Report back: IRCHSS Symposium: Digital Humanities – New Frontiers, Trinity College, Dublin, 14 October 2009

A one day seminar was held at Trinity College Dublin on Wednesday 14 October to discuss Ireland’s contributions to the Digital Humanities and the possible futures of the field within Ireland. The seminar, held in a skilfully restored 19th Century Anatomy lecture theatre, was attended by representatives from government, the Irish Research Council (IRCHSS), universities, and industry (Microsoft, IBM, Intel). The keynote speaker was Professor Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft’s External Research and former head of the UK’s eScience Core Programme. Other attendees included the Irish Minister of Education, the Provost of Trinity College, the Director of the Digital Humanities Observatory Ireland, and representatives from IBM and Intel’s research divisions.

Professor Hey discussed ‘eScience’ and how it may be a new way to do science. He discussed the shift from experimental science to data intensive science. He explained that building datasets, using datasets, and analysing datasets had become a ‘new paradigm’ within scientific research. However, this shift is not exclusive to scientific research and ‘eScience’ offers new opportunities to the humanities as well. But there is a need to put data into a form and create the tools that are useful for the humanities (putting data into a useful form is partly the work of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s and the Digital Humanities Observatory). He showed some of the work of Microsoft including a video presentation, transcription and annotation system called Project Tuva. This project features the work of Dr Richard Feynman, a famous scientist at Cornell, and allows users to search and annotate videos of his lectures. .

Although not really Digital Humanities, he did show some of the other work of Microsoft’s 800 plus research scientists scattered around the world. Some of this work admittedly made me a bit nervous, especially Microsoft’s data centres that are each about the size of Dublin. The data centres represent a shift in Internet thinking from the autonomous computing and storage capacities of desktops (and various institutional computing facilities), to large centralised warehouses controlled by corporations such as Microsoft. Professor Hey touted the benefits of data centres for ‘cloud computing’ (ie. use of tools and services at a remote location), but in my mind, these centres give a lot of control to Microsoft and we must take it on good faith that Microsoft will always have our best interests in mind.

Martin Curley, Director of IT innovation at Intel Information Technology (based in Ireland), responded to Hey’s talk, but unfortunately at times, deferred to the flabby arguments of technological determinism with the usual utopian visions of ‘more computers make things better’ (why do utopian visions never imagine free Guinness?). He did make some interesting points about the ‘grand challenges’ facing the world and how these are, in part, being addressed through European Commissions Framework 7 Programme (focussed upon building the research infrastructure capacities in Europe). Humanists must always work alongside scientists in addressing ‘grand challenges’ as we already know that the ice caps are melting and that the world is running out of oil, but we also desperately need to understand the potentially catastrophic societal dimensions of this (and surly part of the cause is rampant consumerism driven by corporate globalism, but I would never infer such a thing in such company).

Other presentations during the day included more content-specific presentations such as the magnificent 1641 Depositions Project, presented by Dr Marie Wallace, that contains 20, 000 pages of witness testimonials about the massacre of Protestants in Ireland in 1641. Dr Seth Denbo discussed the DARAIH project (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) and its aim to link researchers to important data sets held in major data centres throughout Europe. The project has 14 partners in 10 countries and plans to build a ‘discovery architecture’ so that researchers can find important data resources and incorporate them into their working practices and solve ‘real world’ research problems.

Dr Susan Schreibman, the Director of the Digital Humanities Observatory (DHO), discussed the work of her centre and emphasised the importance of building the human infrastructure as well as the technical infrastructure to support the research community. She explained that the Digital Humanities is not only about technical capacities, it is also about people and practices. I would like to think this is always the case, but often the short-term practical solution, devoid of the critical, contextual, and reflective apparatus of the humanists, triumphs. If we don’t understand the humanistic context of the technologies that we use (ie. how they help us understand human society), then we don’t always know how to apply the right technical solution to the right humanist problem. Computing, if poorly considered, can also damage scholarship and our relationship with the human record.

The seminar ended with a reception at the Provost’s house, Professor Andy Orchard, on the grounds of Trinity College.

Projects/papers/resources presented at the seminar include:


Anatomy lecture theatre, Trinity College, Dublin

Anatomy lecture theatre, Trinity College, Dublin



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