Digital survey of culture and history

Gerhard Lauer, „Die digitale Vermessung der Kultur, Geisteswissenschaften als Digital Humanities“, in: Big Data, Das neue Versprechen der Allwissenheit, Berlin 2013


Digitization is a revolution. It shakes the hierarchy of values ​​in the humanities: Until recently, interpretation and hermeneutics have been everything, computing nothing. Now, Digital Humanities denote a supplement, respectively, a change in methodology.

This begins, even nowadays, with the service on the text: collecting, evaluating and opening up objects make up the unity of disciplines in the humanities. Here, in the meticulousness is founded the modernity of science, and not in hermeneutics. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that it was often natural scientists who began to calculate with texts: The mathematician De Morgan, for example, sought objective criteria for the definition of a literary style and counted for syllables. That way, he believed to clarify the authorship of the letters attributed to Saint Paul.

Well known is the first digital edition on punch cards, the Corpus Thomisticum, which was realized by the Jesuit Roberto Busa with Thomas J. Watson of IBM. Many consider retro-digitization now as the epitome of Digital Humanities: it opens an unprecedented access to historical and cultural works. “The Internet of cultural things” (Uckelmann et. al.) is coming!

Prerequisite for this development is the standardization of data and metadata, as part of the Text Encoding Initiative for instance. The cooperation of many institutions in many projects now characterizes the Digital Humanities. However, the use of corpora for a long time was based on the individual object. John Crowe Ransom calls this use of texts Close Reading. Franco Moretti has criticized that. He demands to withdraw from the individual text. In his view, Distant Reading should allow to operate a history of the literature of the whole world. So, Big Data is now definitely a part of the humanities, too: Digital Humanities measure culture anew.

Digitization makes accessible always larger areas of culture: “Cultural evaluation instead of history”, Lauer calls the orientation of future research. We will learn then, for example, about the networks through which the idea of the ​​nation state has been spread (Joep Leersen) or which literary themes appeared in 1800. For this, large amount of data must be analyzed statistically – Historical Data Mining.

However, this will not work without hermeneutic knowledge and theoretical models – also says Lauer. Data is not information: If you want to make them speak, you have to contextualize them. Data-driven research needs theory, knowledge and methodological critique.

Nothing has to be added to this – except perhaps: the digital surveying of culture and history has only just begun.

Guido Koller

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

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