A Response to “Too much ‘digital’, too little ‘humanities’?”

I noticed that several of us have commented on the Digital Humanities Manifestos. While I found them both useful and engaging, I think they really only presented one side of the picture in the scholarly debate about DH. There are a lot of scholars who seem to have a problem with DH, and though I personally don’t agree, I think some of their concerns are valid. On this score, I found the Porsdam article to be very balanced and insightful. I agree with Fitzpatrick and Porsdam that “If humanities scholars do nothing, our disciplines will simply cease to be relevant…Unless we delve into mainstream digital culture, our voices will disappear under the flow of information constantly available online.” Admittedly, movement into the digital realm, like all technological advances, is not without its costs. Porsdam quotes Neil Postman on this point: “The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life.” While each of these technological innovations has come at a cost, I think many would argue that their benefits outweigh their costs—or at least balance their costs. In any case, as these examples would illustrate, trying to fight technological advances is like trying to stop an avalanche with a snow shovel. And ignoring the opportunities afforded by them is not only bullheaded but actually counter-productive. It is simply impractical to resist the inevitable rise of the digital, when time could be so much better spent in exploring the possibilities offered by it.

But, as Porsdam points out, I do think we have to be careful about our use of DH so that we don’t lose whatever it is that makes the humanities relevant—or rather, valuable—in the first place. This will require a lot of reflection not only on what the humanities actually are at their core but also on how digital means can be used to achieve the humanities’ ends. While DH is not “just a tool,” as Presner and Schnapp point out, I think it should always be used in service to the humanities, not merely in service to the digital. In other words, just because something is digital or connected to DH doesn’t make it inherently valuable. The goals of the humanities certainly can and have changed with the times, but I think it’s important to keep the uniqueness and ultimate ends of humanities disciplines in mind. We study culture, what it means to be human, and that study cannot be reduced to data points—though it can be aided by them.

(As a side-note, this William Powers quotation that Porsdam uses in her article seems to sum up the life of a graduate student pretty succinctly: “When you start wondering about your own busyness, pretty soon you’re pondering much deeper questions such as, Is this the kind of life I really want? From there it’s just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? And Who am I?” Anyone else feel this way?)