Considering that I’m majoring in English & Digital Humanities, it’s somewhat ironic that defining the field is such a chore. I could tell you about all of the advancements that are being made between text and networks, or how archival tools are being used to categorize and database literary information for easier access, but in truth these are not very small slivers of a greater whole.
When I think about it, what comes to mind is the idea of indexing infiniteness. Computers and the Internet now allow us to journey farther than ever before, and the possibilities still far outweigh the capabilities. I like to joke with my friends that for all the astonishing technological achievements humans have created, we use them to make pictures look old or tell the world we’re getting a coffee at Starbucks.
What I’ve seen in my brief stint as a digital humanist, however, shows that what can be done with these vast networks and massive processing powers is the next step. Or as William Panabaker says, it’s not the next big thing, it is the thing. The technology exists for us to create limitless collaborations, contributions, and alterations to any kind of information really, but for the Humanitites–and specifically English and creative writing fields–the new wave of digitalism is a boon.
To stick with a small scale–since this is a Big conversation–just the ways in which all this technology has encouraged and nurtured my own creative exploits has been paramount. I can start typing documents on an ipad and continue on my phone at my leisure, and I can also read this way too. I can watch a dozen unique hands shape a Google doc into something greater than the sum of its parts. I can have a real time conversation with people all over the world in Twitter, then Storify that conversation and share it with those who were never there. I can remix Emily Dickinson so that every person that reads her sees their own unique poem (more on the “deformed humanities” here). And all of these are only a fraction of what is possible. The hyperlink redefines the way we connect and learn, even the way we watch television.
I can’t really define the digital humanities, any more than I can identify the kind of complex code that creates its superstructures (at least, not yet). But I can recognize it as an immensely powerful tool to further our creations and our interactions, taking us into a new age. Authorship is becoming less important in the face of content, and static content is archaic in composition to organic, changing, evolving content. Instead of our “final products” being pasted online to be end and experienced, more often than not we are showcasing malleable pieces, parts of our own minds that bounce and play and change in the collisions with others.
And while nailing down definitions are also becoming less important, one key element I think is important to remember with all this is, indeed, the other. When I think about the digital, I think about the other. The other person at the end of the line, sure, but the other network, the other CPU, the other program being used in tandem to mine, all of these work together to create this vast Net around us, and cannot work without the other components. We’ve built the systems and the machines as pseudo reproductions of ourselves and what we know, and so the machines socialize, they fight and disagree, they die, and sometimes they give birth to new things. And all the while we are a part of them, using them, and being used and affected by them to create this strange new territory called the Digital Humanities.