Tuesday 17 November 2015

Hard Lessons in the Digital Humanities

Eric Poehler at Kent last week
Digital humanities. Most of us have heard the term, but very few are aware of what it actually means or how it's created. A bit like spreadable butter or that milk they sell in opaque white cartons that stays fresh for decades. It's familiar, but at the same time not.

Luckily, the digital humanities pioneer, Eric Poehler of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, came to the University last week to talk about some of the 'hard lessons' in the fledgling discipline. Even before he got on to the lessons themselves, he was having to try and nail down the term. 'Is it singular or plural?' he asked. 'Should we use it to describe a mindset or methodology, or to label any humanities endeavour that uses technology?' As ever with DH, the answer was not straightforward, and emerged during the course of his talk.

Lesson 1: Moving Targets
If your research involves technology, you are always running to stay ahead of the obsolescence. At the other end of timeline, you are having to learn about the potential applications of new technology coming on line. Somewhere in between these two extremes there's a small 'space of innovation' where current technology can make possible investigations or analyses that could not have happened previously. Seizing that moment, occupying that space, is what all DH academics are hoping to achieve. 'We are all, essentially, DH toddlers,' said Poehler. We know that it is theoretically possible to run, but our legs aren't ready yet.'

Lesson 2: Imposter Syndrome
I've written about this elsewhere on this blog, but DH is more prone to it than most, as it is such a young discipline, and requires an understanding of and ability to use complex technologies. Poehler described it as 'an untethered balloon', which we are trying to grab hold of and control. But the nature of technological development is such that no one can master it all, resulting in a natural feeling of inadequacy.

Lesson 3: Data Requires Contextualisation
It's very easy to get carried away by the wonder of the data created using new technological methods. You are able to scan more, see more, process more, model more. And yet you need a firm founding in traditional research. He gave the example of his Quadriporticus Project, which aims to understand one of the largest monumental buildings in Pompeii. At the centre of the is a large square, and scanning with ground penetrating radar suggested that there was a circular structure in the middle of it. However, it was only by cross referencing with nineteenth century prints that it was clear that there had been a pillared structure there. Don't assume that technology alone can deliver answers. It can provide useful tools, but they shouldn't be used in isolation.

Lesson 4: The Flaw of Insufficient Novelty
Traditional archaeologists - and doubtless other disciplines - can be sniffy about DH. 'You're only doing what we're doing, but quicker,' they would suggest.  Or perhaps: 'efficiency is not archaeology'; or 'Technology is a barrier to engagement.'
Well, yes and no. Technology is not enough in itself. What it makes possible is speed and scale. It allows you to process much, much more material, and by so doing to undertake more in depth and inclusive analysis.  You're not reinventing archaeology, or any discipline: you're just using new tools to explore the same material in different ways. You still need to interpret the data.

Lesson 5: Running Projects Is Hard
Digital Humanities is a team effort. You rely on other people. A large chunk of your time will be communicating with people, and you will have to get used to spending days answering emails. Much of the work is monotonous. And you have to be a positive salesman the whole time. Everyone is looking to 'shoot a hole in what you're doing'. You will need to justify, justify , justify.

So what is Digital Humanities? It is, essentially, the future. It is research that uses a range of technologies to gather and process data. It doesn't interpret the data: that's the role of the traditionally trained academics. Digital Humanities offers the tools. In a decade they may not even have their own label: the technologies will have become so commonplace and ubiquitous that they will just be a standard part of humanities research.

As to the milk that stays fresh for decades? That - well, I'm afraid no one understands that. For that, you're on your own.

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