Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by its Values

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[A very rough transcript of my talk at the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative on December 1, 2010. The DHI’s theme for this semester’s program was “What is Digital Humanities?” This is my attempt to answer—or dodge—that question. Many thanks to Matt Gold and all my friends at CUNY for a great event and a thought-provoking discussion.]

Our colleague Bethany Nowviskie might scold me if I didn’t preface this conversation by saying there are different strains of digital humanities. Bethany might define those strains as “old” and “new.” I’d probably divide things along more disciplinary lines, looking to a tradition of digital humanities that comes out of literature and one that comes out of public history. If I had to place myself along these axes I’d probably land where the “new” and “history” strains meet. There are, of course, lots of other ways to slice the pie.

But instead of exploring the genealogies of digital humanities any further, I’d like to switch gears and instead talk about digital humanities as community, or more precisely, as a set of overlapping personal communities, each one centered around individual, self-identified digital humanists. Thought of this way, digital humanities starts to look a lot like a social network. Indeed, in some ways digital humanities increasingly is a social network built, for better or worse, on Twitter’s platform. What follows is a description of digital humanities as seen from my vantage point as a node in that social network.

In as much as digital humanities is an Internet-based social network, it should come as no surprise that digital humanities looks a lot like the Internet itself. Digital humanities takes more than tools from the Internet. It works like the Internet. It takes its values from the Internet.

Jonathan Zittrain does a good job of describing these values in his excellent book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Among the values Zittrain says are hard coded into the very architecture of the Internet are something he calls the “procrastination principle” and something he calls the “trust your neighbor approach.”

The procrastination principle (or “end-to-end argument”) is a design principle that states that most features of a network should be left to users to invent and implement, that the network should should be as simple as possible and that complexity should be developed at its end points not at its core, that the network should be dumb and the terminals should be smart. This is precisely how the Internet works. The Internet itself doesn’t care whether the data being transmitted is a sophisticated Flash interactive or a plain text document. The complexity of Flash is handled at the end points and the Internet just transmits the data.

There is an analogous value in digital humanities. Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.

Zittrain points out that the procrastination principle necessarily implies a second principle he dubs the “trust your neighbor approach.” In order to permit innovation from the nodes, the network has to trust that those innovations are benign. Moreover, the network requires one server to pass along another’s packets: when I send an email to a colleague in Australia, I have to trust that my data packets will be passed along by other machines on the network in the several hops they will have to take to get to their destination. The Internet assumes assumes people will be good citizens.

Digital humanities makes some similar assumptions in its commitments to open access, open source, and collaboration. As Bethany has said elsewhere, “how many other academic disciplines or interdisciplines work so hard to manifest as ‘a community of practice that is solidary, open, welcoming and freely accessible’ — a ‘collective experience,’ a ‘common good?'” We allow allow all comers, we assume that their contributions will be positive, and we expect that they will share their work for the benefit of the community at large.

Thus in some important respects, the values of digital humanities proceed directly from the design decisions made by the original architects of the Internet. Surely we don’t always live up to these ideals, but we value them just the same.

Or at least this is the direction my theorizing of the question “What is Digital Humanities?” increasingly takes me. But in the end, I’m not sure that theorizing this question is particularly useful. Fortunately, thinking of digital humanities as a social network provides another vector along which to define it: the stuff around which it coalesces.

Most of you will already have groked the not-so-hidden reference to the Stuff White People Like blog in my title today. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this blog, it was started in 2008 by a blogger named Christian Lander and later turned into a bestselling book by the same title. Along the way, it was imitated by hundreds of other “stuff * like” blogs.

As you can see from this list, the “stuff * like” concept is by now pretty cliched. But the fact that it has been so successful as an Internet meme points to its utility: it is often easier, more comprehensible, and more productive to define diverse and diffuse communities—especially Internet communities—in terms of the things to which they gravitate rather than the abstract conceptual boundaries that separate them from other communities.

Indeed, this insight is not unique to “stuff * like” bloggers. In its current sorry state we forget how successful MySpace once was, but it became for a time the dominant social network largely on the strength of this insight, by identifying music as one of most important things around which social groups congregate. In many respects, MySpace was community or set of overlapping communities built around bands and shared music tastes. IMDB does something similar with movies. Digg does it with web links. Yelp does it with restaurants. Even Apple is directly trying to capitalize on MySpace’s original insight with its dubiously successful new music centered social network, Ping.

It follows, therefore, that if digital humanities is a social network, then one of the things that will help us understand it better is looking at the things around which the network coalesces, the stuff digital humanists like. In this I’d also make one possibly more controversial claim: not only do we like these things better than their alternatives, we like them better than their alternatives because they work better than their alternatives in the real world.

