Digital_Humanities: THE Book!

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanites, Cambridge 2012

A short cut and some remarks

“Two decades ago, working with digital documents was the exception. Today it is the norm” – Anne Burdick and her co-authors write; and: “If the humanities are to thrive and not just exist in niches of privilege, they will have to visibly demonstrate the contributions to knowledge and society they are making in the digital era”. This extremely interesting book from the MIT studies emerging methods and genres, cases as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), new textual corpuses and virtual reconstructions, deals with “the social life of the Digital Humanities”, confronts us with some “provocations” and ends with a short practical guide to the emerging Digital Humanities.

This book will change some basic guidelines for the perception of the production of knowledge, so it seems. Convincingly, the authors argue that the Digital Humanities will “revitalize the liberal arts tradition” in “the electronically inflected, design-driven, multimedia language of the twenty-first century”. And the book offers some familiar and some new tools to cope with this. But the most interesting part of the book are it’s “provocations”. Let’s deal with some of them:

Much has already been done for building digital repositories and establishing conventions for access, presentation and publication. But the migration from analog to digital and advanced Web technologies will create further possibilities as well as new constraints, the authors say. Digital Humanities require an experimentally thinking and a work across the digital or analog divide, respectively. Even digital natives recognize now, after some years of digital experiences, the difference between a manuscript held in one’s hands and one viewed on the screen. And: The routines that structure the new practice in the Humanities have the potential to become just as automatic as those in the print era, and when they do, they could bring the Digital Humanities to a quick end, the authors say, somewhat surprisingly. So, what should be different, then?

Innovative forms of public engagement, new publishing models and other ways of structuring work, they say. It should be a new way to produce knowledge with new skill-sets as design, programming, statistical analysis, data visualization, and data-mining. To make a difference means to show that interpretation is rethought with computational methods and that this methods are rethought with humanistic modes of knowing. Humanists should create their own programming languages and computational work should not remain exclusively quantitative. Techniques like interpretive mapping and subjective visualizations can alter our experience and analysis of the digital field and analog culture.

Tools are not just tools, the authors say. They are cognitive interfaces that adopt forms of discipline and organization. They produce and transmit knowledge and model worlds. An “indigenous humanities digital toolkit” must more than just meet the needs of the common digital world. Trust in computers’ capacities for aggregation, synthesis and even selectivity is sure to grow over the coming years. We will probably deal with machine’s analyses and summaries of texts. Will the computer be an “extension of our own cognitive capacities”, the authors even ask.

In historical sciences, for instance, the machine may provide conceptual frames and filters that provide access to, process and shape historical records. Analysis of materials concerning the relative significance of human history could generate political, economic or geological filters, for instance. Each framework would then create a different corpuses with different levels of aggregation on which the synthesis will be compiled.

The ways of production of knowledge will change fundamentally, that is for sure – familiar key words here are working in networks and collective activity; please see my separate posts about the Place in the Digital Humanities, A Short Outline of a Theory of Practice, Opening up Workshops of Historians and Charles Leadbeater to that issue. The authors of the book to review think that the humanities community should be “excited by the design of projects” to address the new questions in this field: “Phrases like distant reading, content modeling or knowledge representation will become just as familiar” as the term social media, for instance, they say.

The ability of computers to work with large data sets will lead to a “bifurcation within the Digital Humanities: Beyond the traditional humanistic interpretation, the protagonists of data analysis will undertake tasks that come close with the quantitative social sciences. They will examine the dissemination of cultural patterns, for instance, or other questions that are rejected by humanists who consider such quantitative methods naive and their results trivial – see the Google Ngram Viewer as one example for that. What is at stake, according to the authors, is the humanities’ “unique commitment to wrestle with uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity, to attend to nonstandard phenomena”. With the ever wider access to cultural data sets, the separation may well expand, but with more and more platforms that combine qualitative and quantitative methods, there could also grow a synthesis of both. We do not know yet.

Authorship and texts in Digital Humanities are more and more trending toward fluid, iterative and distributive models – please see my review to the arguments of Wolfgang Schmale to that issue. Writing is increasingly understood as a collaborative process, with individuals creating text elements within the setting of a group that merges their identities into a corporate subject (the laboratory, the research team etc.). Analytical tools will extract the fingerprints of intellectual property and algorithmic criticism will soon become widespread practices. Our notion of the document will shift accordingly. As the additive product of multiple interventions by different authors, the text will be reshaped within its boundaries as a discursive object – please see my posts on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to that issue. According to the authors, in future, authority may be conceived less in terms of credential platforms such as universities than in terms of public performance, so that an expert in history, for instance, would take a place beside other storytellers.

