Reflections on a Day at Digital Humanities Australasia 2016

A ship moored at a dock with warehouse and containers on the dock.

While we were ensconced in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies building, Australia’s icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, was being loaded next door.

The field of Digital Humanities has been a significant influence on the way I work. There are many debates about the nature of Digital Humanities is but very broadly it covers the work humanities researchers do when they study the use of digital technology in society, adopt research methods which draw heavily on digital technology and present their findings using digital technology.

I follow experts in digital humanities on Twitter and read their blog posts. Through this I have deepened my understanding in using technology to explore World War I diaries, mine Trove for information and convert old documents into machine-readable form. You can read more about the technical details of what I am doing on Stumbling Through the Futuremy Digital Humanities blog. What I do is relatively simple but I owe it all from listening to experts on the internet and at conferences.

I was planning on visiting Hobart sometime for research and to visit family, but that sometime was hastened when I found out that the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities were holding their annual conference in Hobart. The Association had secured some thought-provoking digital humanists for their keynote sessions and I wanted to be there. Yesterday I sat in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies on the waterfront engrossed in some fascinating sessions.

Me dressed in blue raincoat with hood on and the ship in the background.

I was dressed for the wet weather but enjoyed having a look at the Aurora Australis before going into the conference.

Miriam Posner co-ordinates the digital humanities program at University of California Los Angeles. I have been following her for some years on Twitter, that great learning tool for digital humanities. She is a thought-leader and like many I sat up and took notice of her call for us to do more to challenge received categories of gender and race, as well as received models of the world such as Cartesian maps. That keynote she delivered last year is what motivated the conference organisers to invite her to Australia.

I was too absorbed in her keynote this morning to tweet it. Posner interrogated the discomfort humanists have with the new field of ‘culturomics’ – the attempt by scientists to draw broad conclusions about culture through analysing the frequency of words and word-phrases in huge collections of texts. The article in Science (pdf) which announced this field drew much media attention. Titled, ‘Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books’, the researchers described how they used the corpus of books which Google had digitised to draw conclusions on English-language culture. Humanists drew a collective shudder at this – what books were digitised (hint – books stored in a particular continent in the north part of the rest of the world)? Whose words were represented? Whose words were missing? etc, etc.

But Posner looked deeper at our discomfort. She looked at the nature of data itself and how humanists reject the nature of many databases such as the neat boundaries, the separation from context and the acceptance of categories are inventions of a small group of people in power. Humanists like to challenge categorisation, to reveal the multiplicity of views of the world held by the wonderful diversity of humanity. I found this keynote very helpful because in examining this issue Posner was encouraging us to understand better the nature of the work we do.

The second keynote of the morning was by Tim Hitchcock, professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. He is also a thought leader in digital humanities and together with Professor Robert Shoemaker has brought a suite of digital history projects online such as Old Bailey Online, London Lives, Locating London’s Past, Connected Histories and is now part of the Digital Panopticon team. He is particularly interested in ‘history from below’ which is the history of those people who were ignored by traditional history books.

Tim Hitchcock challenged the pre-occupation of digital humanities with written texts. He pointed out that most of the digitised material we work with comes from documents copied onto microfilm during the twentieth century. Microfilm is cheaper to digitise than original material. But what did libraries and archives choose to microfilm in the midst of the twentieth century? Effectively the material that was chosen for microfilming was done through the sexist, racist and elitist lens of the past. Our digitised data has inherent bias. It was obvious from Tim Hitchcock’s remarks that he was certainly not accusing any of today’s companies, libraries or archives of being sexist, racist and elitist. As he said in the comments at the end, this bias in the digitised data that we have to work with is inherited by us from decision-makers of previous generations.

Hitchcock challenged us “to get out more” and move beyond texts. He wants to recover the experiences of the “voiceless dead” by recreating the spaces they occupied, hearing speeches from their position. He is modelling the buildings of the past such as prisons and the Old Bailey to help us understand the perspective of the accused when they walked into the foreign environment of the law court and were forced to explain themselves. He wants us to understand with empathy the experiences of these people, although as Sydney Shep noted in the discussion afterwards, by doing these online renderings we are bringing our present day understanding into the past. But this is a caveat for all history – we understand the past through our eyes in the present. The present is always part of us when re delve into history. We cannot know the past like the people living in those times did.

