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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.

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Dr. James Smithies

Director | King’s Digital Lab

King's College London

Strand | London WC2R 2LS

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Digital Humanities | History