It is important to build the digital infrastructure and to find answers to respective questions now: should network environments be established by private firms or public institutions? Will cultural commons be made available to the citizens of the world or will distinct cultures emerge with their own rules and practices for use and access? Cultural commons offer the prospect of revitalize the humanities in contemporary public life. And they “may well cast digital humanists in innovative public roles”, building bridges between professionals and amateurs as Charles Leadbeater suggests. But the realization of such an inclusive vision encounters many obstacles as copyright restrictions, for instance. The authors think that (digital) humanists will have “to storm the barricades for the causes of open access, copyright reform, and the global cultural commons”: “The future of the humanities depend upon the successful creation of public spaces of knowledge production and knowledge exchange”, they say.

So, more and more, purely “professional” questions are accompanied by others that relate to the involvement of non-science partners. Many challenging issues lie before best practices of Digital Humanities: There is, above all, an urgent need for a critical language to describe projects and for standards for evaluating the architecture and other features of platforms. The prevailing culture of the Digital Humanities will become entrepreneurial, much like engineering. Careers will be built around answers to questions like: What are interesting opportunities? What is fundable? Which lab is doing the most exciting work? The digital humanist’s sense of identity will be less anchored in a discipline than in a sense of belonging to a community of practice, where tools and methods are primary to objects of study, the authors strongly believe.

According to the book, knowledge design becomes very important. Design means shaping knowledge. Developing an understanding of technical components will therefore be essential and projects without high design standards are unlikely to achieve enduring results, the authors believe. Humanists still have much to learn about design and production of networked repositories and new media environments. Practice and theory must be exchanged, authorship and display converge in a way that arguments become visible, both graphically and spatially. Relations among visible entities have to become tractable.

x x x

So far, the short cut of this extremely interesting book. It will change some basic guidelines for the production of knowledge in the Humanities. The authors see one wing of the Digital Humanities “embracing quantitative methods”, the other wing insisting upon its roots in qualitative analysis. The quantitative wing will be integrated into the social sciences, the other “defends its autonomy and critical stance”, they believe. This corresponds with the view in Europe, where some scholars fear the unfriendly takeover of a reductive, non-objective thinking, in the Humanities, and other welcome the Digital Humanities either as a support towards human sciences, or even as the spearhead of a full transformation of the Humanities – please see my separate post to the Hamburg Conference 2012 on this.

The authors support the view that concepts of authorship, document and provenance are becoming fluid, as already mentioned above. This will also reshape the notion of the scholar, as many agree. But they probably underestimate the resistance of experts that gain their identity from their genuine professional work, and do not want their vocation and profile to be imposed by the computer technology. Another vision that has to be relativized is the rise of global digital commons. It is true that cultural goods will virtual be accessible more and more in the Internet. But culturally, societies and countries will rather develop counter movements to the globalization and virtualization of the world (please see my post on Yvonne Spielmann’s book about hybrid culture to this). The significance of culture and the establishment of identity will therefore rather be regional in the years to come, a developement to study intensively in the human and social sciences.

It seems that the books exaggerates the importance of design in the Digital Humanities, too: “Design emerges as the new foundation for the conceptualization and production of knowledge”, the authors say. Form is important, no doubt, but it should still follow function. The interaction between content and form determines whether a project or product will succeed, and not design itself. But I agree with the main message of the book: humanities that count will have to demonstrate the contributions to knowledge and society they are making in the digital era.

Anyway: If colleagues want to know what the Digital Humanities are, I will recommend them to read this book. It is extremely well informed and written and shows what new forms of knowledge production and diffusion we will encounter in the next future. It is a collection of the relevant elements in digital thinking in the Humanities, sort of a declaration for a new scientific practice. An important book!

Cite this blog post
Guido Koller (2012, November 28). Digital_Humanities: THE Book! We think History. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

Guido Koller

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

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One thought on “Digital_Humanities: THE Book!

  1. Thank you very much for this really interesting review. I am myself yet at the ent of the second chapter and hope to finish it soon.

    We agree that the book is insisting too much on the importance of design. It’s what almost made me abandon its reading from the first few pages. I suppose that this is also linked to the authors’ research objects. Drucker, as two ot the other four authors, is a specialist of design.

    Frédéric Clavert

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