remembering the humanities in digital humanities

I was asked a question recently that I wasn’t expecting. I was asked by a ruby developer what could be learned from the past. It was a sincere question. But I realized when he asked it that I generally assume the value of historical inquiry. I assume that you can learn a lot from the past, it just depends on what questions you ask.

But to go further, the question he was asking wasn’t simply, “is there any value in studying history?” It was, what can we, the community of developers and entrapreneurs, learn from the practice of history and from studying our history.

That’s when it struck me – we spend a lot of time in the digital humanities talking about using digital tools and methodologies for studying the past. Which is good. But we don’t spend nearly as much time talking about what the humanities brings to this partnership. Perhaps that is because we assume we know what it is. Or perhaps we are unsure ourselves.

Humanities scholars do bring something, and it’s more than the cultural “raw material” for study. We bring questions, questions about persons and community, questions that help focus attention on structures of power, on the formation of identity, on links between peoples and patterns across events. Questions that highlight contingency and thereby open up opportunities for change.

I find that many people who work in digital production find the concept of the digital humanities intriguing. I also find the question of “so what can you tell us” to be prevalent, a question that, as someone who prefers to study 19th-century religion, I am not sure how to answer.

It would be an interesting experiment to apply the questions and methodologies I want to use for studying the past to study the recent past. It would also be terrifying, because, well, dead people don’t talk back, and that’s comforting. But it would be instructive to see if the story constructed using humanities and digital analysis tracks with and can shed new light on the story this particular community tells itself.

(I just remembered that this is what people who do ethnographic research do all the time. Yay! People who can help!)

I am intrigued by the idea of claiming questions, or a particular mode of inquiry, as the contribution that the humanities brings to this discussion. While the technology is important and digital humanities scholars should not be content with black boxes or giving conceptual direction without getting their hands “dirty” (more on this later), we should not loose site of the humanities in the digital.

So what can a humanities scholar offer a community of developers? Perhaps a story. A story that helps reveal metanarratives – the assumptions about their community and the stories they tell themselves about their place in the world. A story that helps start conversations about where to go next as a community of practice.