March 23, 2012

Ancient Religion, Modern Technology: Takeaways

[Last month, I posted notes from my keynote at Brown University’s Ancient Religion, Modern Technology workshop. I was also fortunate to be invited to offer some concluding observations to the excellent group assembled there. Here they are, my very rough notes.]

1) The community of scholars interested in ancient religion has done some extraordinary digital work with extraordinarily little money. The work of Michael Penn, David Michelson, and other members of “Syraic Mafia” (as that small group of scholars working on ancient Syriac manuscripts was dubbed during the workshop) through projects such as the Syriac Reference Portal is a particularly striking example of this.

2) I was struck by the extent to which this community has identified real problems/questions and how incredibly successful it has been in answering them. It seems to me that integrity and availability of the texts is a much bigger problem in classics than in more modern history. But it is also a problem that lends itself to digital solutions: edge matching, name authority, calendar disambiguation, and handwriting recognition are clearly defined problems with clearly identifiable (if difficult) solutions. These are what we might call “instrumental” uses of technology, and they seem less current among the broader community of digital humanists. I think that broader community could benefit from a renewed focus on these kind of problems in our own domains, but I think this community could stand a broader discussion about the possibly “squishier” things that occupy much of the rest of digital humanities: new modes of scholarly communication, digital pedagogy, open access, public humanities and social media.

3) Digital humanities has too often gone searching for the elusive “one” database/tool/standard. To a large extent, this search has been driven by our funders, who are reluctant to fund multiple projects with the same ends, but we have been complicit as well. I caution this group to avoid this trap. The notion of the “one” doesn’t represent the way either technology or the humanities proceed. Technologies and ideas exist in dialog with one another. Put crudely, they compete in the marketplace. There isn’t one smartphone, and there isn’t one book about Alexander the Great, and we wouldn’t want there to be. In the same way, I don’t think there has to be or even should be one database/tool/standard for the things we want to accomplish. I don’t think we or our funders should be so concerned about duplication of effort or projects that “do the same thing.” We should strive for interoperability in our products, but we shouldn’t wish for just one. I understand where the impulse comes from. It is messy and unsatisfying to have overlapping and competing databases, standards, and tools. But what are the humanities if not messy and, ultimately, unsatisfying? These are the things that spur us on to new research.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Scheinfeldt,

    I write to thank you for this very helpful expression of a tension I have sensed as I acquaint myself with the new insurgency of the so-called “digital humanities.”

    As you may know, I’ve recently embarked on an analysis of the movement in my New York Times column (not to say, blog) and the fourth essay in the series — — makes reference to your writings on the definition of the field. It offers, I’m afraid, a bit of a challenge to the facile conclusions you draw.

    Stanley Fish

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