In defence of the (digital) humanities

monk_1.jpgBy Alexander Hay.

The Humanities matter. To understand why, it’s worth remembering what they are.

Let's start with an analogy. Say a scientist builds a nuclear reactor in his back garden. The physical sciences explain how he built it. The life sciences explain why his teeth are falling out and the birds in the garden have suddenly gained laser vision. The social sciences explain why the rest of the neighbourhood starts moving away very quickly, for cultural as well as financial reasons, and why the scientist is being taken to court.

Yet why is he doing this? Is he a utilitarian, or an existentialist? Would he be doing this if he was a woman or of a different ethnic group or sexuality? What does the language he uses say about him and how his mind works? Why has the news media reported on him in the way that it has? Is there any way of building your own nuclear reactor that is morally justifiable? Do his actions reflect a rejection of nature or an engagement with it?

That is, of course, a lot of questions. That is the point. To put it in simple terms, the physical and life sciences are about how things work. The social sciences are about how society works. Art and design is about the nature of aesthetics and craft. The humanities, meanwhile, are about ideas themselves and how they are communicated. For them, how is not as important as why, even if there is no clear answer.

The division between sciences and humanities is a relatively new idea. Descartes was both a philosopher and a mathematician, as was Aristotle. The works of Darwin and Einstein have literary as well as scientific merit. Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman explored the humanities as well as the universe.

The Age of Enlightenment, from whence modern science developed, was based on humanistic ideals. It was philosophy that created the principles of logic and sceptical enquiry which lead to the scientific method.

With that in mind, the humanities cover a wide range of subjects, from theatre and television to Shakespeare, foreign languages and ethics. Computer game and social media criticism have recently been added to the mix, sitting neatly with studies of Anglo Saxon texts and journalism. They can range from musical theory and ecocriticism to feminism and linguistics. Complicating matters further are the digital humanities (but more on them later).

Indeed, one of the problems facing the humanities is this very diversity. Like a shed, Humanities is often where universities shove those subjects they can't put anywhere else, like Archaeology or History for example, even though they are social sciences for the most part. On the other hand, some universities keep humanities subjects segregated from each other in a fashion that is counter-intuitive, like how English Literature and Drama are often bizarrely kept apart in separate schools. Imagine astronomy and botany jammed into the same department, or pure and applied mathematics casually stuffed into rival faculties and you can see the problem.

Yet in a curious way, the humanities do go well with something – namely computer science. With digital humanities, we have a discipline that encompasses both the study of ideas and the advantages of rapid data retention, storage and analysis. It has also been around longer than you might think. Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu, a proposal for an interactive network of shared computing resources and processing power (sound familiar?), was first conceived in the 1960s, and coined the term hypertext, yet was as much a philosophical endeavour, arguing that Xanadu was as much a means of creating a better, more informed society as it was a novel way of sharing information.

Digital humanities also require a comprehensive range of skills, ranging from coding and e-infrastructure to an understanding of the greater cultural context of documents and how technology has influenced how we read, write and think. With the innate interactivity of the Web, we are able to communicate and respond with authors and content creators. (Like, for example, on this site.) Yet we have been here before.

Prior to print, manuscripts were often full of comments written in the margins or in the texts themselves by other writers and authors. They were not fixed, monolithic artefacts as we commonly see books today. Thanks to the Web, we have returned in a sense to the Middle Ages, with the same scribbling, doodling and playfulness as then, but with a far greater potential audience. What effect this will have on our society and the way we think has great implications, and the humanities are the best way both to understand this and to continue the dialogue that is the lifeblood of innovation.