DH and future challenges

By Claire L H Warwick, on 2 February 2010

Having finally got the centre launched, which was a very fine event indeed, today I am feeling a little more reflective, and am thinking about the nature of this field that we have now officially joined.  But as I found when I was writing the text for the official web page, it’s strangely difficult to define what’s special about your discipline to the entire web in sensible terms that convey enough information but don’t go on at ridiculous length. It’s quite hard to sum up the discipline I’ve been working in for over a decade, so long ago that it was humanities computing when I started. It’s a bit like trying to describe a place you love and finding that while it is special and beautiful in your mind’s eye, the words you produce make it sound distinctly average. Nevertheless I’m determined to try. So here it is. My attempt to sum up DH. I hope it sounds more world heritage site than crap town.

Digital Humanities is not an exclusive concept. It embraces a huge variety of work in numerous different disciplines, both within and beyond the remit of what we might think of as pure computing or traditional humanities scholarship. It represents what is best and most exciting about work that lies at the intersection of technology and what makes us human. Our experience of reading, listening to music, going to a museum or gallery or studying historical documents will increasingly be affected by research in Digital Humanities, but as yet we do not fully understand how and why that will happen.

Digital Humanities explores how and whether we can apply the power of computation to the subtleties of our experience of the arts, and our history and culture. It questions how technology affects our response to our environment both physical and digital, or how we chose to construct it. It forces us to reconsider how to integrate the unquantifiable, such as emotions and cultural values, with the increasingly digital world that surrounds us. It opposes what is computable, countable and binary with objects with features that are at once present and absent, subtle and open to interpretation, and apt to change with time. It challenges both technologists and humanities scholars to create new knowledge from this apparent clash. It is an endlessly retreating goal since the discipline must change with technology but cannot be separated from objects of study that may be ancient and complex. It is above all a fascinating field in which to work, whatever it might be called, and that’s our challenge from now on at UCL DH.