Thoughts on an introduction to Digital Humanities.

I have currently studied Digital Humanities for all of two weeks in Maynooth University, only two weeks and already the concepts contained within this field have started turning cogs in my head. Having completed an undergrad in both Media Studies and History, it is quite pleasing to note that Digital Humanities combines the theories and concepts of both of these fields, yet it addresses new and exciting concepts of its own.

Looking at Digital Humanities from a historians perspective highlights a number of intriguing arguments. Foremost is the idea that as digital editions become more readily available are independent archives being effectively culled. The purpose of digital history is to turn primary sources over to the public – to allow a public history to be told rather than a predominantly academic one. Understandably, this trend causes friction between groups who deem their own version of history to be the truth, a concept that sits ill with the humanities field. The “truth” inherent in history comes from the general consensus. Yes, it can be established that events did occur and that certain individuals were present at these events but beyond that the “truth” begins to dissolve. What transpires next depends upon whether or not the public are willing to accept the “truth” put forward by historians and academics who, arguably, study the past with a more clinical eye than the general public.

Where Digital Humanities becomes truly interesting is when this relationship between public and academic history is further bridged by means of crowd sourcing. By allowing the audience to directly impact the material presented is completely anarchic and indeed may not always succeed, yet the truly fascinating product of this crowd sourcing (particularly with the advent of web communities) is that a hive mentality seems to develop. This hive or collective of users settle on their own “truth” in the material presented. When this truth is edited or changed in some way, the collective reacts and changes it back to what was the “accepted truth.” Wikipedia is a fantastic example of this: a user can edit any page and watch as their edits will be moderated by the community. In essence, the crowd sourcing hive or collective polices itself. Granted, this is not always the case. Should a digital repository come under a more vicious attack, be it hacking or something else, the changes can be harder to regulate than simply leave it to the community. This example of Digital History seems to hark back to Marshal McLuhan’s belief that “the medium is the message.” In essence, by opening a two way channel between academic and public, digital history is advancing at a rapid and exciting pace.

Looking at Digital Humanities from a Media background is equally as intriguing. Academia is no longer linear – no longer a matter of turning pages in a book. ┬áThe advancement of the digital era has introduced a swathe of new methods to represent data, be it through videography, digital models and more. With the ability to build websites to host scanned documents, videos and images of historical information, public interest in history is waxing strong (of course this may have something to do with the decade of centenaries taking place). These digital repositories are a form of double edged sword however. While it is true that such collections may bolster interest in historical collections, it can be argued that viewing such primary sources through a screen has an effect akin to what Walter Benjamin calls “a loss of aura.” Viewing a primary source with only a pane of glass separating the audience from the material carries a much different charge to viewing the same source through a screen. In essence, it seems to be similar to the argument that audiences are becoming increasingly desensitized through media. Being that extra step removed from a source does lessen its impact. Yet, Digital Humanities gives us a fantastic advantage that we can visit a multitude of sources that audiences may not usually have had access to. As mentioned above, a double edged sword.

These are just some collected ramblings on the first two weeks of Digital Humanities in Maynooth, more shall follow in the days ahead.

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