The digital humanities

Mark O'Connell in The New Yorker:

Bright-lights-big-dataUntil about six months ago, when I finally fled the sinking ship of my academic career for the precarious lifeboat of freelance writing, I worked on the top floor of a sleek, contemporary building in the center of Dublin called the Long Room Hub. High and airy, it overlooked the venerable panorama of Trinity College. The building was intended as a home for innovative research across the various disciplines of the arts and the humanities, and one of the priorities of the research was to facilitate a relatively recent academic enthusiasm known as the digital humanities. My desk in the building came as part of a postdoctoral fellowship I was doing; the project had no connection to anything that could be considered digital, but I was happy to have a place to sit and put my books.

Occasionally, I would be cc’ed on an e-mail asking everyone in the building to provide brief outlines of our research projects so that they could be included in promotional materials for the Long Room Hub, but I consistently managed, without consequence, to avoid answering these. (A lot of the other postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers were working on forbiddingly technical-sounding projects involving things like the “systematic evaluation of archeological digital epistemology” and “digital genetic dossiers.” I was basically just trying to think of clever things to say about the work of John Banville.) When I mentioned to fellow literary academic types where I happened to work—or work from—they tended to suspect that this work of mine had something to do with the digital humanities, and to ask me what the mysterious business was supposed to be about. To this, I usually replied that I wasn’t totally sure, but that I thought it had something to do with using computers to read books. As far as I could tell, there was a general skepticism about the digital humanities, combined with a certain measure of unease—arising, perhaps, from the vague aura of utility, even of outrightscience, emanating from the discipline, and the sense that this aura was attracting funding that might otherwise have gone to more low-tech humanities projects.

Having read “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture,” a new book by the scientists Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, I am now experiencing a minor uptick in my understanding of this discipline.

More here.