France in the Year 2000 by Jean-Marc Côté (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Digital Humanities

There's so much knowledge to be had that specialists cling to their specialties as a shield against having to know anything about anything else. They avoid being drowned.— Prelude to Foundation, Isaac Asimov

The central tension in Digital Humanities collaborations is this: the computer scientises don’t want to be thought of as simple technical plumbers; while the humanists don’t want to be thought of as simply service consumers. There needs to be a valuable research question at each end.

Computer Science research feels backwards. Very often we start with a cool technical idea, or a neat algorithm, or a clever optimisation, and we hope to find an application for it. This is a tried and tested model of ‘blue skies’, ‘basic’, or ‘pure’ research. The transistor emerged from this sort of open-ended inquiry, as have many other unexpected applications that we now depend on for our modern lifestyles. Particularly in the applied research methodologies, computers scientists have solutions in search of a problem. This is not as empowering as you might think.

Humanities research is, from my foreign perspective, mostly about making connections. It’s useful to be able to marshall evidence in support of an idea, but the key is a rich, multivalent interpretative framework. One striking aspect of the Humanities is the diversity of those perspectives, and their rich variability, from single works to whole corpora.

In science, there is a very strong focus on the quantitative, and an aspiration towards the reproducible. The humanities community can adopt one or both of these qualities in their research, but their focus seems much more to be on the connection and the chain of scholarship. This is reproducibility in the humanities—the arguments are tested in the mental laboratories of other scholars, who then decide to continue, or break the chain.

There are three main skills that humanists seem to need: the ability to delve into works, or collections of works, to find things, the ability to comprehend the content, and the ability to gain a larger understanding from the body of concepts that they have assembled. This last skill is what distinguishes the scholar, where they invoke or apply a new blend of interpretation, context or other methodology to their subject, to discover something new about that subject and hopefully about the wider human state, individual and collective.

Humanities computing is precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression (therefore, it is exquisitely a "humanistic" activity), in the widest sense of the word, from music to the theater, from design and painting to phonetics, but whose nucleus remains the discourse of written texts. — A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Up until now, I think the notion of Digital Humanities has been used to mechanise these processes: making digital collections available online, building tools that search, count, categorise and visualise, and, perhaps least-well supported, venues for the exchange of ideas.

I think that, methodologically, we should be looking for a different thing now: how can we apply humanities research methods to computing (informatics) research? In other words, rather than treating humanities as an application area for computing, can we look at computing from a humanist perspective?

I don’t necessarily think this is anything new: there seems to be quite a community of research into the history, philosophy and nature of computing on the humanities side, but I admit that I have not found it accessible. There is a work in considering what DH research should look like, and I would be keen to help to shape that from the ‘D’ side, if indeed that is where I fit. There also seems to be more and more interest in digitally-mediated experimental research in humanities topics.

Computers are increasingly empowering traditionally humanities-led fields, such as journalism. The Web Science community are definitely working towards this goal, from notions of hypertext poetry to studies of the cultural impact of social networks, we are seeing things that are less information science, and more humanistic. This is perhaps ironic, given the name chosen for this sub-discipline.

Naming things, planting an epistemological stake in the ground, is a necessity for research areas. However, it is a fraught affair: the new field is often burdened by the exegesis of its name: is Computer Science about Computers? Is it really Science, after all?

We pretty much all agree that it’s not just programming.

If a Digital Humanities PhD can mean a more quantitative, scientific approach to traditional humanities topics, how can computer scientists learn from the humanities to solve traditional ‘informatics’ topics?


I am eternally grateful to my colleagues, Prof. Séamus Lawless and Dr. Jennifer Edmond for their invaluable comments and suggestions in the drafting of this article. Any remaining errors are entirely my own.