a possibly useful continuum for digital humanities.
One of the dreams of digital humanities has been to blur the distinction between process and product. Online, the research room, the design studio, the printing press, the post-publication seminar room all potentially converge in the same mediated space. But where are we exactly, then?
New admixtures are great, daring, disorienting, powerful. It can be exhilarating when a tool for conducting analysis, say a set of interactive maps such as American Panorama, offers itself as a work of scholarship, even as many recent digital humanities and digital history publications in more traditional guises, let’s just take The History Manifesto as an example, focus extensively on the methodological potential of digital tools.
That said, lately in my teaching of digital humanities and digital history, I have found it more helpful to ask students to distinguish more clearly what they want digital technologies to do for their scholarship: when do you want to use a digital tool as an analytic machine, processing some sort of evidence to generate new findings, to see new patterns, to discover new knowledge and when, by contrast, do you wish to use digital technologies for more effective scholarly communication, storytelling, and narrative?
These are not unrelated efforts, to be sure. and there is a healthy in-between quality to scholarship that experiments with new combinations of the two; but conceptually, I increasingly find that differentiating between them is useful, particularly if we place them on a continuum rather than in a hard-and-fast binary. If we do not at least make a few distinctions, I fear we and our students end up spinning our digital wheels too much trying to do both analysis and communication all at the same time. A little clarity of intent has its benefits, too, in the dizzying convergences of digital inquiry.
The question becomes one of balancing between digital analysis and communication. When are we more interested in applying digital mechanisms, algorithms, and processes to materials in service of asking new questions and when are we more keen to convey what we have discovered to a potential audience? In short, when do we want to be more in the digital research room, the scholarly laboratory, the studio space of making and analyzing, and when do we want to stand in front of the digital printing press, stabilizing our findings into compelling new modes of articulation and communication?
To answer this question as one is developing and working on research digitally is, I find, quite empowering. It catalyzes the digital not as an end in of itself, but rather as a vehicle for scholarly discovery. Instead of digital technology absorbing your work into the logics of its circuitry, you as the scholar can better consider where you want these tools to take your work. One is not free of the digital’s underlying logics by any means in thinking along these lines. One is, instead, merely more focused on the means of the digital itself, as a method. Scholars can better navigate the potential as well as the pratfalls of particular digital approaches. Considering whether analysis or communication is the main goal allows for more critical and effective uses of the digital in digital humanities.
Of course, what’s precisely intriguing about digital interactivity, networked forms, and computation in general is that they challenge previously static and separate categories (whose divisions have often masked operations of social power). The rules of what “counts” as valid scholarship come up for scrutiny in moments of convergence, whether in terms of interdisciplinarity, type of evidence being considered, method for analyzing it, or mode or form of communicating what one has discovered. Then again, the recent imperative to blur everything together—so that analysis and communication no longer have clear distinctions between them—also masks the operation of social power: it cedes the capacity to isolate and separate different kinds of authorship, making, analysis, interpretation, and communication to the digital platforms themselves—and the people who have made them. Digital technologies could ideally serve as tools, wielded purposefully by makers of meaning, but now they start to become controlling environments. Augmented intelligence becomes artificial intelligence. Who the tool is in this scenario grows troublingly unclear.
Preserving older understandings of the differences between analysis and communication—the archive and research room, on the one hand, and the printing press and publication, on the other—while also letting them converge, meld, and mingle in new, uncertain ways might be one path to countering this problem. A robust and healthy digital humanities might retain certain differences of intent—when is one keen to develop analysis and when does one want to communicate the findings of that analysis—even as its underlying mechanisms make it possible to blur the differences between the two.