I provided a vague depiction of what I will be writing about this year in my previous entry. I wrote I was interested in depicting the digital humanities field in Latin America, but I did not discuss this digital humanities thing. So, what are we talking about when we refer to the concept of digital humanities? Are we talking about history on a touchscreen? Are we thinking about text analysis using statistical software? Or maybe we are eliciting the intersection of informatics with the humanities? From what I have experienced during the past year, all those possibilities are fair assumptions, but let’s go over a better discussion on this.

According to Oxford Languages, digital is an adjective of signals or data expressed as a series of zeros and ones. I have no energies to go down the rabbit hole of informatics theory, so let us say the digital part of our concept refers to the ability to engage with information technologies we use in our everyday lives, such as a computer, a cellphone, a tablet, or a website those devices summon like if it was the product of magic. The humanities seem to be a much less stable term, though.

The humanities are those branches of knowledge engaging with human beings and their culture, which is a very ambitious thing to do. Most people think the humanities are all those disciplines studying society, but that is not entirely the truth, at least if you ask Immanuel Wallerstein or Michael Rolph Trouillot (you can’t, they passed away ☹). In other words, if you acknowledge the history of the academic study of humanity and its expressions, you will find social sciences (like sociology, political science, or anthropology) are not humanities. On the other hand, you will find philosophy, literature, art, and history are. In any case, those distinctions are arbitrary, and, for instance, you can see political scientists flirting with the humanities while engaging in very critical ways with the most “scientific” side of their academic tradition (think about Timothy Mitchell or James Scott).

 Experts suggest digital humanities constitute a field where humanists and social scientists have a space to visualize data for a wider public than the one you find in universities and analyze in different ways varying amounts of data with software tools. However, not even experts agree on a clear-cut definition of the field or about its history. We should not be surprised. Consensus in highly specialized sites of knowledge production is more elusive than most people think. But let’s say there are three main positions regarding digital humanities history and identity: The first one is made of enthusiasts. They suggest digital humanities are a revolution. The second one is more tempered, suggesting it is only a continuation of humans’ interactions with information technologies (like a book). Digital humanities are providing some advantages in terms of public outreach and data analysis capabilities, but there is no revolution to be seen. The third one is more critical and considers Digital Humanities can easily become rhetoric, a very dangerous kind of rhetoric. According to those critical voices, practices like hermeneutics could be in danger due to an improper understanding of what digital tools can do to better understand human issues.

 Those who think digital humanities are a revolution see informatics tools as a gate towards more objective accounts of reality, free of human biases. Machine learning and artificial intelligence appear as a marvelous promise of rigor and reproducibility, two critical principles of scientific research. Those individuals also believe harnessing the power of digital technologies will finally bring together researchers and “the public.” No more ivory tower with open source, open science, and so on. Digital technologies will also bridge academic disciplines that have been apart, providing more comprehensive accounts of reality. Finally, enthusiasts praise the ability to process vast amounts of data in minutes, something that a “classic researcher” would have to do in weeks, months, or even years.

The more tempered scholars engaging with digital humanities acknowledge the importance of the technical improvements informatics has brought to the field of the humanities and the social sciences in terms of providing more efficient ways to deal with data. They also praise the possibilities to connect with a wider audience and with other disciplines. Digital humanities in the shape of cultural heritage digitization, to quote a single example, proves the point (check the short PBS video about high-tech replicas ). However, tempered scholars like Olivier Le Deuff acknowledge that “to reduce this history down to the emergence of computing tools and their use by human and social science researchers does neither help us understand the relationships nor the numerous interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary attempts that have made it possible to introduce new methodologies for understanding and analyzing.” In other words, we must take great care in avoiding the so common issue of fetishizing a technical improvement.    

Critical voices fight against the fetishization of informatics, especially regarding data analysis. Like many anthropologists have reminded me, informatics tools can tell in very precise ways the number of iterations a critical or a very irrelevant concept has in a text, but it cannot decipher their meaning, which is always profoundly contextual (and not always present in a text by itself). But the critics’ critique goes further. Digital analytic tools we use often are black boxes we do not necessarily understand, and the subjective decisions programmers make may appear to us as objectivity, as unbiased processes a machine performs with mathematical perfection. On the other hand, major visibility of social science and the humanities research does not mean a good thing by default. In a world flooded with information and misinformation, we should start reflecting upon the dark side of visibility and public access.

But I don’t want to end this entry with a dark tone!! Now that we have had a short conversation about what digital humanities are and how some knowledgeable practitioners interpret them, let me close this entry by sharing my plans for the future with these monthly entry posts. I also want to share my gratitude towards you, a person who decided to use some of their free and hard-earned free time to go through the ideas I write. I promise to you following entries will show the bright contours of digital humanities while we explore what is happening in Latin America.

November December January February March April May
Applications of Digital Humanities A brief history of Digital Humanities in Latin America Digital humanities in Mexico Digital humanities in Argentina Digital humanities in Brazil Digital Humanities in Colombia Digital humanities in MSU. LEADR and CHI