Notes for review of DIGITAL HUMANITIES
by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
176 pp. Trade, $24.95
Reviewed by George Shortess
This book has already been reviewed for Leonardo by Dene Grigar of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver. It is a very good review that provides an excellent summary of the book and highlights the variety of modes of scholarship that will result from digital approaches that have “the potential to transform the content, scope, methodologies and audience of humanistic inquiry” (123). One of the major needs in the field is for digital techniques to be developed specifically from a humanities perspective. I certainly agree with both the importance and potential of the digital in the humanities and the need for new approaches. And I agree that the book should be read by “everyone in the academy” as Dene Grigar recommends. However I would like to add a few cautionary remarks, hopefully in a constructive way.
I recognize that one of the purposes of the book is to promote Digital Humanities. However, while the authors do point to some potential problems (page15 for example), they tend to describe what might be possible with Digital Humanities, without developing sufficiently what might go wrong and how to guard against it. Data corruption, either intentional or inadvertent, presents such an issue. In a very limited way I have dealt with the issue in documenting my own art work and in doing computer-based data analysis. However, the problems become much more complex when using an open source mode and large data sets, as the authors are promoting. How do you insure the integrity of digital information? What safeguards should be in place?
Another issue that needs to be addressed more thoroughly is funding. Since the humanities are traditionally under funded, how do you get access to funds, equipment, expertise, and other necessary resources to accomplish large scale digital projects in the humanities? While certain projects can surely be done, the difficulties in mounting the resources necessary to do some of the discussed projects are considerable.
On a more general level, I am reminded of the well-documented phenomenon of unintended consequences. What might the unintended consequences be in Digital Humanities? And from the Digital Business world, I would point out that while obviously there are many tremendous gains in productivity and functionality using digital technology, the so-called paperless office has not taken over, as many had predicted.
Without downplaying the importance of Digital Humanities, I feel more discussion of the problem issues would make its prospects more realistic and avoid the tendency to oversell Digital Humanities. Maybe these issues can be discussed in volume 2 of Digital Humanities.
One final thought - The authors paint a picture of the future of the humanities scholarship as a product of teams of specialists working on projects with open source techniques and materials (p 49). I agree that this will happen and has happened to a degree. However, I think there is still a significant place in the humanities for the individual scholar working in depth on a limited project. Working in teams is another very valuable approach to ask different questions using different methods. The book is a concise and valuable introduction to this exciting direction in the humanities that promises to help us understand our humanity more clearly.