May 12, 2010

Where's the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?

The criticism most frequently leveled at digital humanities is what I like to call the “Where’s the beef?” question, that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?

Concern over the apparent lack of argument in digital humanities comes not only from outside our young discipline. Many practicing digital humanists are concerned about it as well. Rob Nelson of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, an accomplished digital humanist, recently ruminated in his THATCamp session proposal, “While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.” A recent post on the Humanist listserv expresses one digital humanist’s “dream” of “a way of interpreting with computing that would allow arguments, real arguments, to be conducted at the micro-level and their consequences made in effect instantly visible at the macro-level.”

These concerns are justified. Does digital humanities have to help answer questions and make arguments? Yes. Of course. That’s what humanities is all about. Is it answering lots of questions currently? Probably not really. Hence the reason for worry.

But this suggests another, more difficult, more nuanced question: When? When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments? Does it have to produce new arguments now? Does it have to answer questions yet?

In 1703 the great instrument maker, mathematician, and experimenter, Robert Hooke died, vacating the suggestively named position he occupied for more than forty years, Curator of Experiments to the Royal Society. In this role, it was Hooke’s job to prepare public demonstrations of scientific phenomena for the Fellows’ meetings. Among Hooke’s standbys in these scientific performances were animal dissections, demonstrations of the air pump (made famous by Robert Boyle but made by Hooke), and viewings of pre-prepared microscope slides. Part research, part ice breaker, and part theater, one important function of these performances was to entertain the wealthier Fellows of the Society, many of whom were chosen for election more for their patronage than their scientific achievements.

Hauksbee's Electrical Machine

Upon Hooke’s death the position of Curator of Experiments passed to Francis Hauksbee, who continued Hooke’s program of public demonstrations. Many of Hauksbee’s demonstrations involved the “electrical machine,” essentially an evacuated glass globe which was turned on an axle and to which friction (a hand, a cloth, a piece of fur) was applied to produce a static electrical charge. Invented some years earlier, Hauksbee greatly improved the device to produce ever greater charges. Perhaps his most important improvement was the addition to the globe of a small amount of mercury, which produced a glow when the machine was fired up. In an age of candlelight and on a continent of long, dark winters, the creation of a new source of artificial light was sensational and became a popular learned entertainment, not only in meetings of early scientific societies but in aristocratic parlors across Europe. Hauksbee’s machine also set off an explosion of electrical instrument making, experimentation, and descriptive work in the first half of the 18th century by the likes of Stephen Gray, John Desaguliers, and Pieter van Musschenbroek.

And yet not until later in the 18th century and early in the 19th century did Franklin, Coulomb, Volta, and ultimately Faraday provide adequate theoretical and mathematical answers to the questions of electricity raised by the electrical machine and the phenomena it produced. Only after decades of tool building, experimentation, and description were the tools sufficiently articulated and phenomena sufficiently described for theoretical arguments to be fruitfully made.*

There’s a moral to this story. One of the things digital humanities shares with the sciences is a heavy reliance on instruments, on tools. Sometimes new tools are built to answer pre-existing questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Hauksbee’s electrical machine, new questions and answers are the byproduct of the creation of new tools. Sometimes it takes a while, in which meantime tools themselves and the whiz-bang effects they produce must be the focus of scholarly attention.

Eventually digital humanities must make arguments. It has to answer questions. But yet? Like 18th century natural philosophers confronted with a deluge of strange new tools like microscopes, air pumps, and electrical machines, maybe we need time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately. At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later. We need time to experiment and even—as we discussed recently with Bill Turkel and Kevin Kee on Digital Campus—time to play.

The 18th century electrical machine was a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t.


* For more on Hooke, see J.A. Bennett, et al., London’s Leonardo : The Life and Work of Robert Hooke (Oxford, 2003). For Hauksbee and the electrical machine see W.D. Hackmann, Electricity from glass : The History of the Frictional Electrical Machine, 1600-1850 (Alphen aan den Rijn, 1978) and Terje Brundtland, “From Medicine to Natural Philosophy: Francis Hauksbee’s Way to the Air-Pump,” The British Journal for the History of Science (June, 2008), pp. 209-240. For 18th century electricity in general J.L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries : A Study of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley, 1979) is still the standard. Image of Hauksbee’s Electrical Machine via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Wow, I was thinking exactly the same thing when I went to visit Stanford’s Literature Lab just 2 days ago. (They’re tracking stylistic changes in 19th C British and American novels using text mining).

    I absolutely agree with the sentiments here. Eventually, the digital humanities is going to have to work for its pay (such as it is) but right now, like any other collaborative discipline the different sides are still learning about each other. In fact, I wrote a blog post about it where I, as a computational linguist, expressed some frustration with the literature scholars lack of knowledge of scientific methodology.

    I think that too much pushing for results can be counterproductive. We need to allow time for learning, or we risk producing bad results and having all the knowledge that’s really out there not taken seriously.

  2. The problem is though that most of the technology is being invented in other departments like engineering, computer science, etc. (at least the algorithms if not the implementations)…it seems like digital humanists might be the aristocrats buying the technology for their parlous in this metaphor…so we might want to move a little faster on using it to create arguments and answers

  3. The fantastically named “Curator of Experiments” position reminds me of the recent president’s column in the Summer 2010 MLA Newsletter, in which MLA President Sidonie Smith lays out alternatives to the traditional dissertation. Happily, “digital projects” count among these alternatives. Furthermore, Smith suggests that “such projects might be conceived under the rubric of curation rather than argumentation.”

    I’ll point out that all acts of curation (just as all acts of narration) present an argument, even if only implicitly, but still, I’m glad to see the MLA begin the slow pivot away from Argument (with a capital A). We need more room for curation, more room for play, more room to, well, frankly, to fail.

  4. Digital humanists, it seems to me, are making arguments all the time, using tools for spatial analysis and text mining and social network analysis to answer questions. But generally the articulation of those arguments are not made using mediums that are intrinsically digital–they’re made, generally, through text. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that.

    What I’ve been thinking about is whether and how digital media might allow us to make different kinds of arguments than we can make using text. David Staley suggests in _Computers, Visualization, and History_ that visualizations can convey simultaneity of phenomena in a way that can only be approximated through text and that visualization lends itself to synthesis while text lends itself to analysis. I’m not as much interested in the question of whether digital humanist need to answer questions and make arguments as I am in asking how can the kinds of tools were developing and experimenting with–and I’m thinking particularly about different kinds of visualizations–be used to answer questions and make arguments. More than that, are there new kinds of arguments we can make? Do visualizations, for example, enable us to convey an understanding of complex processes that draw upon huge amounts of evidence in ways we can’t do using text? I think one of the opportunities we have as digital humanists is to play with argumentation itself and experiment with developing new modes and methods and mediums for conveying ideas and answering questions.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.