Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Congress of the Humanities 2007: Society for Digital Humanities Sessions

At the Congress of the Humanities in Saskatchewan, I attended several sessions at the Society for Digital Humanities (SDH) conference: I was actually in Saskatoon to present at Canadian Communication Association sessions, but that didn't stop me from hitting the Digital Humanities and the Canadian Political Science Association conference before I presented later in the week at the CCA. I like to keep up on what is happening in those areas during my spare time, because my MA was in Humanities Computing and I'm now teaching in a Politics Department.

The SDH conference started earlier than the CCA conference, so I was able to see most of its presenters on the last day. The fact that there were no concurrent panels also helped.

Geoffrey Rockwell and Sean Gouglas (who was channeling Stéfan Sinclair because he was unable to attend) described some threats that are facing the Digital Humanities as a developing research field. Google was one of the more pressing threats that were mentioned on a few occasions. Google's ability to create textual tools and their massive server farm are making digitization projects question how to proceed into the future when GoogleBooks is pretty much taking on the project of digitizing everything; however, Google's commercialization imperative limits the tools they are developing, and how public's access to the digitized works are being filtered.

I'm more inclined to believe that this "crisis" narrative is the same one that is facing the Arts, Computer Sciences, and Information Studies, as well as many other newer disciplines and fields as a general malaise of the interdisciplinary shift in the university. The new media shift is placing all fields into technology's house, so to speak. I'm inclined to think what is unique about the Digital Humanities is the community of scholars and their tool platforms. The group of people are the discipline, and the social network is reflected in the tools they create and share -- perhaps the Digital Humanities is one of the first "new" disciplines that reflects the digital social network paradigm shift (like the Association of Internet Researchers), rather than the traditional physical space of a department in a university.

Also, for the moment, Google will most likely keep developing and mostly digitizing the commercial books as their focus, before targeting the Humanities in my opinion. They may have the storage capacity to digitize and save texts, but the process of digitizing books will slow them down for some time, despite their nifty digitizaing machines. Google Analytics may also be offering some textual analysis tools, but I believe the Digital Humanities will always need to develop their own set of tools and be critical of the commercial tools that exist.

Something else that differed in the Digital Humanities Conference from the CCA and CPSA was the fact that I did not hear any talk of supporting Net Neutrality here; however, the support for Open Source code and Open documents was apparent. Geoffrey Rockwell, indeed, ended his talk by emphasizing the opportunity to work with Google so that some the Digital Humanities might be able to coordinate tools that would help in the analysis of literary and artistic texts. This is something the other conferences would never consider.

Again, in contrast, the CPSA is still very traditional in its political science focus, and I saw no informational politics covered at the conference. There were scholars interested in IP Law and Net Neutrality, but this was more attached to SSHRC issues of developing research, not technologically themed papers. This looks like an opportunity for the CPSA to open up their doors to a new generation of research.

Other sessions at the SDH focused on new techniques of annotating texts using database techniques and how to prepare books for digitization. Geoffrey Rockwell's blog covers these sessions well. I found the Gouglas and Rockwell talk to be the most engaging in terms of my own research on narrative networks though.

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