In 1946, an Italian Jesuit priest named Father Roberto Busa conceived of a project to index the works of St. Thomas Aquinas word by word. There were an estimated 10 million words, so the priest wondered if a computing machine might help. Three years later, he traveled to the U.S. to find an answer, eventually securing a meeting with IBM founder Thomas J. Watson. Beforehand, Busa learned Watson's engineers had already informed him the task would be impossible, so on his way into Watson's office, he grabbed a small poster from the wall that read, "The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer." The priest showed the executive his own company's slogan, and Watson promised IBM's cooperation.
"The impossible" took roughly three decades, but that initial quest also marked the beginning of the field now known as Digital Humanities. Today, digital humanists are applying advanced computational tools to a wide range of disciplines, including literature, history, and urban studies. They are learning programming languages, generating dynamic three-dimensional (3D) re-creations of historic city spaces, developing new academic publishing platforms, and producing scholarship.
The breadth of the field has led to something of an identity crisis. In fact, there is an annual Day of Digital Humanities (which was April 8 this year), during which scholars publish details online about the work they are conducting on that particular date. The goal is to answer the question, "Just what do digital humanists really do?"
As it turns out, there are many different answers.
Digital Humanities is most frequently associated with the computational analysis of text, from the Bible to modern literature. One common application is distant reading, or the use of computers to study hundreds or thousands of books or documents rather than having a human pore over a dozen.
Consider Micki Kaufman, a Ph.D. candidate at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), who decided to study the digitized correspondence of Henry Kissinger. This was no small task; she was faced with transcripts of more than 17,500 telephone calls and 2,200 meetings. Adding to the challenge was the fact that some of the materials had been redacted for national security reasons. She realized by taking a computational approach, she could glean insights both into the body of documents as a whole and the missing material.
In one instance, Kaufman used a machine-reading technique combining word collocation and frequency analysis to scan the texts for the words "Cambodia" and "bombing," and to track how far apart they appear within the text. A statement such as "We are bombing Cambodia" would have a distance of zero, whereas the result might be 1,000 if the terms are separated by several pages. Kaufman noticed the words tended to be clustered together more often in telephone conversations, suggesting Kissinger believed he had greater privacy on the phone, relative to the meetings, and therefore spoke more freely. Furthermore, the analysis offered clues to what had been redacted, as it turned up major gaps in the archiveperiods during which the terms did not appear togetherwhen the bombing campaign was known to be active.
Overall, Kaufman was able to study the archive through a different lens, and found patterns she might not have detected through a laborious reading of each file. "You get the long view," says Kaufman. "You can ask yourself about behavioral changes and positional changes in ways that would have required the reading of the entire set."
The computer-aided approach of distant reading has also started to move beyond texts. One example is the work of the cultural historian Lev Manovich, also of The Graduate Center, CUNY, who recently subjected a dataset of 6,000 paintings by French Impressionists to software that extracted common features in the images and grouped them together. Manovich and his colleagues found more than half of the paintings were reminiscent of the standard art of the day; Impressionist-style productions, on the other hand, represented only a sliver of the total works.
That sort of finding would be of interest to any Impressionist historian, not just those with a digital bent, and according to University of Georgia historian Scott Nesbit, this is a critical distinction. Digital humanists have their own dedicated journals and conferences, but to Nesbit this might not be the best approach going forward. "I don't see Digital Humanities as its own discipline," he says. "We're humanists who use certain methods and certain tools to try to understand what's going on in our discipline and ask questions in ways we hadn't been asking before."
When Nesbit set out to analyze the post-emancipation period during the U.S. Civil War, he wanted to look at exactly how enslaved people became free, and specifically how the movement of the anti-slavery North's Union Army impacted that process. "We wanted to come up with a way to see what emancipation actually looked like on the ground," he says.
