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June 1, 2015

I just returned from a HASTAC conference at Michigan State, where it was my first time being within a larger community with many folks self-proclaiming as “digital humanists” (or “digital liberal arts” scholars, depending on your semantic preferences).   It was fun to see what got people excited: from text mining and topic modeling, to time geography, gaming pedagogy, sonic body movement, and even a time capsule headed for the moon.

It was a generally very optimistic and energetic crowd, so I thought I’d frame my reflections in the spirit of looking forward, with optimism.  When I think ahead to ten years from now, some predictions…

“Digital Humanities” will again become “the Humanities”

Ten years hence, we’ll forget there was ever any other way of doing things.  Humanities will continue to be about studying the diverse forms of human culture, human ingenuity, and human thought.  Part of that study will naturally include using digital tools in diverse ways: as tools to support humanistic inquiry, as expressive media for artistic creation, and as useful foils to our own humanity that help us explore the recesses of what it means to be “human”.

Humanists will constantly be striving to make opaque tools more transparent and malleable

Currently, most of us who make use of software, the Internet, and other digital tools use them in a relatively “black box” way.  We give inputs and expect outputs.  We hope for results, and fear “the blue screen of death”.  Our digital tools are relatively opaque to us; we accept them as means to our ends.  (One way to test whether you’re using a tool as a means in this way is to ask yourself: How upset will I be if this breaks?  If your answer is “very upset”, then you’re using the tool primarily as a means.)

If humanists are doing their jobs ten years from now, they will help us examine our digital tools as ends in themselves–just as painting, or sculpture, or literature are manifestations of the human drive to create.  They will strive to make the digital tools that we employ opaquely now into more transparent objects for discourse and consideration moving forward.  This likely means that they will be learning some computer science as part of their humanistic training.  This does not mean they will become computer scientists, mind you, since computer science will also undoubtedly make great advances in ten years’ time–but humanists will know enough to be literate and able to compose meaningful code to advance humanistically meaningful ends.  They will also be formidable partners when working with computer science colleagues–holding them to high ethical standards, and challenging them to think in creative, critical and humane ways.

Humanists will be architects building their own worlds

Humanists will no longer settle for digital software Levittowns monolithically peddled to satisfy the latest flights of fancy.  Nor will they have to ask software people to “build them the world” each time they want to embark on a creative foray into digitally-supported inquiry.  Instead, they will claim their role as architects–ever more versed in the nuance and substrate of digital tools and how they can be constructed.  They may still enlist the aid of programmers to construct some of their grander homes of inquiry, but humanists themselves will lay the blueprints, and their tools will become custom-built houses of their own design.

Text will likely still be a favorite modality of theirs–old habits shouldn’t die–but other modalities will surface.  Humanists will become witty, reflective, critical, and mindful authors of code.  And they will read others’ code just as voraciously as they read others’ text articles.

Digital modes of inquiry will have crystallized

This is the prediction I have mixed enthusiasm about.  Right now, we’re in a very exciting, tinker-y space.  We’re swimming in what sometimes feels like an interestingly hyper-saturated saccharine bath: digital humanistic questions are suspended in a fun kind of quasi-articulation, and the substrate is thick with possibilities for digital lines of inquiry. But ten years hence, we’ll be rock candy.  We will, perhaps, have crystallized into interesting forms, but we’ll have more inertia around these forms.

So let’s enjoy this liminal space while it lasts, and let’s make sure we steer it creatively and ethically while we can, before it gets too entrenched.


And future self, if you’re reading this ten years from now (although I hope you have something better to do by then): remember today and the sense of vagueness, confusion, low-grade angst, but above all…possibility.  Today, there are relatively few dogmas when it comes to digital approaches to humanities scholarship.  Some of us are feeling the vague sense that “we must figure something out” or we’ll be “missing out on something important”.  It’s the same sense that accompanies an impending adventure.  Ten years from now, may we not forget this sense of adventure, and may we suspend our sense of having “figured things out” in favor of an ongoing hope for new possibilities.

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

(Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

May we grow stronger and more curious together.

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