Today our Digital Humanities graduate readings seminar met with Stefan Sinclair via Skype. This was the third guest visit in our class. We had an earlier session with Robert Nelson on topic modeling and another with Lisa Spiro on the the pedagogy of digital humanities. Sinclair raised an issue at the end of our meeting that we have been struggling with through the semester: whether and how digital humanists should make arguments.
Sinclair put the matter plainly for our students: we must not only build things but also make arguments. Then, he went a step further. The form of our arguments does not need to change. Scholarly journal articles, monographs, essays, and chapters, all are equally viable and should remain so. Even with born digital sources, Sinclair suggested, the scholar remains obligated to create, sustain, breathe life into his or her subject via argument and interpretation. This, he suggested, is what distinctly characterizes the humanities. Where the sciences and social sciences, on the other hand, proceed to “prove” a “finding,” the humanities by definition and by contrast ventures an argument.
This distinction is worth dwelling on. What does it mean to do humanities in the digital age?
Our class reading today was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and last week we read and discussed Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. Both indicate in quite different ways that the humanities’ modus operandi, privileging creative argument and interpretation, faces increasing pressures and obstacles.
Turkle makes the point that “the Internet is more than old wine in new bottles.” Our brains, she argues, are rewired every time we surf or search the Net, and she concludes, we need to reclaim our concentration, our attention, our capacity for argument, interpretation, intimacy, and authenticity. Some people find what she calls “refreshment on the Web” and are “replenished in its cool shade.” (275) The Web’s disparate information and links are a “jungle” and, according to Turkle, there is little about it that allows us to be “deliberate.” Moreover, our selves, she suggests, are becoming ever more calibrated to the pace of the Net, “on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy.” Turkle finds little comforting about this paradoxical state of affairs: “We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted.” (166) We are losing the capacity “to consider complicated problems.”
This state of affairs seems especially troubling for the humanities. But idea of the Web as alluringly untamed, as wild and attractive in its narrative, as not a place to be deliberate, might in fact be its greatest quality for doing humanities in the digital age. Tim Wu, in The Master Switch, characterizes the Internet as “deeply counterintuitive.” (266) He cites Joseph Schumpeter’s analogy of “knowledge and habit once acquired” as “firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” The Internet, unlike previous communication mediums, “abdicates control to the individual: that is its special allure, its power to be endlessly surprising, as well as its founding principle.”
Humanities scholars take note! It may be that digital humanities projects–the best of them–suit this environment peculiarly well, as they make no attempt to make the digital space more “deliberate.” In attempting to graft interpretive text onto web sites, for example, we might mistake the nature of the Internet, miss its counterintuitive quality. No wonder some of our web sites take on the character of the jungle, freeing our readers to walk through the morass link by link as they see fit.
Finally, what of Stefan Sinclair’s point that scholars might want to pause before discarding traditional means of scholarly publication? Sinclair’s larger point was to encourage experimentation. But he takes seriously the place of interpretive argument for the humanities. We need now more than ever to walk the knife’s edge–on one side there is the abyss of scientific positivism and “verification” of results, as we miss the special quality of the humanities, on the other side there is the abyss of irrelevancy, as we miss the underlying structure of the Net. Sinclair has walked that edge and lived to tell the tale, so to speak, and he has sage advice from the experience.