Beyond the Digital Humanities

The NeDiMAH Conference ‘Beyond the Digital Humanities’ was held at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, on Tuesday 5th May 2015. NeDiMAH has run for four years as a project of the European Science Foundation, with the backing of research funders in a large number of European countries. Outputs of the project include the NeDiMAH Methods Ontology (NeMO), to be sustained by DARIAH, and the Methodology Map of DH in Europe.

I have an interest, having organised a joint CLARIN-NeDiMAH workshop in December 2014 in the Hague, together with colleagues from the University of Passau and Huygens ING, on the topic of ‘Exploring Historical Sources with Language Technology: results and perspectives‘.

The opening keynote of the day was from Lucy Kimbell (University of Brighton) on Open Policy Making in a Digital World: Opportunities and Possibilities for Academic Research, who took on the difficult task of getting the audience excited about the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of the civil service in relation to academic research and innovation. I didn’t feel that Lucy ever quite got to explaining the relevance of initiatives like open policy making, the government digital service, open data institute, GovJam, Policy Lab UK, etc. for the digital humanities. She made it clear that data science and social science research were informing the bureaucracy, but struggled to articulate the role of the arts and humanities, or digital variants thereof, except for the rather bizarre assertion that Ed Miliband’s desperate interview with Russell Brand (aka #Milibrand)  was a ‘cultural intervention’ in the general election campaign, presumably cited as a model for arts and humanities practitioners.

A roundtable on creativity and cultural heritage explored the aspects of the digital humanities relating to art, architecture, design. Alessio Assonitis suggested that there is too much arrangiare (roughly, making do, or makeshift arrangments) in Italian cultural heritage, and too much reliance on digital projects to prop up ailing institutions, and called for a more radical approach to promoting digital research. Helle Porsdam explored the difficulties of ethical and legal issues relating to the digital surrogates of intangible cultural heritage, focussing on the recent example of the prehistoric Chauvet cave. Jon Pratty of Arts Council England brought some scepticism about the ‘smart cities’ agenda, and, in particular, the aspiration or expectation that city-wide content management systems and centralised data dashboards might lie behind a future data-driven society, and made a plea to reorient towards creativity rather than heritage. Teal Triggs of the Royal College of Art (does everyone who works there have to adopt a colour as a forename?) asserted the importance of ‘design’ in data curation and analysis, and in forming the bridge between the physical and the digital.

Brett Bobley from the National Endowment for the Humanities (a US federal funder of research in the humanities) looked back to the ‘Our Cultural Commonwealth’, published almost ten years ago, to see what has changed and what is still relevant. Interestingly he drew attention to the weirdness of the notion of the ‘digital humanist’, not foreseen by the report and still contested. Brett introduced Trans-Atlantic Platform, which is building on the success of the Digging into Data challenge to develop more international funding schemes, and now involving 11 countries.

A panel discussion on ‘new forms of data and collaboration’ featured Keri Facer (University of Bristol), who started with appealing for more diversity among the humans who do ‘digital humanities’, and talked about AHRC Connected Communities programme. We were treated to the call to ‘check our privilege’ and to start count the number of women and ethnic minorities in the room. Whatever the digital humanities are, I think they need to be part of the humanities, and the humanities need to be informed by the intellectual traditions of the enlightenment, not the political correctness of the students’ union. If this is what beyond the digital humanities means, you can count me out.

A scientist in the audience, Peter Fletcher from the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK, suggested that a lot of discussion was about sharing data and tools, and that this needs infrastructure. Various academic communities have come together and agreed priorities for building central repositories and experimental facilities. Milena Zic-Fuchs, a linguist from the University of Zagreb, supported the call for infrastructure to support digital research, and urged the audience to support initiatives such as CLARIN and DARIAH, but also to look towards not just pan-European but global collaborations.

A final panel  on ‘Genres of scholarly knowledge and production’ featured Andrew Prescott, who offered a clear and useful explanation of the polar positions of (i) empirical, data-driven research and (ii) critiquing, questioning and problematizing the assumptions inherent in data and tools, such as canonicity, and post-colonial and environmental critiques. Barry Smith gave an entertaining presentation of work on smells from the Centre for the Study of the Senses, which engaged the public, neuroscientists and restaurant chefs with a philosopher in a humanities research project. Patrik Svensson made an appeal to the builders of infrastructure to cater not just for data and tools, but for the research processes and methods which humanists employ. Rounding off the day, Milena Zic-Fuchs outlined some of the background to NeDiMAH and the concurrent emergence of research infrastructures in the social sciences and humanities.

My overall impression was that the various suggestions put forward to promote the legitimacy of DH were not convincing, apart from Lorna Hughes straightforward presentation of an example of exemplary research (http://eira.llgc.org.uk/). This reinforced my view that wht we really need are compelling case studies which demonstrate the possibilities of digital transformations and show a real-life success story (warts and all) which stands on its own as a good piece of research in the humanities.

The discussion on the day may have left some with the impression that we are faced with a choice between, on the one hand, the utopian folly of building Procrustean infrastructure, anti-theoretical and populated with non-contextualized data, and, on the other hand, the development of a critical digital humanities with the goal of exposing the folly, puncturing the hubris, limiting environmental impact, and checking the privilege of the digital humanities. I hope there is a middle way.

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