The Digital Humanities: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Future

Digital humanities give us the opportunity to capture the excitement and drama of a historical event. Whether it’s sharing stories from Spokane’s great fire of 1889, or sharing the tales of drunken sailors along the San Juan Islands, this method of storytelling gives us opportunities to excite the reader that previous historians struggled to obtain. Still, digital humanities represents a drastic change to the structural norms of academia and discourse in the humanities. Adam Kirsch goes so far as to claim that “the transition to some version of a post-verbal future is already taking place.” I personally believe that this has a narrow degree of truth, but that in most applications of digital humanities, it doesn’t hold true. Instead, I think that digital humanities add to verbal discourse. Sounds, artwork, and pictures contribute to our existing verbal discourse of the humanities. Perhaps we could compare them to seasoning on a steak. Just because the steak has some paprika and garlic on it doesn’t mean we are in the process of replacing the steak with paprika and garlic. 

Despite not completely agreeing with Kirsch’s initial theory on a post-verbal future, I do heed his warnings regarding the limitations of digital humanities. In particular, I fear the discourse that attempts to replace humanistic thought with computer algorithms is leading us to a world where humanities will hold no value unless they can be quantified, which in many ways is the antithesis of the human experience. Kirsch summarizes some of the greatest fears people have regarding the effect of the digital humanities on humanities as a whole. 

“The problem for the humanities—the institutional and budgetary problem—is that changed minds and expanded spirits are not the kinds of things that can be tabulated on bureaucratic reports.”

Wikipedia’s page on digital humanities discusses similar concerns and even cites Kirsch’s article when discussing the controversy related to the topic. The page goes into detail about various methods such as textual analysis and algorithms used in the digital humanities, but it also notes how these methods often lack cultural criticism and also introduces us to the “black box” phenomenon where “scholars who do not fully understand what happens to the data they input and place too much trust in the “black box” of software that cannot be sufficiently examined for errors.”

 Proponents of the digital humanities refute these issues saying “Digital Humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them.” This is an important premise in the discussion of digital humanities. Proponents of the digital humanities are correct in their belief that digital humanities are best to complement traditional humanities instead of replace them. Yet this analysis is rare among those outside of the greater humanities field. In a world obsessed with profit margins and quantitative evidence, advocates of the digital humanities must be cautious of making faustian deals with those indifferent about humanities as a whole. 

It’s hard to broadly assess the digital humanities, as the term can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. When talking about the application of computers, much of digital history began in the 1960s with computers being used to perform statistical analyses pertaining to historical events known as Cliometrics, This discipline fell out of style in the 80s. However as technology advanced, the possibilities for digital applications in the humanities increased. 

Today, historical analysis utilizes a wide variety of digital tools and methods ranging from quantitative text analysis to linked open data. What in the early 2000s was simply a tool to store historical data is now playing a broad role in how we assess, interpret, and even apply historical data. Though these methods have proven invaluable in gaining new understandings of history, scholars warn against blind faith in these new methods. The scholarly journal “State of the Field: Digital History” addresses the potential shortcomings in these methods. For instance, with quantitative text analysis, it mentions how words and meanings can change, and that the books stored in these systems don’t necessarily represent our cultural values in a way to make sweeping historical analyses.  The article also stresses the importance of historians understanding how archival storage systems and search engines such as Google and Bing function as their inner workings are paramount to the application and sharing of history. 

The advent of digital humanities has permanently changed how we navigate history as a discipline. The change has brought us great excitement as we are able to share history and pursue historical analyses in ways previously not possible. But it has also called some of our core values regarding what the humanities should be into question. Regardless of our positions on every outlet within the broad topic of digital humanities, nothing sort of a sustained EMP is going to stop it. So we would be wise to make the best out of it.

Photo Credit: History Department: The University of Chicago

One reply on “The Digital Humanities: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Future”

Great post! You did an outstanding job detailing the ongoing struggle between new aged digital humanists and reluctant naysayers. I would have loved to read your thoughts on the affects of social media on the humanities.

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