerial practice, as a cultural system, and as a way of life. The nerds’ visions of computational mastery are now also the dreams of those who desire success, and the physical locus of that economic and cultural constellation is San Francisco.
This then brings me to the digital humanities. For it is against this radical shift in our cultural, social and economic way of life that I think we should understand its emergence. Because whatever else the digital humanities is or may become, it is important to acknowledge that it is primarily an epiphenomenon of the tectonic encounter between this world of computing, with its newly acquired “Silicon Valley sex appeal,” and the world of ideas. That, I think, is the “Why” of digitial humanities: digital humanities is happening because the universities and the scholars can no longer isolate their practices and methodologies from this cultural sea change that the computational socioeconomic revolution has produced.
But what of the “What” of digital humanities? Here for the moment, I want to simply draw some broad outlines as a way of beginning to define what one might define as the contents of this new domain. The digital humanities appears to me to have three dimensions: it is, on a strictly material level, a new funding domain within the university and the academic job market; it is a domain of reflection regarding the broad meaning of this encounter between the computational culture and the humanities; and it is an arena of coding and experimentation precisely at this juncture of technology and software culture, on the one hand, and ideas, scholarship, books, and critique, on the other.
These domains of experimentation, in turn, can I think be divided into four sets of questions, namely: (1) What are the implications of technology for publishing? Is the book a form of expression that can and should survive digitally? If not, what instead? (2) What are the implications of web technology for teaching and pedagogy? Should we harness the digital in the classroom? What about MOOCs? Are they a good tool? Will they replace the intimacy of the classical classroom? Should they? (3) How can computational tools be harnessed to manage problems related to data analysis in the different disciplines? How can we use these tools to ask different questions about classical forms of data? How, on the other hand, can we harness computers to deal with the massive proliferation of data – the so-called “big data” – that the digital age is itself generating? (4) And finally, how can and should the network and the new web technologies transform the modes of communication that scholars maintain, both between themselves and with the many different “publics” that lie outside the academy?
These domains of experimentation are at this stage just being cracked open. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the money is just now flowing back into the associations, funding institutions, and universities. So we do not yet know what will come out of this encounter between the new computational-capitalist cultural order and the academy. It promises, however, to be potentially seismic in scope and consequence. The stakes are high on both sides. The values that reside at the core of Silicon Valley – the desire to break down all cultural walls, the valuation of “openness” and “open access”, the pursuit of managerial forms that seek out constant experimentation, change, and disruption, and the attempt to embrace speed – are values that clash sharply with the cultural practices and habitus central to professionalized scholarly training. How exactly scholars and university administrators, on the one hand, and technologists and entrepreneurs, on the other, will negotiate these sharp difference is still unclear.
Rightly, many scholars challenged to “open up” their knowledge will wonder about the consequences of doing so. Will opening up threaten the cultures of inquiry and exchange that make it possible for scholars to discuss difficult issues such as class and race? Will the emphasis on speed and “hacked” solutions that is so common in tech culture undermine attempts to produce analyses that are carefully wrought, accurate, and which can stand the test of time? Perhaps more immediately, many scholars will also wonder whether the challenge to “open up” is just an invitation to further neo-liberalization within the university.
Indeed, one can already see these clashes occurring surrounding the emergence of MOOCs, which although they wonderfully expand the availability of knowledge to the wider world, also encourage university administrators to employ fewer full-time scholars as teachers and hire more highly exploited adjuncts to cover local teaching loads.3 Thus the cultural ethos of Silicon Valley, which so values what a friend of mine recently referred to as the “power to disrupt” as a prompt for creative solutions, will to many scholars sound a lot like free-market freewheeling. Some will of course welcome this market dynamism, but others will be wary, especially if it threatens their own economic well-being and cultural authority.
Although it is far too soon to judge the results of this encounter, the meeting of these two powerful cultural domains promises to be both interesting and important. The history of this process will likely define the future character of our cultural world, one which precisely because the internet is so effective as a communications tool, will be shared on a more global level.
What’s at stake, of course, is very much a question of authority. Since the emergence of the universities in the middle ages, the idea of the humanities has often been associated with the goal of subjecting tradition and society to critical examination. As Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently put it, “[t]heir purpose was precisely not to be instrumental: to examine theories and instances, to pose questions and the means of their solution, but not to propose practical objectives or strategies.”4 In order to reserve this space for critical inquiry, universities and scholars have always at different time and places had to negotiate different settlements with the worlds of markets and politics. By my reading, the advent of the digital humanities suggests that a new moment of renegotiation and cultural transformation has begun, the outcome of which will reshape the universities’ relationship to the world, and indeed possibly also transform the methods, practices, and even the subjectivities of working scholars.
I myself am curious about the outcome of this process, and look forward to being a critical participant in its unfolding. To that extent, I intend to document from time to time both my thinking about digital humanities and my coding work in this blog.
Moira Weigel, “Graphs and Legends: Raymond Williams Tried to Save Culture from a Priestly Elite. Can the Same Be Said of the Digital Humanities?,” The Nation, June 1, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/207193/graphs-and-legends.↩
Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1997); Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005); Blair Taylor, “From alterglobalization to Occupy Wall Street: Neoanarchism and the new spirit of the left.” City 17:6 (2013) pp. 729-747.↩
On this trend, see Democratic Staff, “The Just-In-Time Professor: A Staff Report Sumarizing eforum Responses On The Working Conditions Of Contingent Faculty In Higher Education” (House Committee on Education and the Workforce, 2014), accessed 31 May 2015.↩
Jo Guldi & David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 6.↩