Towards an inconvenient Digital Humanities

Next year will be a reasonably big year on the Digital Humanities calendar in Australia. In March, we will hold THATCamp here at the University of Melbourne and also, and we will establish our very own Digital Humanities Association in the first quarter of 2011. In the year’s second half, I will run a symposium with a Digital Humanities theme, possibly on reading or Virtual Research Environments. There are also a number of projects in which VeRSI is involved that will come to fruition in 2011.

In terms of a regional Association, a lot of work must be done. The term ‘Digital Humanities’ isn’t widely used in Australia, but I have found little resistance to its use within the forums in which I have participated or organised. It is important to use the term ‘Digital Humanities’ as it is well understood in the US and Europe, and as with all good research; we need to engage with the depth and breadth of knowledge in the field both locally and internationally so that this knowledge can be advanced (both locally and internationally). Plus, we must acknowledge all the hard work of humanities scholars to establish the field over many decades. Digital Humanities is research-led and not service-led. There are already a lot of excellent support mechanisms to support general computing in the humanities, but the real gap lies in research computing. By ‘research computing’, I mean using computers in a meaningful way to answer research questions (i.e. the work of the  ‘Digital Humanities’). As an example of this, the Founders and Survivors project uses linking methodologies to link records about the convict experience in Tasmania and uncover new knowledge about convicts. Convicts are the significant founding population of Australia, and the use of computing methodologies in this instance is establishing new knowledge about this population.

The Digital Humanities isn’t about publishing a facsimile of a document online and then getting excited about this newfound convenience. I have never heard of a Historian arguing the case for ‘convenience’ in a historical thesis. Research is inconvenient; it is about asking inconvenient questions. It isn’t simply about creating new access to digital facsimiles of a document (this is why we have Google, which does a pretty average job). It is about creating machine-readable texts that retain and advance the interpretative layer of that text. And the Digital Humanities isn’t Benthamite, utilitarian, or modernist. These ideas are usually associated with industry and government water utilities. The Digital Humanities is about culture, the cultural use of computing to understand new things about the human cultural condition. And some of the things we discover may be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

The Digital Humanities will always have a rich philosophical debate about its defining values and principles at its core. This is a sign of the field’s maturity because what field doesn’t have the same set of reflections at its core? It is the Benthamite utilitarian modernists who need concrete definitions. They would like to see us ‘defined’ in a glass cabinet in a 19th Century Museum where we would become inert, safe, and curious to be viewed on special occasions. But like all humanities research, the Digital Humanities makes critical, dynamic, and holistic people who create problems (not solutions). We apply a dynamic set of skills and values to answer (inconvenient) questions.



4 responses to “Towards an inconvenient Digital Humanities”

  1. Stefan Avatar

    Great post Craig. I’m not sure though that ‘convenience’ quite sums up the level of appeal of the networked digital age to ferreters of information. It’s more than that, to me anyway – more like being able to connect the dots in ways that weren’t possible before.

    I write this because two hours ago I tested out Google’s revised book search function. I typed in, as I often do when testing, the name of the village in Pomerania that my grandmother comes from. This quickly led me to a book, published in 2009 by Books on Demand in Germany and showcased on Google Books, that has a photo of my grandmother, mother and uncle not long before the arrival of the Russian front:

    The book, which talks about life in Pomeranian villages, also has a lot of other stuff on my family and the context they lived in that I didn’t know.

    That photo has existed since the 1940s, but I would have never had the chance to see it (albeit in digitised form) had it not been for the digital.

  2. Craig Avatar

    If someone didn’t take the photo then it wouldn’t exist either? There is a balance between the form and the message. It is still a book and it is still a photo. It is just being delivered in a different way. Not really innovative.

    I am more interested in how you establish meaning from the photo. Is there anything else (tolls etc.) you would like to see to establish meaning from the photo?

  3. Craig Avatar

    (I mean ‘tools’).

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