The future of humanities

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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The humanities, we are being told, has no future as technology has already rendered it obsolete. There is little new in this, of course; the demise of the humanities has been imminent for at least 30 years. What is, perhaps, different now, is it has a new champion, one that will putatively reinvigorate and renew our disciplines, but simultaneously cause some disquiet among many it has come to ‘save.’

That champion, the digital humanities, resides at the intersections of traditional humanistic learning and new digital technology. It employs code, markup, visualizations, and data mining to produce fresh insights into old texts and images. As such, it is unsurprisingly viewed with suspicion by some.

Can technology really save us from technology? These digital innovators think so.

Some have asserted all future humanists will be digital humanists. Is this arrogant? Perhaps. Yet are we not already halfway there? If you’ve ever used an online library catalogue to find a study of the novel, read an electronic article on a work of art, Googled a subject relevant to the history of philosophy or even just used word processing software to write a lecture, you have been, in some sense, ‘practicing’ digital humanities.

If technology is the ‘enemy,’ it is not merely at our gates; it is lounging in our banquet hall, loudly ordering dinner.

And this is just the beginning. Within five to 10 years, the textbooks from which we teach will be almost exclusively digital, and so too will be the venues in which we publish. Digital pedagogy – in online courses, or through ‘blended learning’ – will similarly be commonplace. These are not daring prognostications; they are near certainties.

The issue then is not whether the humanities will be ‘digital’; it is whether we will be masters of our own virtual house. There is some danger that we will not. The online and computing tools with which we teach, research, and write were not designed by or for us. Embedded within these technologies, even down to the level of code, are ideological and theoretical assumptions that are often deeply alien to what we ‘do’ as humanists.

We are too often like gardeners trying to cultivate a flower bed with wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers.

This is why digital humanists are not mere consumers or critics of technology; they are builders and tool-makers. These tools enrich rather than threaten humanist inquiry, and ensure that it is we who control our technology, and not the other way around. And they are teaching their students how to build and control their own technologies too.

Digital humanities, then, will ensure the arts and humanities continue to thrive and generate invaluable insights into our lives. It will empower the humanities by placing at our command digital resources made by humanists, for humanists.

For this reason, I, for one, will welcome our new digital overlords. I will welcome them because they will not really be ‘overlords’ at all – they will be us.

Mark McDayter is an English professor in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.