Will the Digital Humanities save the world?

A very personal recap of DHd-Tagung 2015 “Von Daten zu Erkenntnissen”, 23rd-27th February (Graz) and DHSummit 2015 3rd-5th March  (Berlin)

During the last weeks I had the pleasure to attend to the Digital Humanities Conferences DHd Graz and DHSummit Berlin. It were very inspiring days: full of talks, private chats and many merry moments, last but not least was one highlight the city tour Graz at Night. However, the most important were of course the lectures and presentations! So, before I go one, first a very warm Thank You to the organizers and all the people who were involved with the preparations and those who took care of the conferencing crowd!

As I had to miss Manfred Thallers keynote at DHd2015 and only got a glimpse on its content via Twitter, I was happy to hear him live at the DHSummit. What struck me most, was his claim for theory, a very urgent claim that is being discussed at the moment in the DH community. Without theory in most cases DH doesn’t really seem make sense, because if you cannot validate your results by methods, which worth do your research results have?

To gain more comprehension and recognition from the (hmmm… traditional?) Humanities, new methods and new theories are needed. This means that traditional methods cannot (or should not?) be applied one to one in DH research. For example for editorial sciences this means finding new ways for editions and not trying to rebuild digitally the critical apparatus that already in print no-one, except the editorial scientist, understands – or even worse – is interested in. It also means that you have to indicate if your results are valid, as Malte Rehbein pointed out, it depends if a trend is a trend, or only an indication of different quality of your data. As humanists we neither want our research results influenced by our breakfast preferences (one citation from the DHSummit) nor by bad data or lacking methods.

Which brings us to another topic that was discussed intensely during both conferences, standards and sustainability. The Digital Humanities thrive on data. Whether we call them big data or small data or smart data, we need digital data. Questions concerning the long term preservation of digital data, especially of complex data (editions, databases, 3D-visualisations, interactive visualisations, etc.), have to be solved very urgently. Sustainable infrastructures that can be held responsible for this task are needed. I was quite impressed about the amount of people in the audience during the panel discussion of the AG Datenzentren at Graz as discussing long term preservation is not the hottest topic in the DH community (yet). More about this topic from a metaperspective can be found in Christine L. Borgmans latest book: Big Data, Small Data, No Data and I am looking forward for her lecture in Göttingen.

Last but not least, the evening lecture by Michael Seemann and Ralf Stockmann at the DHSummit ended in minor with an apocalyptic prophecy: humanity will be extincted by computer super intelligence in the near future (say around 2030, more about it here). During the lively discussion afterwards there was however a glimpse of hope, maybe getting the Humanities more involved in these developments and not leave it all to the military etc. might save the world for the next generation…

I am not a prophet, so I don’t know if the (Digital) Humanities will have the super power to save the world from the Super Intelligence Computer Apocalypse or rend humanity immortality (though the last sounds quite intriguing), but I am strongly convinced they are adding many interesting aspects to the Humanities. Maybe at the moment they are “a flower some use to adorn themselves with” (another metaphor used in Berlin), though some scholars fear the extinction of the Humanities by the Digital Humanities.

However we will call them in the future, Digital Humanities methods are meant to stay, and I hope with Andrea Rapp in the middle of the disciplines.

Now and in future.

(If we take care of the data)

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