The second meeting of the CODEC Book Club has been asked to watch Melissa Terras' inaugural lecture as Professor of Digital Humanities at University College, London. The talk, given on 27th May 2014, was entitled: "A Decade of Digital Humanities". The lecture is embedded on the UCL website in the previous link.
Prof Terras, whose blog and twitter account are well worth following, started her talk by asking what we mean by this term "Digital Humanities" which first arose in about 2004 as she moved into academia, associated with Schreibman et al's groundbreaking book A Compnaion to Digital Humanities.
The definition of "humanities" is easy - research relating to the human condition (past, present and future) which has a specific bearing on the contemporary context of that human condition.
The issue, of course, is what we mean by Digital! The very thing which I raised in my recent presentation on what we mean by Digital in Digital Theology.
So first of all, Prof Terras points out that "digital" cannot = quantitative. We have been doing that since at least the Renaissance and she points to three digitised books from the UCL library which did quantitative study centuries ago.
So, is it about the use of computers? Of course not, argues Terras. Computers have always attracted humanities scholars to them to see what might be possible - she even enlists Ada Gordon Lovelace (Babbage's colleague, pictured left), who in an academic paper in 1843 (somewhat briefly and tangentially) extolled the virtues of the Analytical Machine for the study of the arts.
So "digital" does not really relate to quantitative data or computer hardware.
Instead, Terras produces two graphs which point to the sweet point where computer technology was risingand computer price was declining to such a degree that suddenly computing was no longer the preserve of the elite but became an everyday reality.
(BTW, to some extent, that same argument had been used in the curating of the Digital Revolution exhibition in London).
Digital is what we mean by when all the bits hit the fan!
In other words, digital is a shorthand not for some form of technology but for a cultural shift - a Kuhnian paradigm shift if you want - where computing technology and the changes it was creating to our society, and the information tidal wave sweeping over academia, began to have such an affect that any study of the human condition which did not take account of the digital was simply arcane. Suddenly, digital reflected the normative experience of (Western) culture and so needed to be part and parcel of any humanities research.
Digital is where information culture and computer technology become enduring features of mainstream society.
Interestingly, Prof Terras doesn't leave it there - she goes on to point out how Digital Humanities focuses on the innovator/early adopter area of Roger's Innovation Adoption Curve. DH is essential humanities research carried out to the left of The Chasm:
- or alternatively technologies rising towards the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle
In other words, Digital Humanists tend to be working as innovators or early adopters - those who will have a technological proficiency ahead of the curve and a tendency to hunt out the very latest technology - either to re-engineer it, to play with it, to see how it fits in with other technology around them.
Overall, I found this to be a really good analysis of where we are with Digital Humanities and a helpful re-inforcing of the place where I had just got to with CODEC's definition of Digital Theology - theological research which takes seriously digital culture, digital technology and the plethora of information which both leads to. Of course, I think I want to suggest that there are more ways to read that term "Digital" as well. It is about culture, it is about the ubiquity of technology. But there is stuff there about postmodernism and posthumanism and other innovations which isn't really there is Melissa Terras' talk so far.
I was intrigued therefore to receive a suggestion from Marika that we should perhaps also be looking at David Trend's compilation of essays on Reading Digital Culture. Of course, the problem with that book is that is came out in 2001 - three years before the hype cycle of Digital Humanities got off the ground!!!
Or perhaps that's the point - Digital Culture hit the point of social commentary and so two years later it Digital Humanities also hit the point of social commentary in time for the 2004 launch? Like a Gartner Hype Cycle for Digital!!!
Thanks for the suggestion, Dave! And thanks for the stimulating lecture, Professor Terras.
Now what's next?