The role of the academy within the digital realm is a complex one, particularly for the humanities and over the course of the next few months I will be exploring the interaction between these two fields. Specialist publications, including those by historians, often struggle with accessibility, whether it is from an overdependence on academic jargon or paywalls preventing the general public from accessing journal articles. History only matters if it is communicated, and the ways in which we communicate it need to adapt with everchanging technology, and the society that changes right along with it.
Among the readings I tackled this week was William Thomas’ “The Promise of Digital Humanities,” which provides a basic appraisal of the state of the discipline itself. Thomas argues that digital projects have, up to this point, been focused on the accumulation of information and the creation of digital archives. This has led to a relative lack of engagement in terms of analysis or interpretation. Thomas, like many of the other authors I’ll be discussing this week, believes that digital humanities is capable (and indeed, morally obliged) of instituting radical change in how we analyze history and other disciplines. While he gives certain examples of digital scholarship, such as simulations, ever-evolving digital narratives, and themed research collections, there is comparatively little in terms of specifics as to how digital scholarship can change our way of thinking.
Given the history of History as a discipline, though, this does not surprise me. The professionalization of history began in earnest in the early 1800s, with Leopold von Ranke, who argued for an objective, rational, and impartial recording and interpretation of historical documents. While there were plenty of analytical documents at the time, much of the focus was simply on the collection of data on the human experience. Interpretation is useless without evidence, and the creation of digital archives like Gallica is a massive project by itself. Digital history seems to be still in that early stage of development, much like those earlier historians, where the accumulation of information is the primary goal. What makes their project so much different, of course, is how accessible that information becomes from here on out.
Miriam Posner, another of the authors for this week, wrote a work entitled What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities, in which she tries to answer a few of the questions that Thomas asks. Her solutions are, as the title suggests, radical, and in my view mostly miss the mark. She argues that “many of the qualities of computer interfaces that we have prized, qualities like transparency, seamlessness, and flow, privilege ease of use ahead of any kind of critical engagement (even, perhaps, struggle) with the material at hand.” Systems like Google Maps are problematic because the technology “enshrines a Cartesian model of space that derives directly from a colonialist project of empire-building.” In my view, accessibility and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive, to say the least. Complexity and clarity are capable of coexisting.
The most creative (though likely ineffectual) of these solutions was the idea that data modeling needs to be reimagined to include actual persons. The example she gives is of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity who dies before he can be brought to justice. In this system, the perpetrator himself could be submitted to the archives as an “imaginary document.” From there, he “could then be subjected to evidentiary testing and cross-examination, as in the way of any archival data.” The logistics of such a process beg several questions. How exactly do analysts interact with the perpetrator? Is it the image of the perpetrator in this archive? The concept or memory that this individual existed? A description produced by a third party? Heaven forbid, not the remains of the actual person? Overall, Posner encourages the complication of access to information because she believes it ends up being more valuable to the student in the long run. Given that the current problem with history is the lack of engagement from the public, I cannot bring myself to agree with this approach.
By the end of the semester, I’m expected to have completed a major digital project for my own research, which focuses on the economy of French Indochina in the 1930s. Given the sources that I have available (through the brilliant French digital archive at Gallica), this will likely be a textual analysis of rubber plantation documents, looking for certain patterns and the like. A geographic analysis of different colonial industries is also a possibility. However, this is still the early stages, and thoughts are still formulating.