Here are five to start us off:

  • Like: Twitter / Don’t like: Facebook. The first thing we have to mention, which we have mentioned a few times already, is Twitter. The reasons we like Twitter are complex and I won’t pretend to understand them all, but I’ll throw out a few suggestions. First, its “follow” rather than “friend” model is more open, allows for the collaboration and non-hierarchy that the Internet and digital humanities values. Second, and related to this, Twitter is the place where content-creators—journalists, writers, artists, web developers, etc.—tend to hang out. We overlap with those communities, or at least seek to overlap with them, in productive ways. They are the distant nodes from which we hope new innovations will come. Third, Twitter, in the way we use it, is mostly about sharing ideas whereas Facebook is about sharing relationships. Scholars are good at ideas, maybe less so at relationships.
  • Like: Agile development / Dislike: long planning cycles. The second thing I’ll mention is agile development, the philosophy of “releasing early and often,” which we do not only with software/code but also with our ideas and writing when we Tweet, blog, and chat. We do this as good neighbors but also in the hope that releasing our code and ideas will improve with contributions from end points of our networks.
  • Like: DIY / Dislike: Outsourcing. Most of the most successful digital humanities projects are those done by scholar/technologists not those imagined by scholars and implemented by technologists. Likewise, the most successful digital humanists are scholars who know the technology, often those who are self-taught, not ones who seek a client-vendor relationship with technologists. We take this insight to heart in our hiring at CHNM, looking for people with formal training in the humanities and self-taught tech skills.
  • Like: PHP / Dislike: C++. Fourth, and following from the last point, we like PHP not C++. This is another way of saying we like the transparent, easy-to-learn, and simple (if sometimes ham-handed) technologies of the Web more than the more powerful, more sophisticated, more elegant, but less approachable compiled code of the desktop. A focus on getting the most out of simple, transparent, vernacular technologies allows us to keep the door to the field open to new entrants.
  • Like: Extramural funding / Dislike: Intramural funding. In one respect, this may seem obvious: everybody likes grants. In another respect it’s probably going a little too far to say we don’t like intramural funding: it is essential to building and maintaining capacity for our centers and staff. But it seems to me the most successful digital humanities projects are those that result from competitive grant making processes, especially the federal grant making process. Why is this? I can point to at least three reasons: 1) Attracting grant money keeps us innovating, which, like it or not, is a premium in our business. Grants are given for new work, not for more of the same. 2) Writing grants and serving on panels keep us in conversation with the field. We have to keep current and keep in touch with one another to justify our projects to grantmakers and to recommend others’ projects for funding. Increasingly, funding guidelines themselves require collaboration. 3) Unlike much traditional scholarship, which often requires one big deliverable (a book) after years of close-kept study, research, and writing, grant work requires defining and meeting a set of closely timed, concrete deliverables, a mode of work which encourages the kind of agile development so valued by the Internet and digital humanities community.

These things represent a set of shared interests, map onto a set of shared values, and in doing so they identify and define a community. We could identify lots of other things that digital humanists like and dislike. In fact your list may be very different than mine—please let me know in comments. As I said at the outset, this is just the view from my node in the network.

I haven’t “defined” digital humanities beyond defining my community and its values today and I don’t think I need to go any further than that at this point. Elsewhere I have suggested that perhaps digital humanities doesn’t have to answer questions, at least not yet. Likewise I’m not sure we have to define digital humanities yet beyond describing a community and a set of shared values. Our job for now is to continue to work together, and the rest will take care of itself.

17 Comments

  1. Very intriguing subject/definition of DH, and one that I tried, somewhat successfully, to impart to my DH students this past summer. The digital might be understood as a tool—as a means to an end. The digital might be understood as an object of study in its own right—the end (I suppose). I think, however, that the digital, at its foundational core, is about an open, at times asynchronous, interactive community. This post further confirms this belief about what DH is and its importance in transforming our work as historians and as humanists, inside and especially outside of the academy. I will be adding this post to the required reading list for my DH class this spring. Thanx.

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  3. My problem with Twitter is the tiny number of characters you can use. I’m not long winded but there’s erylittle than canfit in a Tweet. I like simplicity at the center and more complications at the user end except that makes it almost impossible to collaborate and make calculations or comparisons without standardized fields which the particular community uses. Eagerly awaiting responses.

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  10. I was thinking about XP/Pair Programming/Agile development and the humanities, which led me eventually back to this post.

    Has anyone tried to port (or succeeded at porting) one or more of those notions over to formal, high-stakes research, as far as you know? Have there been any attempts to create a process description for research using those as models?

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