The ivory tower’s 21st century innovation lab is awesome! Humanities in the digital era move focus from text to design.

What is „Digital Humanities“? One might think, Digital Humanities is what we do every day: googling critical views on humanistic subjects, reading digital versions of printed books we can’t afford or have no / are to lazy to have physical access to. Plus, we communicate with fellow scholars via digital mail services. But why did they give my digital tooling around such an impressive term as „digital humanities“?

Because it doesn’t simply mean to use your computer while doing research.

Following the 142 page reader “Digital Humanities” (Burdick et al., MIT 2012) a basic entree is to think „digital humanities“ as a collection of

“[…] new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publication.” (Burdick et al., 122)

Digital Humanities is not a field, but a practice and – first of all – a question: Regarding digital tools, concepts of knowledge and media, what are humanities? Are we already an outdated academic field because we deal with analog books and papers? Will we become a subdivision of archaeology in the near future? Fortunately, my home discipline has already opened the definition of the word “text”. As text (in it’s common sense as the written word), still and moving pictures and sounds have been growing together (Who posts word-only on facebook any more?), academic methodology and descriptive terms have to follow web-speech-users everyday language usage. Who could seriously only treat the written word in a profoundly multi-medial culture as the 21st century web’s?

Fundamental trans-disciplinarity. Computational humanities (starting as early as 1949, see Roberto Busa’s project Index Thomisticus) saw digital text and analyzed it. Digital Humanities doesn’t privilege the written word. It includes design and graphical methods as a means to produce and organize knowledge. Humanistic knowledge production opens up to other fields and seeks (oh yes!) accessibility. Digital Humanities welcomes quantifying methods coming from the social and natural sciences, while also embracing artistic ways of producing and transporting knowledge.

The shoulders we stand on: Computational Humanities have provided us with scientific tools to analyze digital text such as:

  • statistical processing that is computational linguistics
  • hypertext creating structured data (XML)
  • editing and version control of digital text production (to analyze creative writing processes)

Where we need to go: The Web has transformed into an extensive parallel public sphere that elaborates, follows and recreates socioeconomic processes, ways of communication and other fields of interest to the humanitarian mind. As pointed out earlier, Digital Humanities is not a field of research, nor is is a fixed set of methods. Digital Humanities is the ivory tower’s way out in the 21st century. What we need to do now is to put traditional humanistic academic methods, terms and desired research outcomes into questions, throw the playful innovative mind back on and find project partners across the disciplines. After all, regarding the academic history of the traditional humanities, Digital Humanities is one big thing: An amazing opportunity.


update feb 19, 2016:

The University of Minnesota Press contributes a NEW BOOK ON DIGITAL HUMANITIES to the discussion: „Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016.“ ed. by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein features full-length scholarly essays and shorter pieces drawn from scholarly blogs.

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