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Am I a digital humanist? Are you?

June 14, 2011

Look Mom, I’m a digital humanist! (or am I?)

When I first heard the term, I got excited that I might have found my niche. So I started investigating. I found this blog post by Tom Scheinfeldt describing stuff digital humanists like. The article is well done, so I’m going to use it to give myself a digital humanist score…

Here are five values (for starters) Scheinfeldt sees as defining values for digital humanists? I’ll grade myself on each one.

  • Like: Twitter / Don’t like: Facebook – Check. So far so good. However, the reason I like Twitter so much more than Facebook is not one listed by Mr. Scheinfeldt. I like Twitter because it is text-based rather than image-based. It is
    substance above presentation. It is about the exchange of ideas rather than the collection of personal data and so-called friends. Twitter is networking around shared research, while Facebook is networking around networking. Twitter is a think-tank; Facebook is multi-level marketing.
  • Like: Agile development / Dislike: long planning cycles
    Oops. Strike one. On this category I am more humanist than digital. “Releasing early and often” concerns me. I believe humanity is suffering from a loss of the meditative pause due to the blazing speed of modern life (which has been substantially increasing since the development of the telegraph and the train, and is now accelerating at an exponential rate).  Collaboration is great, but the fact that fewer and fewer folks seem willing or able to take a long hard look is a serious matter.
  • Like: DIY / Dislike: Outsourcing. On this one I have recently converted, so make it 2-1 on my digital humanist score. I was a digital holdout, but have decided to learn the technology so as to have a more informed critique. The biggest surprise has been how much I like Twitter, which I originally thought of as the most phatic of all new media. In fact, it is far less phatic than text-messaging or Facebook updates.
  • Like: PHP / Dislike: C++. Well, I don’t know what C++ means, or PHP, so I guess that’s a fail for me. That brings my score to 2-2. By the way, I hate insider lingo; I’m not sure if that makes me more or less a digital humanist.
  • Like: Extramural funding / Dislike: Intramural funding
    Hmmm, not really sure on this one. This is kinda out of my league, so I’ll give answer N/A.

That leaves me with a 2-2 tie. Inconclusive. I need to do more research…

Ok, on his blog , Dan Cohen defines digital humanities as “the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources, to research on those resources, to the communication of results to colleagues and students.” Well I guess I can embrace that definition, but I’m not crazy about it. It seems pretty nebulous, emphasizing the how and neglecting the what and why.

This may seem like nit-picking, but I’m concerned that “digital humanists” seem more focused on the digital than on the humanist. I mean, there is a tension, right? Speed wars against reflection. The future seeks preeminence over the past. Efficiency is often at odds with mindfulness. And we humanists should be honest about it. We should face this tension with unflinching determination to eat the meat and spit out the bones. We should refuse an uncritical embrace of all things digital. As humanists, we must reflect on the personal, social, & cultural impact of these digital technologies that are becoming more predominate in our lives with each passing day. While we are thrilled about the collaborative opportunities and the research possibilities due to digital media, our core values through which we evaluate all practices should be the pursuit of wisdom through the power of literacy. Paulo Freire defined literacy as “critical engagement with word and world.” The humanist has no greater tool at his or her disposal.

So, am I a digital humanist? Well, if I could define a digital humanist as “one who uses digital media to critically engage with word and world, all the while critiquing his or her use of digital media,” then yes I am. I’m not sure how much agreement that definition would garner from all the other digital humanists out there, but I’m eager to find out.

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