Blog Post

Toward a Humanities of the Digital

"Digital humanities" (DH) is a frustratingly oblique moniker. As with most segments of the humanities, it seems that if you put n practitioners in a room, you'll get somewhere between n and n2 opinions about what it means. To those outside the multiplicity of DH discourses, the term seems, at worst, oxymoronic and, at best, a mere buzzword. Part of the problem lies in what happens to the noun "humanities" in the process of being modified by the adjective "digital." Do the humanities undergo a fundamental change in method or composition when exposed to "the digital" (whatever "digital" means)? Are the humanities then something digital? Are our methods then something digital?

This potential meaning of DH, that is, "humanities done digitally" or "humanities gone digital" (let us leave aside for now the potential gap between those last two formulations), it seems to me, scares humanists the most. It represents an encroachment. An unwelcome change. Perhaps it represents the external world--with the trappings of ubiquitous computing, devices that facilitate communication upon demand, and networks that disorientingly connect people from throughout the span of our lives and across personal and professional boundaries--seeping into our insular academic routines. These routines, while they accomodate variety and experimentation, have been relatively fixed in terms of materials to study and tools with which to study them for at least since the establishment of our particular disciplines. How then can the scholar be expected to accomodate the cold, inhuman, world of technology?

There are many productive discussions to be had in the area of integrating technology into both humanist research and the classroom. I would like to take a different tack by begging off of such a discussion and instead highlighting a second definition of DH: "humanities of the digital." In this scheme, the adjective "digital" modifies the noun "humanities" in "digital humanities" in the same fashion that "life" modifies "sciences" in "life sciences." If the humanities are the collective disciplines that study human expression, I can think of no better place to study the meaning and history of all things digital. While other species have technology, only humans, so far, compute. Thus digital technologies, insofar as they are a human production carrying cultural capital and meaning, can be brought under humanist modes of study. Thus we have a form of technography, analogous to bibliography (which also brings a human technology under the humanist purview).

(As a side note, perhaps to be explored later, I should mention that practitioners of the humanities of the digital have had their trail blazed, in part, by those in science and technology studies [STS] who have argued convincingly that doing science is a social activity and thus fair game for study as such.)

I do not see any problem sharing the discussion of technology with those in the sciences or engineering. After all, linguistics has straddled the sciences and the humanities for years, accomodating a variety of viewpoints and advancing our understanding of language. It may even be that collaboration between humanities disciplines and the disciplines of engineering, STS, informatics, information science, computer science, etc., may provide us with a better understanding of our respective fields.

These two meanings of DH are by no means mutually exclusive. Doing humanities digitally could lead one toward a discussion of digital technology from a humanities point of view. Doing a humanities of the digital could very easily accomodate the use of digital technology. (See, for example, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms.)

As I promised, cornering a DH devotee about the meaning of his or her field will give you at least one opinion. Please feel free to discuss the two that I have provided.


1 comment

I think a "humanities of the digital" is quite important, particularly when one thinks of the ways that reading has changed due to "surfing"—a simple but vivid example. I think that reading a webpage quickly, sharing it on Facebook (perhaps with a comment), tweeting about it, and then responding to others' comments four hours later (but not four months later), for example, is a fundamentally different way of interacting with the text than we have been accustomed to. Studying precisely how people interact with digital texts (I'm a literary scholar, so I think in textual terms) in this way would be fruitful. We can't afford not to study what people are already doing!