Forty-Two – The Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything

In my last blogpost, I mentioned a frequent resentment of humanists towards DH, namely the opinion that data-driven results are simply meaningless correlations. Where does this attitude come from? Maybe we could find a hint in Douglas Adam’s famous novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when after 7.5 million years of calculation a computer found an answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything – forty-two. Only a brilliant joke which entered the pop culture? Of course; but in Digital Humanities this is sometimes reality.

Once, I heard a talk about Topic Modeling. The speaker presented some word clouds he generated with MALLET. “Interesting,” someone said and pointed on one of the clouds. “Can you tell me something about this one?” – “This is number 17.” – “But what’s the matter about it?” – “I don’t know. It’s the result of the computer.” Afterwards, I had some trouble to defend the digital humanities … Another incident: A speaker created a network to describe his sources. “What’s the contribution of it to your text analysis?” somebody asked. The speaker failed to answer and the audience was convinced that digital humanities was nothing they should deal with.

This happens when academics talk too early about their research. They are using the label DH and hope that fancy visualisations are enough to impress. In this case, however, to the audience they look like this:

So, what should they consider?

  1. Digital Humanities consist of two terms. Digital is one, but humanities is the other. After the measurement of your data you also have to interpret it, before you talk about or even publish it.
  2. Consider aspects of science communication. Think of the audience you are talking to or writing for. For IT-Scientists other facets are interesting than for historians or philologists.

If these two rules are considered, it will be clear that DH-results have a real impact on research and are more than just single numbers.


Christopher Nunn

After my graduation in latin philology and theology I started a doctorate in ancient church history. In an early stage of my dissertation - it was 2013 - I was enabled to work with my corpus by using plain text files. This was the moment I felt that I should not leave this great opportunity out to work digitally and to find the potentials but also the limits of computational textual methods. In my dissertation I deal with 385'911 words or 19'379 sentences - 252 latin letters written by St. Augustine. As one of my results you can for example visit my Augustinian Correspondence Database (ACDb 3) or my database about Keywords in Augustine's Letters (KAL). What else can I say? With Stefan I am sharing not only this blog but also my employment being Quality Manager at the faculty of Theology in Heidelberg. Contact: christopher@infoditex.com or @ChNunn on twitter

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