Are you a Digital Humanist?

While at The Past’s Digital Presence conference, eating Thai food with a group of new friends, our conversation turned to defining Digital Humanities.  We were mostly historians, but there was also an English student and one in Media Studies.  All of us had vastly different research projects, backgrounds, and experiences.  Only two of us (that I know of) would consider themselves programmers.  Some of us had taken a nontraditional route to our PhD studies.  Only one of us had done her doctoral work at an Ivy.

The more we talked the more I realized that we really didn’t have a whole lot in common except, perhaps, an enthusiasm for this thing called “Digital Humanities.”  But as we attempted to define Digital Humanities we saw that it was a big tent and none of us really fit into it the same way.  For example, I call myself a “digital humanist” because I’m a tool user and because I enjoy the kinds of projects and conversations that hover around the field.  But others in the group seemed to define themselves as digital humanists because of the nature of their research sources, or because of their IT background, or because of a particular pedagogical approach.

So my question is: do you consider yourself a digital humanist?  If so, why?  And, do you think there are benefits to keeping the DH tent wide open to anyone who chooses to define themselves this way, or is their value to assigning a specific definition to who is and who isn’t a digital humanist?

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3 Responses to Are you a Digital Humanist?

  1. TonaHangen says:

    Right, so I actually took notes in that conversation because it was so interesting. I guess I had labeled myself a “digital historian” because I create, and have my students create, historical narratives & objects that are born digital. And also because I use digital archives in both research and teaching. But what intrigued me more (and throughout that whole conference, actually) was in thinking about what is the “humanities” and “humanist” part of what I do – and what it might mean to call myself a digital humanities scholar. Are digital and humanist two words that present as opposites – ie, digital = not human, and human = not digital? In that sense, what might it mean to be (or do) both? I’ll be looking forward to what others say.

  2. Dave Younce says:

    (Background: I am Tona’s little brother, who changed his major from Computer Science to English to Philosophy to Computer Science again)

    Tona, since you’re getting wrapped up anyway in the semantics of your labels, I may as well point out that digital means _any_ discrete set of values (as opposed to analog: along a continuous scale). So, the moment you started using, say, a confined system of symbols called an alphabet you were working in a ‘digital’ medium. Herodotus = digital historian, whereas Michealangelo = analog historian. If you really feel the need for an adjective that describes media confined by our current system of computing, you could try ‘binary’, since you’re specifically talking about using a digital system that is, at its core, all binary. But ‘Binary Humanist’ only sounds like you subscribe to some theory about only two kinds of people.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that humans are ‘analog’ beings – we continuously vary over any number of scales – nobleness of motivation, aptitude, emotion, and all the rest. Any effort whatsoever to quantify that into discrete values is ‘digital’. That’s not to say it’s necessarily inaccurate at any discernable level – sound as you hear it is analog, but we store sound digitally all the time at a sufficient resolution that it is indistinguishable from non-digital sound. Digital humanism is not, therefore, a necessary contradiction in terms. I think what you and your colleagues are attempting to describe is not so much ‘digital’ as ‘Post-Internet’.

    You’re dealing with a new information storage medium that has some specific characteristics that have never been seen before in combination. It is

    1) Networked. Meaning that it is instantly replicable across space to any connected node (loosely meaning a browser-enabled device with internet connectivity). Information on the network exists in as many places as there are nodes that request it. At least, ideally – servers can get overloaded and lawyers too adapted to the previous physical mediums can attempt to limit the replication of information by describing it as though it were still physical, but I digress.

    2) Infinite. For all practical purposes, there is no limit to the amount of information that can be stored in it. This is in stark contrast to a book or even a library, where the amount of information that can be stored is limited by physical materials.

    3) Indexed. This is why Search is the killer app of the Internet – there is a way to sift through the medium matching on specific patterns in order to prioritize one piece of data over another, which makes the Infinity of it approachable (if not completely manageable).

    It has other new characteristics as well, but those are the ones in my mind that really set it apart. It is leveraging the power of those that sets you and your other ‘digital humanist’ colleagues apart. But it won’t for long – you’re just early adopters. Do any of you think that in 50 or 100 years that academic study in your fields won’t have been completely transformed by this new medium? Hasn’t it already?

  3. adamarenson says:

    To take it another way — I am encouraged by the use of “humanist.”

    History has long lived between social-science and humanist models. The digital humanities provides a way to keep the insights and innovations of the large-data-set, number-crunching moment in historical study while championing the goals and values of the humanities. I particularly liked George Miles’s connections, in his final remarks, about the power of narrative and writing in concert with the digital possibilities — knowing what to do with the massive, emerging digital archives.