“Computer, Show Me a Way to the Past!” – The Future of Digital Humanities

In response to Andreas W. Müller and Frederik Elwert I was asked to share my idea of the future of Digital Humanities. First of all, whenever humanists, journalists, philosophers, industry or the media experts dare to look into the future, they usually have a tendency to exaggerate. They intend to share their visions, ideas or fears and when the “the future” finally arrives, the observers then will say: “In the past people imagined the present time quite differently, but some things did come that way.” Some very funny examples of how people imagined the future of their daily live are collected in a blog post by the publicdomainreview.org and in a TV documentary (ZDF, 1972).

These examples are not only humorous, but they are also related to the question of #DigHum2040. They say more about the time of the questioners than about their imagined future! Accordingly, Andreas W. Müller takes up the current discussion about the status and self-image of the Digital Humanities and develops a vision of the future that is worth reading, but which is not undisputed in sum.

Some traditional humanists will read the demand for “results too good to be ignored” as a claim to the DH’s leadership, and for this reason they will consciously set themselves apart from the Digital Humanities or at least compete with “us”.

Frederik Elwert’s reflection takes up the discussion of the terms “digital” or “computational”. He concludes that “the future of the humanities will be digital. The discipline will be computational.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I argue for a multi-level model of digital research with gradations from a rudimentary use of digital tools to the complex development of models, codes and applications. In between everything is possible and I believe that many humanists will agree that the humanities are not immune to digitization!

In a nutshell: The debate with Andreas W. Müller and Frederik Elwert shows that the humanities are in the middle of the “digital turn”. It also shows that we are currently having the same debates as in all previous turns. If any student is following this debate and would like to deal with the topic theoretically during a PhD, I would be very interested in a discourse-analytical dissertation that compares the structural analogies of the arguments of the linguistic, cultural and “digital” turn.

Obviously, we are going through the same process of self-discovery and using the same vocabulary as scholars did during the previous debates: sense and nonsense, an own discipline or substitute, etc. “Turns” have shown that it always takes a certain number of students and scholars who work in accordance with the new “principles” to establish a widly accepted or mainstream position in research and teaching. Within such a group there have always been individuals who have overstated and represented the “turn” in a very special form. There will always be such nerdy (positively meant!) experts, just as there will always be the “old timers” who observe the turn sceptically or even oppose/distain it. In many disciplines the required number has not been reached yet, so the question of how Digital Humanities will develop can still be answered with: “They will fade away” – at least the coding or computational humanities.

At this point, I think we can agree that the future of the humanities will be more computer-based – what ever that means and however far the (technical) development will be then. In the future the first thought of researchers who find crazy, old papers in archives or libraries will not be to write a nice little essay about those but rather to make the documents available digitally to a broad (interested) public. This is my starting point for a vision of the future of the Digital Humanties – and now I’m also beginning to exaggerate (spoiler alert!).

The question that drives me most in humanistic research at the moment is: “How do we justify the relevance of our work?” I am convinced that humanities which work only to their own self-satisfaction will come into major conflicts with funding in the coming years. In Germany, research is financed by the public and humanistic research is increasingly questioned by parts of the society. In 2040 we need to be at a point where the work of Digital Humanities including the digital methods must bring significant added value to the humanities and the presentation of results needs be relevant and of interest to a wide audience. We will undoubtedly not have gotten away from the “proof of concepts” and “work in progress” papers, but I’m sure we will have recognized the enormous potential of Digital Humanities. They will present complex processes and a large amount of data in simplified ways which will play a more significant role to social debates and public education.

It’s a two-track thing: on the one hand, digital research will take up a much larger space in humanistic research; on the other hand, much more time and resources will flow into the public presentation of the results. In 2040 digital humanists will have become integral to the development of AI, for instance, so that Alexa will be able to give more useful answers to complex and existential (philosophical or theological) questions, so that Siri will function as a substitute for a history teacher (by going beyond reading out loud Wikipedia articles) and Cortana … um… yes….

For Andreas W. Müller and Frederik Elwert the question of the future is also a question of who the digital humanities scholars actually want to be. My appeal to the DH-community is clear: Our work and research must play a key role in the development of artificial intelligence (#AI_Humanities 😉 ), must be a part of digital education and must support the analysis of current major debates and questions. Digital humanists will shape those aspects creatively with their disciplinary research. I think 2040 will be the time when we will have internalized that mission or when we will have screwed it up.

P.S.: Science Fiction Stories have often been an inspiration for researchers. Wouldn’t it be great if humanists were to develop a kind of communication computer which would make it possible to re-live history (by being able to talk to historical figures at historical places) or to physically experience literature (#2060DigHum)?

Cite this article as: Stefan Karcher, "“Computer, Show Me a Way to the Past!” – The Future of Digital Humanities," in INFODITEX -BLOG, 2019-07-31, https://infoditex.hypotheses.org/1256.

Stefan Karcher

(Contact: stefan.karcher@theologie.uni-heidelberg.de; @streka on Twitter); I started using and working with digital methods of text analysis during the work on my doctoral thesis in theology (Homiletics and Church History). A bunch of autographs - more than 10.000 handwritten pages packed up messily in 20 boxes - led me to the question: "How would I ever overview these?" In fact, I didn't! But while I was sorting the documents, forms, letters, lecture manuscripts etc in a new classification scheme for literary remains (Nachlass Heinrich Bassermann), I thought a database and analyzing only the metadata could help to find the most important information and sources for my dissertation. So my reflections about digital humanities were born out of necessity. Meanwhile, I made a virtue out of that necessity. Since my graduation in the major subjects History and Theology in 2013, I worked on a dissertation about Heinrich Bassermann (1849-1909) and his homiletic principles of academic sermons (finished in July 2019). Besides I'm employed as QMR and head of the examination office at the Faculty of Theology. At the moment I'm plannig a PostDoc project (with a stronger DH focus)

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