Humanities Computing dates back to the use of mainframe computers with museum catalogues in the 1950s. The first essays on Humanities Computing appeared in academic journals in the 1960s, the first conventions on the subject (and the Icon programming language) emerged in the 1970s, and ChArt was founded in the 1980s. But it isn’t until the advent of Big Data in the 2000s and the rebranding of Humanities Computing as the “Digital Humanities” that it became the subject of moral panic in the broader humanities.
The literature of this moral panic is an interesting cultural phenomenon that deserves closer study. The claims that critics from the broader humanities make against the Digital Humanities fall into two categories. The first is material and political: the Digital Humanities require and receive more resources than the broader humanities, and these resources are often provided by corporate interests that may have a corrupting influence. The second is effectual and categorical: it’s all well and good making pretty pictures with computers or coming up with some numbers free of any social context, but the value of the broader humanities is in the narratives and theories that they produce.
We can use the methods of the Digital Humanities to characterise and evaluate this literature. Doing so will create a test of the Digital Humanities that has bearing on the very claims against them by critics from the broader humanities that this literature contains. I propose a very specific approach to this evaluation. Rather than using the Digital Humanities to evaluate the broader humanities claims against it, we should use these claims to identify key features of the broader humanities self-image that they use to contrast themselves with the Digital Humanities and then evaluate the extent to which the literature of the broader humanities actually embody these features.
This project has five stages:
- Determine the broader humanities’ claims of properties that they posses in contrast to the Digital Humanities.
- Identify models or procedures that can be used to evaluate each of these claims.
- Identify a corpus or canon of broader humanities texts to evaluate.
- Evaluate the corpus or canon using the models or procedures.
- Use the results of these evaluations as direct constraints on a theory of the broader humanities.
Notes on each stage:
I outlined some of the broader humanities’ claims against the Digital Humanities above that I am familiar with. We can perform a Digital Humanities analysis of texts critical of the Digital Humanities in order to test the centrality of these claims to the case against the Digital Humanities and to identify further claims for evaluation.
There are well defined computational and non-computational models of narrative, for example. There are also models of theories, and of knowledge. To the extent that the broader humanities find these insufficient to describe what they do and regard their use in a Digital critique as inadequate they will have to explain why they feel this is so. This will help both to improve such models and to advance the terms of the debate within the humanities.
One characteristic of broader humanities writing that is outside of the scope of the stated aims of this project but that I believe is worthwhile investigating are the extents to which humanities writing is simply social grooming and ideological normativity within an educational institutional bureaucracy, which can be evaluated using measures of similarity, referentiality and distinctiveness.
It is the broader humanities’ current self-image (in contrast to its image of the Digital Humanities) that concerns us, so we should identify a defensible set of texts for analysis.
There are well established methods for establishing a corpus or canon. We can take the most read, most cited, most awarded or most recommended articles established by a particular service or institution from a given date range (for example 2000-2009 inclusive or the academic year for 2010). We can take a reading list from a leading course on the subject. Or we can try to locate every article published online within a given period. Whichever criterion we choose we will need to explicitly identify and defend it.
Evaluating the corpus or canon will require an iterative process of preparing data and running software then correcting for flaws in the software, data, and models or processes. This process should be recorded publicly online in order to engender trust and gain input. To support this and to allow recreation of results the software used to evaluate the corpus or canon, and the resulting data, must be published in a free and open source manner and maintained in a publicly readable version control repository.
Stage five is a deceptive moment of jouissance for the broader humanities. It percolates number and model into narrative and theory, but in doing so it provides a test of the broader humanities’ self-image.
For the broader humanities to criticise the results of the project will require its critics to understand more of the Digital Humanities and of their own position than they currently do. Therefore even if the project fails to demonstrate or persuade it will succeed in advancing the terms of the debate.