10A. Critical Issues

Digital Humanities under Development

(JDrucker 9/2013)

The field of digital humanities is growing rapidly. Many new platforms and tools are under development at any time that are relevant to work in digital humanities. Timelines and mapping, visualization and virtual rendering, game engines and ways of doing data mining and image processing. All are areas where research has a history and a cutting edge, a future as well as a past. All are relevant to the work that addresses cultural materials from a wide range of domains, communities, disciplines, and perspectives. But no matter what the tools are some basic issues remain central to our work and activities. These can be divided roughly into those that deal with techniques and the assumptions shaping the processing of knowledge and/or information in digital format, and those that add a critical or cultural dimension to our engagement with those materials. No tools are value neutral. No projects are without interpretative aspects that inflect and structure the ways they are carried out. The very foundations of knowledge design are inflected with assumptions about how we work and what the values are at the center of our activities. Efficiency, legibility, transparency, ease of use or accessibility are terms freighted with assumptions and judgments.

One of the ways to get a sense of what the new topics or areas of research is is to engage with the primary journal publications in this field. Digital Humanities Quarterly has been in existence since about 2007 and provides a very rich and lively forum for presentation of new research, reviews, and debate. It has the advantage of focusing on “digital humanities” rather than on linguistic computing, which was the field that had the most extensive development in the decades before DH was more defined that still has some connection to its ongoing activities. Now almost every field of humanities and social sciences has digital activity integrated into its research, and though natural language processing remains important, it does not have an exclusive claim on either methods or subjects being pursued.

Exercise: Go to DHQ and look through the index. Summarize the trends and ideas in the index that might be relevant to your own work, project and/or academic discipline. What are the lacunae? What don’t you see here that seems important to you?http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/

New media criticism has an entirely other life beyond DH, and though the cross-over of critical theorists and hands-on project designers is frequent, this is not always reflected in the design of projects or their implementation. A pragmatic explanation for this phenomenon is that the tools and platforms still require that researchers conform to the formal, more logical, and explicit terms of computational activity, leaving interpretative and ambiguous approaches to the side, even if they are fundamental to humanistic method. Is this really the case? Similarly, the highly developed discussions of cultural values and their impact on design, knowledge, communication, and media formats that come out of the fields of new media studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, feminist and queer studies, are all relevant to DH. They are relevant not only at the level of thematic content and objects of investigation, but within the formulation of methods and approaches to the design of tools, projects, and platforms.

Exercise: Take an issue from critical studies with which you are familiar – the critique of value-neutral approaches to technology, for instance—and address your own project. What changes in the design would you need to make to incorporate some of the ideas in Alan Liu’s piece into its implementation? What is the difference between designing methods that encorporate critical issues and representing content from such a point of view?

Because new tools are being developed within the digital humanities community, as well as being appropriated for its purposes, it is sometimes hard to keep up with what is available. To have an idea of what the new tools and platforms are for doing digital work, go to the Bamboo/DiRT (Digital Research Tools) site.

Exercise: Look at one of the versions of the DiRT Site:https://digitalresearchtools.pbworks.com/w/page/17801672/FrontPage or


Take some time to look at the tools and think about what they can do and how they would enhance your project. What would be involved in using them? How do they work together? Where does your knowledge break down?

Exercise: Lev Manovich and Alan Liu offer very different insights into the ways we could think about digital humanities and new media. But other debates in the field continue to expand the discussion as well. What are the basic issues in each of Manovich and Liu’s pieces and how do they relate to the work you have been doing on the projects? What are the kinds of concerns they raise?

While the lessons in this sequence have covered many basic topics, and tried to bring critical perspectives into the discussion of technical and practical matters, some areas have not been touched on to any great extent. The course provides an overview of fundamentals, each of which requires real investment of time and energy if it is to be understood in any depth. Learning how to structure data, use metadata, engage in the design of databases and structures, do any kind of serious mark-up, GIS, or visualization work is a career path, not just a small skill that is part of a set of easily packaged approaches. But the principles of structured and unstructured data, of classification schemes as worldviews, and of parameterization as a fundamental act of interpretation have implications for any and all engagements with digital media and technology.


The field of digital humanities is far from stable. To some extent, it is a gamble whether the field will continue to exist or whether its techniques and methods will be absorbed into the day to day business of research, teaching, and resource management. But whatever happens to the field, the need to integrate critical issues and insights into the practical technical applications and platforms used to do digital humanities is significant. Thinking through the design of projects in such a way that some recognition of critical issues is part of the structure as well as the content is a challenge that is hard to meet in the current technical environment, but conceptualizing the foundations for such work is one step towards their realization.

Required reading for 10B

Study questions for 10B

  1. What are the obstacles for creating communities of practice that allow projects to be federated with each other?
  2. How do issues of intellectual property change in a digital environment?
  3. What support for and criticism of “open access” are necessary in thinking about cultural materials while respecting the values of individual communities and their differences?

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