Digitization is not research: Theories and practices in the Digital Humanities

L.I.S.A., the scientific platform of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, on July 14, 2016 published a report of the outcome of a symposium that was organised by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and held in the Villa Vigoni in Menaggio at the beautiful Lake of Como, May 26 to 29, 2016. The Villa Vigoni is an instution that “fosters the relationships between Italy and Germany in the fields of scientific research and culture in a European perspective”. Literature was in the focus of the symposium.

The interesting, quite long report was published in German by Julia Menzel: Theorien und Praktiken des Digitalen in den Geisteswissenschaften. Here an English short cut and some comments and links:

The humanities increasingly use digital technologies in their work, too. They set up programs and forster concepts as “Big Data” and “Open Access”. This technological change affects research objects and methods and “challenges past routines”. So, the humanities meet the current technical change quite skeptical, as I mentioned in my post Digital History delayed and as was experienced at the symposium, too. Frieder Nake, for instance, thinks that “digitization has nothing to do with research”. Computers can not edit characters, only signals, “because they lack the ability to interpret”. The latter is certainly right. Computer stand between us and the world, as Vilém Flusser said. Nake is also right, stating that algorithms are the essence of the digital turn. Mercedes Bunz calls it the Silent Revolution. Operations are transformed in computable processes. Even in literature and culture. We lose our monopol in cultural techniques to the machine.

As an empirical base for the symposium, Karina van Dalen-Oskam (The Riddle of Literary Quality) and Anne Bohnenkamp-Renken (Digital Edition von Goethe’s Faust) presented two literary projects concretizing methodical questions. Bernhard Siegert, Ortwin Dally and Margarete Pratschke widened the discussion and asked about the change of disciplines through the digital turn. They all agreed that the Digital Humanities need a concept, a theoretical foundation, because digital methods would not replace old one’s but come near each other, as Jens Schröter said. Hybridity would have been a big issue but was not closely treated at the symosium.

So, what are digital projects? This question was in the focus of the symposium. It made clear again, that the humanities lack a definition of their new field of digital practices. Herbert Knobloch seconded Frieder Nake and added that digitization is not science, but enables it. So, the discussion was structured by the question, wether the digital should be developed to a theory of the practice of digitization. Wolfgang Coys stressed that digitization is more than an other mode of working and clearly spoke about a „disruption” of the scientific practice. Martin Warnke suggested a separation between “digitized” and “digital” disciplines of the humanities. So, he asked about the position and history of the computer in the various disciplines, a question that, for the historical science, was asked by Peter Haber in his book Digital Past, too.

Classical issues as Open Access, Copyrights, quality and standards of digitization, reusability and preservation of data have been discussed, too. It was clear, that the management and sustainability of digital data and projects become more and more important. All in all, the symposium reflected the diversity of perspectives resisting in the digital new world of the humanities. The advantages of digital processes within the individual disciplines became clear, but also the challenges and risks that methodically and conceptually come along with this approach. It became also clear, and this I find an extremely interesting remark of Julia Menzel, that often disciplines “remain behind the state of individuals and projects”. They beginn to understand the digital world as a theoretical problem only now.

For the historical science, this and more is treated in my new book Geschichte Digital – Historische Welten neu vermessen, recommended by the Helmut-Schmidt-University and discussed by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It focus on hybrid scientific practices and asks for a new philosophy of the digital humanities / history.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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