Remember when God said to Noah, “be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”? God’s probably being redundant in his phrasing because it’s such a big thing to ask of someone. It’s not just a casual, “go ahead and populate your household, when you get around to it.” Noah is expected to “populate the earth abundantly.” The earth is enormous, and Noah probably thought the earth was flat and like fifty miles wide, but it’s still an intense concept to wrap your mind around.
So it was, when history professor Andrew Friedman told me, “be fruitful and search for web-based digital humanities initiatives; catalog them abundantly and comment upon them.” Not in those words exactly, though he is eloquent.
My summer job is essentially to track down as many DH projects as I can, dump them all into an Excel document, and judge them mercilessly based on a rubric invented for this very task. I annotate the Project Name, URL, and Creators of course. Then I go on to rate each project by the following criteria: Richness of Aesthetics/Design; Usability/Navigability/Ease; FUN; Value of Information; and Theoretical Interest. After all this, I write a small blurb of closing commentary. I do this for hours each day, and I still haven’t cracked the surface. It is a good job, and often a dull job.
I have a secret for you. Come closer. I’m not supposed to say this, so I can’t be too loud. Are you ready?
Digital Humanities is mostly rubbish.
I may have just offended thousands of librarians and Spanish teachers, but I stand by the claim. I find myself skeptical of DH. Many times, the projects are so eager to hop on board with digital initiatives (since they are hyped as the future of academia) that they don’t think critically about why their project belongs on the World Wide Web, what it means to work on a web-based platform, and how that is substantively different than more traditional humanistic inquiry. The prevailing sentiment of the movement (or one of them) is form over function–the idea that projects are automatically better because they’re on the internet–and that can lead to hollow experiences.
But that happens with every new medium–the inception is riddled with hiccups and false starts as we puny humans scramble to figure out how we can best take advantage of the tools we have made for ourselves. Besides, I have to acknowledge that it’s easy for me to pass judgment on these projects, sitting comfortably on the sidelines. I’m not even a DH guy, really. Computers aren’t my thing. I just keep getting involved in DH criticism as an outside eye. I guess my point is, I still respect these DH initiatives, even the wrongheaded ones, because they are attempting to bring knowledge to the world in new ways. Every project is worth talking about, even if it’s only as an example of what-not-to-do.
I ought to end this post on a positive note, so I’ll share with you my favorite project that I’ve encountered so far. It’s called Synchronous Objects. The website begins with a fifteen minute long video of a dance called One Flat Thing as reproduced by William Forsythe. From there, it uses its digital platform to let the user interact with that dance in all sorts of visually compelling and horizon-expanding ways. This is a project fully aware of its medium, fully aware of its content, and fully aware of the potential living in the interstices between the two. Play around with it for a while.
As wary as I am about DH projects, I would never tell Synchronous Objects to build an ark and gather two of every species of DH in preparation for my destruction of the medium in an interactive flood of spectacular proportions. That seems excessive. Besides, I’m not even close to finished finding what contemporary digital humanists have to offer. I have a whole world to explore.