Of code and culture: Digital Humanities and where to find them

In-between humanities and technology, a new field is emerging and many are still afraid to approach it


photo by Jaredd Craig via Unsplash

Even in such a broad area like the humanities, a certainty seems to float around the life and work of any graduate of such arts: anything to do with the likes of Chaucer and Wilde has hardly anything in common with code and algorithms. That is to say, tech? Not on my critical analysis of late 14th century poems. This notion has been taken for granted for a very long time, because students and professionals hardly found themselves studying on both sides of the academic pond, dabbling in both ancient writings and less ancient coding.

Luckily enough, the times are a-changing. A more diverse environment in tech is slowly emerging, and this does not refer solely to more gender mix and more skin colors. Thanks to the availability of tools for the strong-willed, programming is now more accessible to people with the most variegated backgrounds. Not having a traditional technical education can now also be an advantage in new ways. To get your hands on your code editor after your head has travelled to exotic mind-lands — those of art, and literature, and linguistics — can make you approach this field with completely different eyes than your desk neighbor, because you have seen so many, and so disparate, things. And it’s there that you can accomplish the coolest feat of all: manage to see even further, build on your previous experience to discover new conceptual territories.

When it comes to the humanities, and specifically literature and new media, some people have already announced new land on the horizon. This is a place where metaphorical keycaps and quilts come together to enrich each other; where nobody is lame for reading classics nor for counting their words and analyzing their contents. Cue: the Digital Humanities.

These lands might be unruly and wild, difficult to explore, but they are also home to incommensurable treasures. The name alone suggests an opposition: the humanities, study area that represents all that is inherently art in the world, have now acquired a companion term that represents the future: digital. Using the digits. Critical analysis of literary texts can now be aided by powerful software tools that can read and synthesize books in mere seconds; we are talking amounts of books you could not read in decades. Investigative stylometry can help a great deal with authorship problems, like when the Computational Stylistic Group found that acclaimed Italian writer Elena Ferrante not only is not who she says she is — it has probably been her husband all along. Now-forgotten cities become alive from mere maps of times long gone. The miracle of word, paper, and brain on fire is given yet extra superpowers by digits. Numbers and words, binary and vocabulary, forever united. Or is it the case?

It could be the case. Upon exploration of this young field, however, it seems like there is a hangup. And what could it be the hangup for such a happy party? Why, the guests, of course.

The two sides of the (academic) pond

Ok but what are the Digital Humanities and why do I keep capitalizing it (them)?! It’s 2018, Google it. Actually, just check out this link. It is a page that once refreshed shows a different definition. This is how uncertain these waters are. Here is my favorite, by Paul Youngman:

Digital Humanities is the marriage of two areas of study heretofore considered incompatible — IT and the humanities. […] The keywords are scale, navigation, and exchange. These tools afford the humanist the ability to analyze large bodies of work on a previously unimagined scale. They also allow for ease of research/data navigation and provide an efficient means of research/data exchange.

More precisely, the digital tools we all keep blabbering about is in fact the same technology you heard of when nerding out about, for example, chatbots. Data analysis, when the data is text, is the same thing. Text analysis, text mining, natural language processing that can be used to teach Siri to know whether you are saying “I want pizza” or “Remind me to call the dentist tomorrow at 9 AM” and act accordingly are all tools from the same box. However, the same tools don’t need to be necessarily used to teach robots to call you a cab; in fact, they can be as easily manoeuvred in order to find out whether Shakespeare took credit for his interns’ work or to discover the incredible colors of the Gothic novel. And this is when the Digital Humanities were born: when some humanists were like, wait a minute, I can use this.

Waking up after the long frozen sleep of the AI winter along Machine Learning and stemming from it, the Digital Humanities didn’t exactly manage to catch the hype train; and that makes sense. DH (for friends) is not sparkling, is not the latest technological achievement that shines a light on the future; if anything, the light falls on our past and our present. To say it all, it might be more of a human accomplishment rather than a technological advancement. In truth, what makes DH a scary pond is the fact that it lacks an officially recognized definition; that the two sides it touches, the institutions of technology and literary academia, both look at it with uncertainty and lack of trust. And who can blame them, really?

DH is a strange place. Humanists find themselves confronting distant reading tools that are thrown at them in one hour long workshops. Names like R and Python sound odd and undesirable and remind people of British comedy groups. The programming happens under the hood of tools with GUIs that can make you nostalgic of the early 2000s with their boxy looks. Or it happens in the rooms and on the desks of those who know all about text mining and sentiment analysis, and yet they do not think about its possibly Shakespearean ramifications. As Underwood suggests, there are no(t yet) real and proper academic approaches to suggest those. “The questions we try to answer are taught in the humanities. But the methods we use are taught, right now, in the social sciences and data science”. All we have is a bunch of tools and capabilities and expertise to build a fascinating, powerful machine, divided among different people who don’t talk much to each other.

Preparing for new explorations

The problem has several different causes: not enough digital libraries are available to the curious, not enough is known of the DH to begin with; not enough is taught to graduates of both humanities and technological disciplines about one another. And why should it be done, after all? It was never really done before. The very nature of this problem is, in this way, very human. Innovation is usually very quick when it does not concern stereotypes and hard-to-lose human habits of the sort. While the tools for a deeper exploration of literary nature through a technological lense exist already or easily could, the commonplace concerning engineers and humanists normally depicts them far, far apart from each other. Categorization is, in this context, a very tall obstacle. A programmer, a data explorer, a software dweller can hardly fit the image of a poetry connoisseur. At the same time, he or she who is knee-deep into Victorian literature is not usually portrayed as possibly digitally and technologically literate as well. My wish by putting out this write-up for all to see is to send out the reminder that he or she can always, at any time, wear both shoes, embrace both worlds. And now that labels are gradually becoming obsolete, we can make them old and dusty even here, between words and digits, paper and screen. In this place, no-man’s land, work can become a lavish territory where labels do not matter more than curiosity and adventure. If you find poetry in code and linguistic codes in poetry, if you are equally charmed by papers and screens, keep looking. This is what it is all about.