Organizing Knowledge and the Future of the Humanities

[This is a thought piece written for HIST946: Digital Humanities with Professor William Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. You can find related posts here.]

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, Vannevar Bush envisioned a future where the world’s knowledge was all linked together. Machines, what he called the “Memex”, would aid researchers in their task. Bush used history as an example to explain his vision, pointing a researcher examining the Crusades and following links in information to understand the adoption of long bows in combat. The Internet, in many ways, has become our Memex, but the implications this holds for historical scholarship remains a key debate in digital humanities.

What makes Bush’s vision of the future important is not simply the machines of research, but that he distinguishes between information and knowledge. Information itself means relatively little without an understanding of what the information means; what matters is how that information is contextualized, interpreted, analyzed, and disseminated. The result, then, becomes knowledge based on a body of evidence. His vision of libraries, the Memex, research, and information come together into an optimistic and ambitious future of machines working as an extension of human capabilities.

The promise of the digital library opens opportunities for humanist scholars in ways unimaginable. But with the promise comes perils. If we heed the warnings of Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, who write that the “central dynamic in the history of knowledge has been for a single institution to supersede its predecessor”, then we would be well to think carefully about their claim that “the laboratory stands poised to reform and possibly reinvent the disciplines” (193). Although Bush’s mechanical library exists, the problem faces us that although the library “persists . . . as a central auxiliary to the pursuit of knowledge . . . [it is] no longer an institution actively shaping and applying it” (191). Rather than shape knowledge, libraries are only demanded to hold it. As institutions of knowledge jumped from monastery, to university, superseded to the republic of letters, academic specialization, and finally the laboratory, the previous forms gave way and were rendered irrelevant.

The core question facing humanists emanating from McNeely and Wolverton is: will the laboratory likewise shape the humanities? Academic disciplines in the social sciences have already turned to datasets, mathematical models, and statistics to reveal insights into human behavior. The discipline of history, perhaps, tried, and failed, with this already during its flirtation with Cliometrics in the 1970s. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman famously tried to put Cliometrics into practice with the publication of Time on the Cross, an analysis of slavery in the South. Drawing on economic models and mathematical data, the two economic historians thought they had uncovered a fresh interpretation of slave life in the American South. Instead, they faced a backlash among historians who criticized the work for dehumanizing the dreadfulness of slavery. Scholars criticized the work, concluding the book limited “to the outermost ring of the scholar’s hell, obscurity” (Haskell, New York Review of Books, 1975, p. 35). Historians working in digital history continue to wrestle with the legacy of Folger and Engerman and face skepticism from their colleagues.

But challenges exist across the humanities. If we think back to last week’s readings and Christine Borgman’s insistence about the importance of infrastructures, then humanists are missing an opportunity to shape the very tools and methods we use in the pursuit of adapting scholarship to the digital. McNeely and Wolverton warn that the laboratory, not the monastery, will dominate the life of learning. The core question is how the laboratory will shape our institutions of knowledge and learning. McNeely and Wolverton do not see computers and the Internet as the next stage in knowledge reinvention (perhaps feeling, as Ian Bogost recently wrote, that “it’s idiotic to pat ourselves on the back for installing blogs and signing up for Twitter”), but digital humanities does have the potential to reach that point. We have not taken the time to build our own tools or fully consider how humanists can use computers in their study. Yet as anyone who has worked in digital humanities will tell you, the process of creation opens up a new hermeneutic quite different from traditional inquiry – whether you are marking up texts, building software, or engaging in humanistic fabrication.

Are the digital humanities the laboratory of the humanities? Funding agencies tend to privilege work with a digital component. The NEH has its own Office of Digital Humanities for such projects, and funding for documentary editing projects almost always require a digital component. However, digital humanities should not strive to be the “science” of the humanities. Large datasets, mapping projects, and databases perhaps make up some of the alphabet soup of digital humanities and give it an aura of scientific absolutism, but to assume that computation necessitates a sort of “science of humanities” obviates the true mission of humanistic inquiry. Striking the balance between humanism and computation is our ultimate goal, one that will likely offer new knowledge, new questions, and insightful analysis.

I am unconvinced that the digital humanities are playing technological catch-up (since this assumes a sort of technological progressivism that the humanities are inferior to), although it is fair to say technological adaption has been slower since humanists remain skeptical about how technology can help them in their scholarly pursuits. Computation is incredibly powerful, but what remains an open question is how humanism relates to computation. In many ways this is an advantage for digital humanists: by being inherently skeptical ourselves about computing and technology, perhaps we can make clearer decisions as makers and users.