Academia is busily stirring another tempest in a tea pot as it attempts to assimilate technology into the teaching of humanities. The new approach is called digital humanities and the first problem is how to define it. At the moment the term includes everything from transcribing literature into a digital format to scholarly editing, image-making, designing and programming. Data mining is also used to look at old literature in new ways. Recently one of its discoveries is that book titles in the 18th century are far longer than those of the 21st. (“The Pseudo-Revolution,” by Adam Kirsch, The New Republic, May 12, 2014 pgs. 45-49.)
Some wonder how far the new technology can take us. Will it radically change the field the way the printing press changed book production? Is all the collating and aggregating of information now possible drawing the humanities closer to science? And will the life of a scholar no longer be a solitary endeavor played out in a library but become a collaborative effort that stretches across the internet?
Adam Kirsch, senior editor for The New Republic, sees technology’s impact in the humanities as largely cosmetic. Science is better adapted to benefit from the measurement tools of data mining. The humanities relies imagination. In science, for example, an old idea may be thrown out if investigation proves it is no longer valid. But in the humanities old ideas, right or wrong, are part of the pageant of human history and, as such, they illuminate the present. The mind, not data, Integrates epochs. (Ibid pg. 49.)
Of course, there’s no denying technology will have its impact on the liberal arts as it has done on other fields. One scholar, for example, has suggested that students in the humanities learn computer programming, presumably to allow them to create algorithms tailored to their research. (Ibid, pg. 46) But the quality of the algorithm has little to do with the quality of the conclusions drawn from the data collected. What’s more it may provide information that is frivolous. Is it important, for example, to know that 18th century manuscripts had titles longer than those in the 21st ?
Kirsch has put his finger on the heart of the debate. Technology is no substitute for imagination — that tool the mind uses to exhume an idea buried under mountains of information.