This overview is a superficial account of their presentations, but unlike other disciplines Digital Humanities has a great culture of open sharing on blogs and Twitter. If you want to learn more about Digital Humanities I recommend you start following Miriam Posner and Tim Hitchcock on Twitter as well as Tim Sherratt from the University of Canberra. They also have great blogs where they often post the presentations that they have given. I will add links on this post to their presentations when the presentations are online.

As with all conferences it is not just the papers that are useful, it is the conversations in the breaks.I received a couple of great ideas for my work from these conversations as well as some from the papers during the day. Digital Humanities covers researchers from a broad range of disciplines which helps people to break out of the sometimes rigid boundaries of traditional disciplines. We heard papers about ancient Sanskrit texts, linguists seeking to capture the meaning of humour and laughter, maritime Buddhism and more. Diversity sparks creativity. It helps us see the same thing with different eyes. This is one of the reasons I find conversations in Digital Humanities so helpful.

There were many other papers yesterday, but I can’t cover it all. I will end with what I thought were a couple of the choice quotes of the day:

The skip has done more damage to Irish records than the war.

Aoife O’Connor

If you data does not cause you to have an existential crisis then it is not big data.

Deb Verhoeven

The Digital Humanities Australasia conference continues for the next two days. Follow the informative Twitter stream at #DHA2016.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on a Day at Digital Humanities Australasia 2016

  1. “Humanists like to challenge categorisation, to reveal the multiplicity of views of the world held by the wonderful diversity of humanity.”

    Hmmm…what logic is this ? Anti-logic as in anti-logicentrism. [n.b. multiplicity and diversity necessitate categorisation]

    Thanks, Yvonne, for your report on the digital humanities conference. It is important to understand what these practitioners are thinking.

    Unfortunately, I find it very hard to understand. The arguments here about uncovering lost voices of the past from the motivation of fairness and equity appear very confusing. The arguments are really covert attacks on ‘logocentrism’ from Ludwig Klages, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Jacques Derrida. It is really dishonest, because of its lack of openness and transparency. Even worse, it is also self-defeating if critical thinking or empathetic reflection is to account for anything. The justification for fairness and equity comes from that ability to read, and to read logic. It is not phonics or signs. It is not the paranormal, and it is not mysteries untold. It is the ability to think in language, and language written. And the digital world is not going to change that.

    There is a real danger, however, from the post-modernist attacks on the written word, and hatred towards those who had the good fortunate to be skilled at reading and writing, and blaming the scholar in a comfortable position for the racism and inequality of the past. Such covert attacks excuses the violence from those who are resentful because of lack of understanding in written cultures, and violence is to be opposed no matter what position we find ourselves in. The worse danger is that we are now hearing impatience toward the expanding text and narratives, the impatience towards those who take a long time in their writing and reading. Put everything into icons and symbols and you will end up destroying what has made us human, We will become mere machines.

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    • Keep in mind Neville that I have given a superficial overview. On this blog I am writing for a broad range of people including those who have never done philosophy etc. Before you can draw conclusions you will need to read the full presentations and the masses of other pieces the presenters have written. The academics who presented were not attacking those who have high literary skills – they have high literary skills too.

      Hitchcock is looking at the history of those who have not left their thoughts on a page for us to consider. For this reason he is arguing that we can’t just rely on the written word, we need to explore other evidence. Archaeology, musicology, art history etc are other disciplines which focus on non-textual evidence from the past. These disciplines are not attacking written skills in doing this, they are simply helping us gain a deeper understanding of history.

      I detected no impatience with lengthy reading and writing tasks. Hitchcock, Posner and others are simply challenging us to think differently about what we are doing and encouraging us to present our work in new ways. But many of the presenters have written and are continuing to write books. There was no attack on time-consuming reading and writing.

      I agree that by necessity diversity and multiplicity lead to further categorisation, albeit inventing new categories at times. There is nothing set in stone about how we categorise human acts – by playing around with categories, this is exposed.

      Digital Humanities is presenting a challenge to the way various disciplines have done things for so long. Challenges are not attacks. Challenges make us examine work practices, methodologies and the ways we present our work in ways we have not done before. They are welcome because ultimately they make us gain a better understanding of what we do and make us do better.

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