Digital Anarchism and the Digital Humanities

Further to my purpose of offering NZ humanists some snapshots of what the digital humanities are about, here is an excerpt from Todd Presner’s ‘Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge’. I particularly like the paragraph below, but I’m uncomfortable about his calls in the (UCLA) Digital Humanities Manifesto to label anyone who wants to close off open web spaces as an ‘enemy’. This style of DH will appeal to post-structuralists, digital anarchists, and postmodern Marxists, but I personally don’t support calls to remove Capital from the digital world – I suspect I’d have to find yet another new career if that happened. Of course if I had to choose between Presner’s anarchists and the likes of Stanley Fish, who appear to conflate the end of their comfortable career-paths with the death of the humanistic tradition as a whole (a slight misrepresentation, perhaps, but if it quacks like a duck etc), it’d be a different thing altogether. One of the things anarcho-humanists get right is that the tradition is more like a hardy weed than a delicate flower; in some ways I think the digital humanities are an expression of this.

I consider “Digital Humanities” to be an umbrella term for a wide array of practices for creating, applying, interpreting, interrogating, and hacking both new and old information technologies. These practices—whether conservative, subversive, or somewhere in between—are not limited to conventional humanities departments and disciplines, but affect every humanistic field at the university and transform the ways in which humanistic knowledge reaches and engages with communities outside the university. Digital Humanities projects are, by definition, collaborative, engaging humanists, technologists, librarians, social scientists, artists, architects, information scientists, and computer scientists in conceptualizing and solving problems, which often tend to be high-impact, socially-engaged, and of broad scope and duration. At the same time, Digital Humanities is an outgrowth and expansion of the traditional scope of the humanities, not a replacement for or rejection of humanistic inquiry. I firmly believe that the role of the humanist is more critical at this historic moment than ever before, as our cultural legacy as a species migrates to digital formats and our relation to knowledge, cultural material, technology, and society is radically re-conceptualized. As Jeffrey Schnapp and I articulated in various instantiations of the Digital Humanities Manifesto, it is essential that humanists assert and insert themselves into the twenty-first century cultural wars (which are largely being defined, fought, and won by corporate interests). Why, for example, were humanists, foundations, and universities conspicuously—even scandalously—silent when Google won its book search lawsuit and effectively won the right to transfer copyrights of orphaned books to itself? Why were they silent when the likes of Sony and Disney essentially engineered the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, radically restricting intellectual property, copyright, and sharing? The Manifesto is a call to humanists for a much deeper engagement with digital culture production, dissemination, access, and ownership. If new technologies are dominated and controlled by corporate and entertainment interests, how will our cultural legacy be rendered in new media formats? By whom and for whom? These are questions that humanists must urgently ask and answer.

Todd Presner, ‘Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge’, Connexions.


Digital Humanities 2010 Keynote….and the purpose of this blog

I think this blog, and my associated Twitter account that I’ve added to the sidebar for all those non-twitterers out there,  is finding its focus. Unlike my previous blog and websites, which were focused towards the international digital humanities community, I’d like this one to provide digital humanities news for busy New Zealand humanities scholars who don’t have the time – or perhaps the inclination – to keep up with developments in this emerging field. So no polemics (if I can help it), just a series of posts to keep people up to date.

The link below is a good place to start if you’re vaguely interested in the Digital Humanities but don’t know where to start, or are just after a general introduction. It’s Melissa Terras’s keynote at the recent DH2010 conference, held in London from 7th to 10th July this year. One of the most engaging things about Melissa’s address is her honesty. She points out the problems facing the field: lack of funding, lack of recognition within universities, low quality websites that do nothing to present the field in a good light, and a general lack of definition. She also challenges those of us who profess to be ‘digital humanists’ to find a definition of the field that works for us, so that colleagues aren’t left confused when they ask us that very simple question, “So what are the Digital Humanities?”. I think I’m up to the challenge:

“The digital humanities is an emerging field that grew out of the much older humanities computing tradition. It began in earnest during the 1990s, when the first World Wide Web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator emerged. It has been described as an ‘enabling’ discipline, in that practitioners aim to facilitate the movement of the humanist tradition into the online world. To this end, the discipline is evolving a collaborative and educative focus and is strongly oriented towards the open access movement. Many practitioners see it as their role to help more traditionally-focused colleagues get the most out of the online world even if they would rather not spend a lot of time learning all the skills required to produce online content. To some degree because of a bias in the tenure review process towards non-digital content, but also due to a genuine love of ‘analog’ scholarship, the vast majority of digital humanists continue to produce traditional content in the form of scholarly articles and monographs. Their primary motivation, however, is the creation of high quality digital products that will add to global scholarly output and prompt a rejuvenation of the humanist tradition. The nascent nature of the discipline is such that no significant body of theory or method has as yet appeared. The focus thus far has been on content development and the parallel development of a global institutional framework. Development of a coherent body of theory and method is complicated by the inter-disciplinary nature of the undertaking. History, literature, philosophy and so forth all have their own strong sub-disciplinary strains within the digital humanities, and there is an inevitably strong relationship with computer science and the history of technology. That noted, there are several clearly emerging ‘areas of practice’ that digital humanists might focus on: standards and text encoding; content development; open access publishing; teaching students and providing workshops for colleagues; repository and database development; tool development; project management; web development; infrastructure development; and more traditional humanities computing involving high-powered super and grid computers. Many digital humanities projects will see one person taking on several of these roles at once, but greater specialization can be expected as the field develops. The relatively fluid nature of the field and its emergence alongside the World Wide Web has led the discipline to make considerable use of ‘Web 2.0′ tools like personal blogs and social networking tools (especially Twitter) to discuss emerging trends and potential new areas of theory, method and content development”.

Click on the image below to watch a video of Melissa Terras’s keynote.


Technological Agnosticism

I’ve long held that both digital and analog humanists need to take a more agnostic approach to technology. Digital humanists are getting there, but neither  group seems to have the level of maturity present in the commercial and public sectors in this regard (evidenced by continued debates about the pros and cons of this or that format or presentation medium – the ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’). I’ve been reading ISO/IEC26514 (2008), which is the international standard for the development of user documentation, and am impressed with it on this score. See for example the table below, titled ‘Advantages and Disadvantages of Various Media’ (p.60): technical writers are expected to assess the needs of their audience and produce documentation in the most appropriate format, just as I think university students and researchers should. Another table outlining the pros and cons of different image and document file formats and types of code would also be useful.


Digital Manifesto, THATCamp Paris

Geoff Rockwell’s report on centerNet 2010 reminded me how much work is required to get the Asia-Pacific region up to speed in the Digital Humanities. Where better to (re)start than the Digital Manifesto produced at THATCamp Paris on 18-19 May, 2010? Click here for the website and on the image for a scalable version.



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