Some of us can relate to the following conversation with a student. A student proposes a dissertation where he or she wants to catalog all the instances of some niche topic. And then you pose that terrible question. What do you hope to get out of aggregating all that data? The student’s heart sinks. And you receive that deer in the headlights look as if this question had never occurred to the student.
The sciences use computers every day to answer meaningful research questions. The digital humanities and digital archeology have become the new norm in academic scholarship. Unfortunately, the vast majority of digital humanities projects use computer technology for primarily data aggregation.
The Problem with the Digital Humanities
Without the same history as the sciences, the humanities have not developed a methodology to maximize utility of computer technologies. Many digital humanities projects involve building large databases or open access publication of data sets in the hopes that if we build it, they (the researchers) will come. And like our hypothetical student, many digital humanities projects have conflated scholarship with publication.
Too often magical thinking invades a project by throwing a bunch of data into a database and hoping that the computer will conjure a meaningful result. Computers are not wizards that live inside a little metal box. Computers crunch mathematical formulae at amazing speeds but understand none of it. Any understanding that a computer has is only present because a human being has programmed that understanding into the machine.
Overlooked are the foundational questions. What problem are you trying to solve? Do you have access to the funds, time, and talent to see the project to completion? What are you expecting the computer to do that a human being cannot? How do you expect a computer to go about solving the problem?
A Better Approach to the Digital Humanities
I would suggest a methodological approach that I hope will raise the bar for the digital humanities. And that method is simply to ask a research question that requires the help of a computer, see if that question is appropriate for a digital humanities project, and have the researcher and computer together solve the problem.
Experiments done with chess players and computers have shown that a good chess computer can beat almost any human player. But a human player using a chess computer can beat practically any chess computer on its own. This is the next step in the digital humanities: the digital and the human engaging difficult research questions that neither alone is capable of solving.