Nesbit and his colleagues extracted data from both U.S. Census results and advertisements of slave owners looking for their freed servants. They built a Geographic Information System (GIS) map of the region, and then overlaid the apparent tracks of the freed slaves with the movements of the Union Army at the time. What they found surprised them: there were the expected spikes in the number of freed slaves escaping when the army arrived, but these advances apparently did not inspire everyone to seek freedom. The people fleeing north were predominantly men; of the few advertisements seeking runaway women that do appear during these periods, the data suggests they escaped to the city instead. "There are a number of possible reasons for this," Nesbit says, "one of them being that running toward a group of armed white men might not have seemed like the best strategy for an enslaved woman."
This gender-based difference to the workings of emancipation was a new insight relevant to any historian of the periodnot just the subset who prefer digital tools. While Nesbit might have spotted the same trend through exhaustive research, the digital tools made it much easier to see patterns in the data. "It was important to visualize these in part so I could see the spatial relationships between armies and the actions of enslaved people," Nesbit says.
The art historians, architects, and urban studies experts behind a project called Visualizing Venice hope for similarly surprising results. This collaboration between academics at Duke University, the University of Venice, and the University of Padua generates 3D representations of specific areas within the famed city, and how the buildings, public spaces, and even interior designs of its structures have changed over the centuries. The researchers create accurate digital representations of various buildings in their present form, using laser radar scanning and other tools, then draw upon historical paintings, architectural plans, civic documents, and more to effectively roll back the clock and trace each structure's evolution over time. The animations allow researchers to watch buildings grow and change in response to the evolving city, but they are not just movies; they are annotated in such a way that it is possible to click through a feature to see the historical document(s) on which it is based.
While the goal of Visualizing Venice is in part to produce scholarship, other experts argue Digital Humanities also encompass the development of tools designed to simplify research.
The programmer and amateur art historian John Resig, for example, found himself frustrated at the difficulty of searching for images of his favorite style of art, Japanese woodblock prints. He wrote software that scours the digital archives of a museum or university and copies relevant images and their associated metadata to his site. Then he applied the publicly available Match-Engine software tool, which scans these digital reproductions for similarities and finds all the copies of the same print, so he could organize his collection by image. In short, he developed a simple digital way for people to find the physical locations of specific prints.
At first, Resig says, academics did not take to the tool. "There was one scholar who said, 'That sounds useful, but not for me, because I'm already an expert,'" Resig recalls. "A year later, this scholar came to me and said, 'I'm so glad you built this website. It saves me so much time!'"
This type of contribution has become commonplace in the field of Archaeology. For example, the Codifi software platform, developed in part by archaeologists from the University of California, Berkeley, is designed to reduce field researchers' dependence on paper, giving them an easier and more scalable way to collect and organize images, geospatial information, video, and more. Archaeologists also have proven quick to explore the potential of even more advanced technologies, from 3D printers that generate reproductions of scanned artifacts to the possibility of using low-cost drones equipped with various sensors as a new way of analyzing dig sites.
Yet archaeologists who engage in this kind of work are rarely considered digital humanists, or even digital archaeologists. Archaeology was so quick to adopt computational tools and methods and integrate them into the practice of the discipline that the digital aspect has integrated with the field as a whole. This might be a kind of roadmap for digital humanists in other disciplines to follow.
Matthew Gold, a digital humanist at The Graduate Center, CUNY, suggests the time is right for such a shift. "What we're seeing now is a maturation of some of the methods, along with an effort by digital humanists to test their claims against the prevailing logic in their field, so that it's not just computationally inflected work off to the side," Gold says. "The field is at an interesting moment."
Gold, M. (Ed.)
Debates in the Digital Humanities, The University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Berry, D.M. (Ed.)
Understanding Digital Humanities, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Visualizing Emancipation: Mapping the End of Slavery in the American Civil War, in Computation for Humanity: Information Technology to Advance Society (New York: Taylor & Francis), 427435.
Graphs, Maps, Trees, New Left Review, 2003.
Visualizing Venice Video: http://bit.ly/24f5bgJ
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