donderdag 27 februari 2014

E-Humanities or Digital Humanities: a matter of content, taste or pragmatism?

Whenever there is a new field within academia there also is the necessary discussion on how we should call this. A name can have major consequences for the image of a field, for 'who is in' (or thinks to be in), for grant applications and for the future of the field. This is not any different for Digital Humanities or e(-)Humanities. Both terms refer to more or less the following: 'a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, syntehsis and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.'[1] In other words, it is a discipline which occupies itself with both tools and methodology on the intersection of humanities and computer science. One of the recurring questions is how humanities scholars can do their job better with the help of the computer scientist and, on the other hand, how computer scientists can build better tools with the input of humanities scholars. The question here however is: should we speak of e-Humanities or Digital Humanities?

Personally I find labeling not very interesting. It does not matter if you call emperor Charles V a Burgundian (according to himself) or a Habsburg (according to historiography), he still is the same person. I will not read his correspondence any better or differently when choosing for one or the other. In such cases I tend to pragmatically join the opinion of the majority and focus on matters that really do matter. As said however, name-giving can have major consequences, which at times forces a person to think carefully if there really are no benefits or disadavantages to using one term or the other. My direct motive to think of the Digital Humanities or e-Humanities question was a discrepancy in the name-giving of the University of Amsterdam/VU University Amsterdam minor 'Digital Humanities' and the VU University history specialization 'e-Humanities'. Where do both terms come from and is there a good reason to prefer one term or the other?

Let us first take a look at what both terms strictly speaking mean. 'Digital' is an abbreviation for 'technology, media and information' [2]. This term therefore describes quite well which fields Digital Humanities covers. 'Digital' however, does not imply that there also is a newer or different form of academic research. This element does come back in the term e-Humanities. The 'e' then stands for 'enhanced' or 'enabled.'.[3] 
It is unfortunate however that 'e' also is used as an abbreviation for the banal 'electronic' (e-mail, e-learning), which in its turn is not nearly as rich in meaning as digital. Purely semantically speaking therefore there do not seem to be any conclusive arguments for one or the other. 

Perhaps then it is useful to look at the birth of both terms, because undoubtedly many before us have thought of this matter thoroughly.The term e-Humanities finds its direct predecessor in the term
e-Science. An article by Gregory Norton tells us where the term originated from: "In 1999, Professor John Taylor, the then Director General of the United Kingdom's Office of Science and Technology, invented the term to describe the development of computationally intensive science that is carried out in highly distributed network environments, or science that uses immense data sets that require grid computing."[4] The term therefore was mostly created to separate large scale research with 'big data', data which cannot be analysed with traditional methods, and the complexities that it entails from more classical research with smaller datasets. There also were, however, some skeptics, who considered the term as a fashion label in order to get research financed. The e-label stuck in the name-giving of many research institutes. There is the Dutch eScience center,  for example, which also hosts a limited number of  e-Humanities projects. It is quite logical then, to speak of e-Humanities as a branch of e-Science.

There is a rather convincing consensus on the origins of the term Digital Humanities and it is always linked to the much older term 'Humanities Computing'. At the end of last century or the beginning of this century the term 'Humanities Computing' was considered to be too much focused on the computational aspect of what was going to be called Digital Humanities. Computational, yes, but humanities should remain the main objective. When in 2001 Ray Siemens and John Unsworth wanted to write a book on  'Humanities Computing', the publisher thought it was a better idea, for marketing reasons, to give the book the title 'Digitized Humanities'. John Unsworth then proposed the term  'Digital Humanities', to avoid people thinking that it was only about simple digitizing [5]. At that time 'Digital Humanities' already was in use at the university of Virginia where Unsworth was teaching. [6] This term was adopted by the Digital Humanities Initiative (2006), the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (2005) and the Digital Humanities Quarterly (2007). One of the people behind the Digital Humanities Inititiative gave as primary reasons for this choice that a) It has a broader meaning than humanities computing, b) a Google search showed that Digital Humanities was winning from ehumanities and Humanities Computing. [7] The recent standard works Understanding Digital Humanities and Debates in the Digital Humanities do not even hint at any competition with the term e-Humanities.

A follow-up question to all this is what the situation is outside the English speaking territories. As said before, the battle in the Netherlands between the two terms is not over yet. A striking example was last year's workshop  'Digital humanities: Critical views and experiences', organized by the e-Humanities Group, of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Increasingly however, one seems to choose for Digital Humanities. The Amsterdam minor is going to be called this way, as well as the Digital Humanities minor in Utrecht. The recently brought to life DHBenelux conference also uses Digital Humanities. When we look at the situation in Germany then the terminology does not point in one direction either. We do find articles with e-humanities in its title, but the term Digital Humanities is leading on the German Wikipedia. The French speak of 'humanités numériques' as a literal translation from Digital Humanities, even though they have to cope with the competing term 'humanités digitales'.

The question remains if we become much wiser because of all of this. I am afraid that the answer is negative. The battle of terms, for as far as there is any, cannot or can hardly be won with sound arguments. There are not really any grand ideas behind the terms e-Science and Digital Humanities. The term e-Humanities fits better in the tradition of other e-Science disciplines and has a deeper meaning, which seems to be exactly what Mark Sample means with his comment on a HASTAC forum: "The digital humanities should not be about the digital at all. It’s all about innovation and disruption.The digital humanities is really an insurgent humanities." [8] It also is clear, on the other hand, that the term 'Digital Humanites' went viral in the English speaking territories and therefore (increasingly) quantitatively speaking is the winner. For an internationally oriented educational program therefore, it should be the the preferred term.

[1]M. Kirschenbaum, 'What is Digital Humanities? And What's it Doing in English Departments?' in: M. K. Gold ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis en Londen, 2012) 3-11, at 4. This is a quotation from the entry on Digital Humanities on Wikipedia. Since that time this entry has changed again however, imho not for the good..
[2] A. Liu,  ‘The state of the digital humanities. A report and a critique’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education II (1-2) 8-41, at 11.
[3] The German Wikipedia (retrieved 20 February 2014) puts this quite clearly: en
[4] G. Norton, 'The "e" Prefix: e-Science, e-Art & the New Creativity', Digital Humanities Quarterly 2009: 3.4 , 5.
[5] M. Kirschenbaum, 'What is Digital Humanities? And What's it Doing in English Departments?' in: M. K. Gold ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis and Londen, 2012) 3-11, at 5.
[6] M. Kirschenbaum, 'Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term'  in: M. K. Gold ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis en Londen, 2012) 415-428, at 419-420; N. K Hayles, 'How we think: transforming power and digital technologies' in D. Berry ed., Understanding Digital Humanities(Basingstoke 2012) 42-66, at 43.
[7] M. Kirschenbaum, 'What is Digital Humanities? And What's it Doing in English Departments?' in: M. K. Gold ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis en Londen, 2012) 3-11, at 6.
[8] Cited by P. Svensson, ‘Envisioning the Digital Humanities’, Digital Humanities Quarterly 6 (2012) vol.1, 40.

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