Response to ‘A Nineteenth Century “Digital” Humanities?’

Fellow University of Texas at Austin Professor Joan Neuberger wrote in with the following interesting response to Jorge Cañizares’s post, ‘A Nineteenth Century “Digital” Humanities?’ We’re excited to keep up the dialogue.

It is good to be reminded that, at least since the Enlightenment, there have always been thinkers who wanted to replace stories with science, or narrative with numbers. But I think Prof Cañizares-Esguerra’s examples say more about mainstream historians’ anxiety about quantitative data than about today’s digitizers. The best of the “big data” projects make no claims to “do away with narrative,” or to yield truer, deeper insights, as our nineteenth-century predecessors did. Projects like ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, or The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, or The Holocaust Geographies Spatial History Project, all offer themselves as additional tools for studying the past—one might even say for writing new and better narratives of the past. Typically, on the page introducing the animated map showing the evolution of the Nazi concentration camp system, the authors write:

This animation is intended to be used as a tool for exploring the historical evolution and geographical context of one of the Nazis’ chief systems of exploitation and control: the concentration camps administered by the SS. The spatial and temporal patterns revealed in this visualization raise questions that we hope will spur further inquiry. These include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • How was the location of camps related to resources and territorial control?
  • Why did some camps exist only briefly while others lasted for years?
  • Why did supcamp openings accelerate in late 1944, and what explains their clustering?
  • How were subcamps related to main camps?
  • Were Allied advances responsible for the apparent consolidation of camps?

We invite you to explore these patterns and share your own observations.

Explicitly recognizing that such projects raise questions and require interpretation necessitates narrative explorations of their findings.

The problem I see with such projects is that they still require an enormous amount of labor and technological expertise and they still produce relatively limited findings.

The potential I see, though, is two-fold, and slightly different from Ben Breen’s initial thoughts on the subject. First, applying new technologies to old questions can produce extremely interesting results. Lev Manovich’s study of Time Magazine covers (1923-2009) offers insights into links between ideological and visual strategies, but so far the results of their studies have said more about the visual than the ideological.

But second, we still just don’t know much about how visualizing information about the past will change the ways we think about the past and write history.

What happens when it becomes common for graduate students, who are asking the new questions, to spend a larger part of their time visualizing data sets and looking at visualizations?

In the field of digital history, we are still taking baby steps. The technology will become more accessible and less labor intensive and more of us will be looking and thinking. But I don’t think there’s any danger that we will stop writing stories about history. There will always be people who want to make pictures or construct data bases and there will always be people who want to explain what they see.