In my previous entry, I defined digital humanities and discussed whether digital humanities were a revolution, a technical improvement of usual humanities’ business, or just flashy rhetoric. I did not provide any absolute answer regarding the discussion, but I delivered some arguments to understand why certain scholars think of digital humanities in the way they do. This time I am further explaining some qualities of digital humanities I did not touch on in my previous entry. I am also presenting some of the fascinating applications of implementing digital technologies to usual humanistic activities.
If there is one critical difference between what I will call here traditional humanities and digital humanities, it is the thought process you must engage with when conducting each of those and the number of people involved in successfully completing a project. In terms of thought process, traditional humanities are heirs of print technology. Print is a technology that changed the world, and the humanities learned to engage with ideas in the linear way print demands. If you want to get ideas out of a printed text, you don’t have many choices. The most probable outcome is you are reading from left to right (if you are reading a western piece) and from the starting point to the endpoint (if you finish the piece, of course). Digital humanities challenge linearity in many ways, and with that challenge the way scholars engage with text is changing. For example, with the help of certain programs you can easily take ideas out of a text by counting particular words and comparing their quantities. You could do that with no software tools before, but the amount of work and the challenges to make it right made it very difficult. Today, you only need a digitized document and a program to complete that operation in seconds. In other words, digital humanities can change the way we read, and with it, the thought process we usually commit to when developing or thinking about projects. I don’t think this is good or bad by default, and we need to reflect upon the effects of these new kinds of reading ways.
The most revolutionary change digital humanities bring to the table in my perspective is the emergence of teams and laboratories in the humanities. Yes, we have heard of exceptional teams of intellectuals writing and discussing together to produce powerful accounts of a varied range of topics. I can think of the famous Frankfurt School or the Birmingham School. But digital humanities are not feasible without relying on peers across different disciplines and without investing time in learning some basic programming skills. The skills needed to digitize and visualize ancient texts written in copper on a computer, for example, are not skills a usual historian gets from their professional training. At the same time, if you are an anthropologist working in a museum interested in producing moveable collections visitors can carry with them, you may want to work with a programmer and an engineer to produce a museum in a box. Digital humanities challenge the ideal of becoming a brilliant and lone intellectual in favor of having more collaborative humanists, even when many digital humanities projects are monographical.
But let’s get into some exciting applications you can find in the world of digital humanities. I will talk about data visualization, digitization, spatial representation and analysis, network analysis, and text analysis. Data visualization in digital humanities can take many forms: from tables and spreadsheets to colorful graphs helping make sense of tons of data. The State has usually compiled data, but today you can pull data from hundreds of private and open sources. For example, in one of my first digital humanities projects I built in this fellowship with two other fellows, I took data from Wikiwand to visualize changes in how the UN world heritage sites were conceptualized and how they changed over time. A few weeks ago, I found a very interesting example summarizing the history of philosophy from a very Eurocentric point of view. I am leaving it below this paragraph, and you may be the one producing a more compelling depiction of the history of philosophy by including non-north-Atlantic thought. In the end, digital humanities are all about finding creative ways of visualizing data and making more compelling arguments with that data. So all the following applications are different forms of data visualization.
Digitization is a process in which a material object is translated into informatic data. Objects can be two-dimensional, like a painting, and three-dimensional, like a statue or even a landscape. Digitization serves the purpose of providing wider accessibility for a museum’s collection. It also serves to protect cultural heritage from complete destruction due to war or other disasters. But it can also help analyze cultural objects. In the following video, you can see how digital technologies can help us make sense of antiquities that are hard to interpret due to the passage of time.
Another critical application of digital humanities is spatial representation and analysis. Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies and web maps have provided many opportunities for humanists interested in the relationships humans have with space. In Mapping Colombian Emblematic Memories, a digital humanities project I started last year, I use web-mapping to tell a story about how Colombians dispute the meaning of the violent Colombian past. With the map story I use, I try to connect national debates to international developments. I also used web mapping technologies to show in the same map sites of memory that have never shared the same map in Colombia. I pulled data from the Colombian National Police and the Colombian Network of Sites or Memory to present a more comprehensive map of the Colombian politics of memory.
Network analysis and text analysis are two alternatives of data analysis and visualization that have a lot to do with the humanities. Ego-centric or socio-centric network analyses are helpful to make sense of particular social processes by visualizing the associations of individuals, organizations, or even tweets. Text analysis is a collection of methods to analyze human discourse, but informatics has made it much more systematic, traceable, and reproducible. For instance, if in the past it was not very clear how an author analyzed political discourse, in the present, you only have to request access to the codebook the author was using in MAXQDA or any other qualitative software package to run it yourself and check for consistencies and inconsistencies. And if the project is hosted in a platform like GitHub and you check some problems, you could also request changes or reporting issues, so the author corrects them!
There are tons of things to talk about the applications I have described, but I want to end this entry by briefly mentioning an academic issue. In the world of academic research and universities, we don’t really know how to value digital scholarship. From what I have observed, in the United States, the problem is not as big. Due to the number of sources of funding you can find in America, a humanist scholar can always claim to bring financial resources to their university when starting a project. So if it is true the end result of a digital humanities project won’t be as valued as a research article in a very prestigious journal, the scholar successfully completing a digital humanities project can claim they are bringing financial resources to the university. However, in Latin America and other places where funding is so rare, digital humanities may be in a tough spot. So we have to consider how to value this very time-consuming and productive activity outside of the traditional way universities value scholarship.