Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Skeptical of Digital Humanities

Okay, I'm just going to throw this out there. I'm ambivalent about digital humanities. I know what you're thinking--that as a technologist and a humanist, I'm the last person on earth who should be skeptical about such things. But the more I read in blogs and elsewhere, the more kind of creeped out I get. I have a real sense that many of these practitioners have a historical and technical blind spots when it comes to their use of technology to explore humanist subjects or vice versa, to use the humanities to explore technological developments. I feel as if they are layering on their own field on top of technology rather than looking at technology for what it is. Very few of these people could code their own work (though some can, I realize) or even if they can't, understand fully the relationship between code and text, images, and video. Instead, they tend to come up with a philosophical rather than a technical relationship between those things. And maybe it's not even understanding that's necessary, but respect. Respect for the complexity of the interrelationship of code with itself (how functions and variables and such work together and are intertwined), and with other elements. Maybe what I'm feeling is a sense that digital humanists see technology not as a thing in itself, but as means to an end and it is the end that is to be explored thoroughly and not the means.

I feel like I'm headed into Marxist territory here, looking at the means of production. Yikes. It's not that I think the end isn't worth exploring, but that one does need to consider how these technological products are produced. While many digital humanities organizations encourage the use of open source software, for example, I'm not seeing too many actually contribute to the production of that software or partnering with their computer science colleagues to do so. (I'd be happy to be proven wrong about that.) Most images and video, for example, are contained in proprietary formats as are some database formats. I recognize that many humanists use what is readily availabe and easiest to use and that often means using what your institution provides to you. Most institutions have invested in Microsoft, Adobe and the like and have not invested in Open Office, GIMP, WordPress, etc. Although I'm a fan of Google and it's many delicious web apps, it, too, is proprietary. We need to think about these things both from a preservation standpoint and from a standpoint of free information.

I haven't fully thought all of this out. And I would like to do some more thinking about it. I would welcome comments, questions, arguments, etc.