Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities

This is a short presentation given by Skype to Digitalis 2.0, an annual conference of the MA class in Digital Arts and Humanities and Digital Culture at University College Cork, on 8 April 2016, the 2016 Day of Digital Humanities. Other ruminations from the Day of Digital Humanities are at:

I am grateful to Shaun Day for his invitation to join you in Cork on the 2016 Day of Digital Humanities. The Day of Digital Humanities often whizzes by without my marking it, but it is an important activity for building the community of those using digital methods in humanities research, and I am glad Shaun has prompted me to remember it this year. One of the ways in which digital technologies have transformed the humanities has been in changing forms of communication and collaboration among humanities scholars, and the day of digital humanities both expresses and explores that change.

My title today ‘Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities’ is taken from the work I do for the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK, where I hold a fellowship as part of the council’s strategic theme of ‘Digital Transformations’. The term is drawn from industry, where digital transformation is a short-hand for reshaping companies so that digital processes are at the heart of the company’s strategy, as is illustrated by this research jointly undertaken by CAP Gemini and MIT. The UK Government has also recently undertaken a programme for the digital transformation of government services. It may seem that this piece of commercial jargon is not relevant to the arts and humanities, but the way in which ‘Digital Transformations’ is one of four main academic research themes of the research council reflects a similar philosophy to the commercial and government applications. In the past, digital methods have generally been treated as separate from mainstream humanities research, with separate labs and ICT networks formed to service the oddball requirements of those using computers. The ‘Digital Transformations’ theme is significant because for the first time in UK arts and humanities research, digital activities have been treated on the same basis as other academic themes rather than a separate and peculiar activity. In short, the AHRC has fully integrated digital methods into its view of the research landscape, just as management theorists suggest a digitally transformed company should do.

This is all clearly good, and a long way from the situation in the 1970s described by Willard McCarty where many humanities scholars viewed computers with hostility. However, I wonder how far we have come to terms with the way in which digital methods have become more mainstream in the humanities. Many of us, I suspect, secretly like the idea of the digital humanities as a cosy niche little world, where everyone is nicer and more collaborative than in older disciplines. This day of digital humanities is an expression of that comfortable community feeling. We like the idea that funders might have separate funding streams for our needs. But all that is changing very quickly.

I’m always amused when I see a statement that the AHRC has a digital humanities programme called ‘Digital Transformations’. It doesn’t. Digital Transformations is one of a range of digital humanities activities of the UK research councils; you will find digital humanities projects in all of the AHRC funding programmes. Of the other strategic themes, ‘Science in Culture’ has a major citizen science project at Oxford working with Zooniverse on communities of scientific research, while there are also significant digital projects in the ‘Care for the Future’ and ‘Translating Cultures’ themes. Perhaps more significant and challenging for us is the way in which some of the most innovative digital humanities research in the UK is coming from such cross-council inter-disciplinary programmes as ‘Connected Communities’ and ‘The Digital Economy’.

Yet, very little of this work is associated with traditional digital humanities centres. So, this is the worry I would like to share with you — that, as digital scholarship and research becomes more widespread and mainstream, we are focussing too much on developing and protecting our identity as the digital humanities and are not engaging enough with mainstream digital scholarship. We are retreating into our safe little DH corner, and ignoring the wider digital transformations that are taking place in the arts and humanities. We have always assumed that the spread of technology inevitably means that our colleagues in the academy will have to take notice of what we are saying and doing. Technology is indeed becoming increasingly important in humanities research but it seems to me that the self-identified digital humanities community is not having much influence on that process.

To give an illustration from the UK. The AHRC invested £16 million over four years to support four Knowledge Exchange hubs for the creative economy. Much of the work undertaken by these hubs was connected with the digital arts and humanities, and this programme represented a huge investment in digital research, as was evident from the exciting creative economy showcase organised in London in 2014. Some of the hubs have recently organised some amazing showcases, like the Rooms festival in Bristol. Although some of these hubs include institutions which are well known for the involvement in digital humanities, such as King’s College London and Lancaster University, the engagement of digital humanities with these hubs and the massive programme of digital investment by the research council has been very limited and patchy. It might be interesting to speculate on the reasons for this. I wonder whether we are excessively nervous about engagement with something labelled the creative economy, even though most of the activities undertaken under that umbrella term are indistinguishable from a lot of DH work. Similarly, the huge Digital Economy research programme in the UK is one of the most important cross-council research programmes, but the formal digital humanities has not got much involved with it, perhaps again because of nervousness about an ‘economy’ label.

At the same time, we see the digital discourse moving centre stage in the many areas of the humanities. In cultural and media studies, we see an increasing preoccupation with digital culture, but much of this discussion ignores digital humanities work, perhaps because it is seen as pervaded by scientific positivism. It is wonderful to see senior academic figures such as Peter Bollas exploring digital methods in major studies such as his book on the history of human rights, but it is notable that this work proceeds without any engagement with digital humanities scholarship, and, as James Baker has recently discussed, this lack of engagement with previous work on digital methods raises some doubts about Bollas’s conclusions. We are bound to welcome major scholars such as Bollas using digital methods, but as the humanities becomes increasingly pervaded by the digital, we are going to have to develop new views as to the way in which digital humanities intersects with the scholarly mainstream.

In celebrating this Day of Digital Humanities, we should also consider how we avoid the danger of becoming trapped in an enclave of our own making. The Day of Digital Humanities should not only be a day for looking inwards towards our own community but also outwards towards the new connections with the creative economy, creative technologists, digital artists, media theorists and other allies. When we build these new alliances, we will truly achieve digital transformations.