Is critical discourse different in the “Digital Humanities” than it is in the humanities?

Can history be freed from ideology?
Can history be freed from ideology?

Alan Liu, a Californian professor of English literature, has raised the question of whether or not there is any real cultural criticism within the digital humanities. He notes that a professional motivation for the advocacy of digital humanities by academics is to compensate for the decline of government funding for the arts and humanities in general. Partly for this reason, he has raised the question of whether or not the criteria for critical discourses in the digital humanities and the humanities actually differ. For instance, does hyperlinking really constitute a transcending of traditional narrative structures or is it simply a new form of footnote? Does the growing popularity of the term “data” in humanities scholarship reflect a methodological shift or is it a purely linguistic shift in emphasis?

Responding to this debate, historian Fred Gibbs has suggested that a peer review rubric of digital humanities scholarship could evolve based on the four principles of “transparency, reusability, data, design”.  Gibbs’ idea would seem to directly mirror what is taking place in the emphasis of governments on e-government. According to this model, government records should be made “open” (transparent) and “(re)usable” for citizens through being exposed to the information (data) they contain. In this way, the public can have a greater appreciation of what role governments and citizens have, or can play, in society (design). If digital humanities scholarship has created an additional criteria to traditional humanities scholarship it may be the result of the debate upon why the communications (and, in turn, business) revolution made possible by digital technology has influenced people’s conception of what society and citizenship actually means. In this sense, the question that the digital humanities debate may be raising right now is not “what does it mean to be human in the digital age?” but “what does it mean to be a citizen in the digital age?”

How can education serve a civic purpose is an essentially political question. That is where the issue of funding for education or education-agendas arise. Beyond the field of money or politics, however, humanists will continue to champion regardless the idea that access to knowledge enhances our sense of humanity just as much as they have always done. The very fact that computer scientists, or information-management specialists, are perpetually developing tools for allowing for better access to information may have drawn the thinking of traditional humanists and computer scientists closer together, or perhaps they were never truly all that far apart?

The impact of technology on humanistic scholarship is a question that has often been raised but rarely answered. For instance, contrary to initial expectations, the development of railways in the early nineteenth century did not totally change people’s sense of what it meant to be human. Instead, it merely changed the business world and people’s capacity to travel and, in turn, to be exposed to a wider section of society. The tool of the internet may change the tools of education but there is no essential reason to expect that it can, or even could, fundamentally change its content. That is a process that will be based entirely on human endeavour. In this sense, the digital humanities would seem to be very political in its nature by virtue of the fact that it is highlighting issues of intent and social responsibility and perhaps interrogating traditional humanists’ priorities in this regard.

It seems to me that the healthiest potential development this might raise is that by placing more emphasis on the processing of information than the mere making of an argument, humanities scholarship may be liberated from perhaps its principal bugbear during the previous century, which was ideology being used as a short-hand for individual prejudice or as a substitute for critical thinking and empirical scholarship. Pioneers of “digital history”, such as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, have suggested in the past that historical thought may be “debugged” from the bug of ideology through such a process, although, to date, it seems that this is not a debate that has infused the historical community at large, whether within or beyond academia. This may indicate that such “digital humanists” still have a lot to do to get their message across!

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