Friday, September 6, 2013

Some thoughts on Digital Humanities

Do we see a similar type of shift in the humanities as what happened in engineering and science in the 1960s?

We've been living in the digital world for a while. Computers have been around for more than 60 years, and they've been rather present in our everyday surroundings for the last 30. Even the Internet as we know it dates back 20 years. Still we talk about new digital tools and new media. We aslo still find people that are intimidated by digital technology. Personally I find this odd. Computers are neither something new, nor much to be afraid of.

As I´ve been talking about before, the introduction of computers in science and engineering was one of the major shifts of the 20th century. It wasn´t just a quantitative shift (more calculations and faster number processing), it was a quatitaive leap. It made possible new types of questions and new ways of thinking. It paved the way for entirely new fields and new ways of doing engineering and science. It defined a new era. The finite element method revoultionized construction. Logging and analyzing huge chunks of data revolutionized science. And so on and so on, ad. lib. All the bigger Norwegian research institutions had access to computer centres by 1965. (By the way: the "Oracle service" - the NTNU computer service just turned 50 years).

We humanists have been a bit more reserved. We waited until the computer got personal in the early 1980s, embraced the word processor, but basically kept it at that. Digital tools were never the same game changer as it was for science and engineering. Until recently.

The #UMEDH crowd, by @finnarne

I might be digital historian.

I´d never heard the label digital historian before I decided to take this course on digital humanities at the University of Umeå HUMlab. Yet it makes sense. I might even be a digital historian. I use digital tools (online archives, libraries, etc.). I do music analyses using tools like Acousmographe and iZotope RX. I use digital presentation techniques. I organize my workflow with useful tools like Mendeley, Evernote and Dropbox. I maintain an online prescence. I've been in and out (or maybe "more out than in"?) of the blogosphere since 2006. I sort of breathe the digital lifestyle. But it´s not just about that.

There are certain toys, tools and approaches around now that, as far as I understand, are representing something qualitatively new in the humanities. Things like big data analysis, textometry (so new a concept that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry!), and various forms of graphical representation. What am I talking about? Let's get into the "course note section" of this blog posts.

Big data analysis, textometry and visualizations

Big data analysis and text mining must be pretty awesome for contemporary history. There are numbers of methods to get data out of services like Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. An example of how it can be used: The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation made a touching web-exhibit of tweets made during the terror of 22nd of July 2010 in Norway. This type of research makes it possible to ask entirely new forms of questions on how people react minute by minute to certain events. It preserves the confusion, fear and immediacy of the events as they unfold like no other historical source can.

Simon Lindgren demonstrated a way to do textometric analysis on texts, using methods adapted from biliometry and linguistics (a rather odd tutorial video makes the point: Lindgren was also talking about distant reading as opposed to the close reading we often do in the humanities. He also tales about textometrics a method oscillating between a qualitative and a quantitative approach.

We've also been looking a lot at visualization of data and research. This post from Stanford gives an introduction to some of the wondrous things you can do with maps and representation of spatial history. This map of travel conditions in ancient Rome is also just totally awesome. How fast to get from Rome to Constantinople on a heavy loaded mule? 22,7 days, if you're lucky and you get the boat from Heracleum to Ichtys. But this isn't just about presentation, it also influences the questions you can ask.


The big question

The big question then is of course: How do these tools shape the kind of history that we write? Do they make us do new types of research, better types of research, or just more expensive types of reserach? Do they make good history? The short answer is, of course: Not automatically.

I think one of the great things with the digital tools is that you can utilize data that previously haven been used (from tweets to positions in ship logs). But I guess it also is like with everything new - it could also serve as something flashy trying to mask bad research questions. But in general I'm positive.

The best, as it looks like for me, is that Digital Humanities seems to foster interdisciplinary work and team work. It's difficult to start an big digital history endeavor on your own, it's just too time consuming. There are way to little collaborative projects in the humanities. This might be something we really could benefit from.

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