Essay on the digital humanities' data problem 2012-08-20


“In 2010, the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts convened a historic workshop -- it was their first jointly funded project. This meeting marked the beginning of a new level of national conversation about how computer science and other STEM disciplines can work productively with arts and design in research, creation, education, and economic development. A number of projects and follow-up workshops resulted in 2011. I was lucky enough to attend three of these events and, in the midst of all the exciting follow-up conversations, I couldn't help but wonder: What about the digital humanities? After all, the digital humanities have made it now. A recent visualization from University College London shows more than 100 digital humanities centers spread across the globe. There are dedicated digital humanities funding groups within the National Endowment for the Humanities and Microsoft Research. The University of Minnesota Press published a book of Debates in the Digital Humanities in January. So why doesn't the digital humanities have more of a seat at the table? ... I believe it is because the perception has developed, helped along by many in the field itself, that digital humanities is primarily about data. Certainly a grasp of data -- the historical record, our cultural heritage -- is a great strength of the humanities. But in the digital world, the storage, mining, and visualization of large amounts of data is just one small corner of the vast space of possibility and consequence opened by new computational processes... it has become clear to me that there are many other processes that cry out for attention. All the tools of our software society, from the document-crafting Microsoft Word to the architecture-designing AutoCAD, are enabled and defined by processes. Software processes operate Walmart's procurement system and Homeland Security's terrorist watch list. The interactivity of mobile apps and websites and video games is created through the design of processes. In other words, it is human-designed and human-interpretable computational processes that enable software to shape our daily work, our homes, our economy, our interpersonal communication, and our new forms of art and media. Processes even enable the data mining that drives much digital humanities work (and Amazon's recommendation system).For these reasons and more, when computer scientists and digital artists get together, most of what they talk about is novel processes. Why invite digital humanists, if they're going to keep dragging the conversation back to data? Of course, this stereotype is a distortion of the history and present of humanist engagement with the digital world, but it passes for truth far too often. Something needs to be done to fight it. I believe all of us with a stake in the future of the digital humanities -- and perhaps more of us have a stake than realize it at the moment -- should push for a vision of the field that acknowledges that  it has never simply been about data. Here are two areas where I think pressure is particularly important. First, the humanities is not simply defined by the data it has mastered. Whether in literature, philosophy, media studies, or some other discipline, humanists understand the data they study through particular methods. Two decades ago Phil Agre powerfully demonstrated that humanities methods could shed important new light on software processes. In his Computation and Human Experience, he performs close readings of computational systems and situates them within histories of thought. His analysis serves a primary humanities mission of helping us understand the world in which we live, while also helping reveal sources of recurring patterns of difficulty for computer scientists working in AI. It is an early example of what is now increasingly being called ‘software studies’ ... In software studies, humanities methods and values engage with the specific workings of computational processes. This sort of approach has the potential to become an exciting point of connection between the humanities and computer science, both pedagogically (as a route to the ‘computational thinking’ that is increasingly being put forward as a key component of 21st-century general education) and as a critical and ethical complement to the models of interpreting processes found in most computer science. The good news is that work of this sort is already becoming more established, with the MIT Press having recently founded both a book series for software studies and one for its sibling ‘platform studies’ ... The promise of software studies is that the digital humanities can be central to one of the most pressing issues of our time: helping us both to understand and to live as informed, ethical people within a world increasingly defined and driven by software... And we can also go further, helping to create this world. More than a quarter-century ago, Brenda Laurel's dissertation established how deep knowledge of subject matter developed within the humanities -- in Laurel's case, classical drama -- could be



08/16/2012, 06:08

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Tags: oa.mining oa.comment oa.usa oa.cs oa.humanities oa.digital_media oa.nsf oa.digital_humanities oa.nea oa.neh oa.u.california oa.digital_arts oa.platform_studies oa.software_studies oa.ssh



Date tagged:

08/20/2012, 18:52

Date published:

03/20/2012, 16:03