Data For What?

the curious binaries of the digital humanities.

David Hockney, Iphone art.

There seem to be two approaches emerging in the developing field of the digital humanities. They are not mutually exclusive, but there are important tensions between them.

The first, as Patricia Cohen wrote about recently in the New York Times (“Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities Riches,” 16 November 2010), is to utilize digital tools of data-aggregation and data-mining for humanities research. The idea here is to consider how the ability to process large quantities of information using computers might yield new insights into patterns of language, literature, history, society, and other topics of traditional humanities scholarship.

The second approach is almost the opposite: to bring the ethics and practices of humanities scholarship—critical reflection, engaged imagination, an interest in narrative, non-reductive argument, civil dialogue, humaneness, and humanness itself—into the digital realm.

The first mode reveals a desire to get with the program, as it were, to transform the humanities into another quasi-positivist social science that privileges, even fetishizes, a certain kind of epistemological legitimacy. More data equals more truth, the reasoning (or lack thereof) goes here. Statistical analysis trumps the uneven terrain of human thought and human experience.

The second mode, to humanize the digital, offers intriguing, if potentially Frankensteinish, possibilities that might counterbalance the worst tendencies of data-obsession. Here, the goal is to bring humanistic awareness to the increasingly virtual spaces of interaction that are made possible by digital communications and information technologies. How do we not treat the digital as a break away from the humanities, but rather as an extension of humanistic inquiry?

There have been a bevy of books that are suspicious of adopting this latter position, naming it as a kind of acquiescence. But these polemics may ultimately, whatever their worth as critiques of the romanticization of the digital, be swept into the paper shredder of history, so there is important—if perhaps complicit—work to be done in investigating the continuities between analog and digital realms.

At this early juncture, I would argue that there is nothing truly wrong with either approach, though I am by inclination more suspicious of the first than the second). What might be most crucial is that the two modes remain in dialectical tension. To uncover all the times Enlightenment thinkers invoked the term rationality in their voluminous correspondence is a worthy inquiry, but only if it leads back to ongoing interpretative debates and conversations—and, more crucially, only if it takes stock of previous methodological approaches that did not view quantity as truth. As Anthony Grafton points out in the New York Times article, “I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.”

The digital realm offers enormous opportunities for interpretative work, both about particular topics and in terms of reimagining how collective projects of interpretation take shape, change, and change again. But only if, in the virtual world, we literally keep thinking.

A final thought: why, at a time when the humanities is in crisis and universities are shamefully closing down humanities departments, is the digital humanities attracting so much money and so many funding opportunities? What is this about, exactly? How is intellectual life being channeled into digital streams, and whom is this serving? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Are humanities scholars scribes of the digital future or are they getting circumscribed by it? What are the forces and powers behind this flow of money to zeroes and ones?

These are questions you cannot Google.


2 thoughts on “Data For What?

  1. I’m with you and Grafton, though I will say that option #2 (humanizing the digital realm) appeals to me most. I feel that #1 deals really with ~the ease~ of doing things that have been happening since the late 19th century (i.e. new technology (e.g. typewriter, film, overhead projectors, computers) making it easier to transfer what’s in a mind already onto paper (or a screen or a 3-D model)). – TL

  2. Another very good post. I hope you don’t mind that I linked to it from my site.

    I think that a proper relationship to technology has become increasingly important: if we gawk in amazement at what we can do with these products instead of actually using them as the powerful tools that they are, we do ourselves a disservice. Using technology as tools of distraction instead of tools for reflection and “authentic” interaction is a tempting, but should often be resisted. Perhaps this attitude of wonder/myth of endless possibility that surrounds tech is what makes it so alluring as a funding opportunity.

    You may enjoy a book called Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines by Steve Talbott. If you have read The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter, it’d be interesting to hear your response to his interpretation of Carr’s theory of “The Shallows.”

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