The Digital Humanities: Have we created a monster?

I want to start by saying that I dipped my toe into the realm of digital humanities while writing my last paper for this class.  Prof. Ferguson directed me towards the tremendous literary resource called ‘Project Guttenburg.’  It was very very helpful to be able to keyword search certain words or phrases that I wanted to locate for my paper.  I even took it a step further and looked up all the instances of a particular word in order to compare the usage throughout the novel.  Again, this was very helpful and allowed me to write a paper that would have otherwise been impossible (under the given time constraints).

My worry here is that humans tend to take any sort of progress to its logical extreme.  Everybody loves the digital, complex, and computerized, and I can see people getting too excited by the idea of digital humanities.  It can easily go from “that was a helpful and interesting way to improve my paper” to a completely detached study of writing.  I do not want the highest attainment in the field to be a job as a data analyst.  Technology can be easily taken too far, and I hope that, at least in this particular field, there is enough critical thinking ability to decide where, when, and how to use this assistive technology wisely and effectively.

When I make relations between concepts I like to stick to what I know, so I will compare this to driving.  When GPS technology became available to comerical drivers you can imagine that they were happy to have turn by turn reminders and a constant awareness of where they are should they get lost.  Setting aside the horror stories of drivers following their GPS into lakes and bridges (this is not an exaggeration), we can see the logical extreme of GPS navigation fast approaching.  Within a single decade we have seen the GPS navigation go from an assistive technology for professional drivers to a viable threat to their careers and livihood.  Fully autonomous cars and trucks are being built and tested, and semi autonomous convoys have already completed runs.  It is important that the digital humanities remains an assistive technology and does not run rampant throught the field.  All areas of our lives are becoming more and more automated and technology dependent.  We need to make sure we keep the ‘human’ in ‘humanities.’

'If I can't do it by iPhone, I don't do it.'
‘If I can’t do it by iPhone, I don’t do it.’

2 thoughts on “The Digital Humanities: Have we created a monster?”

  1. I like this idea of “assistive technology.” I wonder, though, if you would make the same criticism of the other schools of theory we’ve looked at? Are they “assistive technologies” too?

  2. I suppose they would have a similar application, but I think a clear distinction can be drawn in terms of the use of technology vs. creations of the mind. You just reminded me of something I wanted to bring up with regard to structuralism. I was thinking that if Saussure was right about the system of language deriving meaning exclusively in relation to other words, then a computer system should be able to completely understand language with the proper programming. It would be very advanced, but I was wondering if that is a motivation or goal of some of the digital humanists. – perhaps the pursuit might prove structuralism to be wrong? Maybe we still do rely on some transendental signifieds on which to base our understanding, and a computer could not replicate that?

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