Computation was birthed by the sciences, and is in universities normally a branch of engineering or math departments, and computer people have always been mostly of that ilk. But there have always been other kinds of people involved: call them digital humanists, those who had deep roots in something more human than dry mathematics. Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson come to mind. The MIT Media Lab was initially created in the school՚s architecture department precisely to avoid being the narrow nerdish viewpoint of straight engineering. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab in earlier decades were key early players there as well. Both of the latter were accomplished mathematicians but were not satisfied to work within the strictures of that field, and sought to find deep connections between mathematics, mind, and culture.
Perhaps its the influence of the Phantom Tollbooth that drew me to them; I՚ve tried to follow these luminaries in various ways and done my own bit to tunnel underneath the borders, although I wasn՚t always thinking of it in that way. At the the Media Lab, I was part of a cabal that was trying to be even more interdisciplinary than the official line, and so we explored connections between largely technical areas like AI and some of the more rarefied products of the humanities. This was in early 90s, more or less, so just before computers started the process of taking over all of human culture. Since then there has been a small and refined explosion of work in what is apparently now called “digital humanities”.
So what is digital humanities? Well, people in the traditional humanities (literature, arts, philosophy, and of course “critical theory”) are not stupid and can see just like everyone else that the world is getting eaten up by software and digital technology. This includes both the everyday human world that is their subject, and the professional academic world of teaching and publishing. Naturally they want to get a foothold in the eating side of this revolution, lest they among the eaten.
That is the crass way to think about it though. There is actually interesting stuff going on!
Some branches of digital humanities (not counting people who are more like new media artists here, to limit myself to the scholarly):
- applying computational techniques to traditional questions in the humanities (eg, doing large-scale textual analysis to learn how language and idioms change over time)
- media theory: taking the approach of an art historian / social theorist to the new forms of human communication such as the web and Facebook (hero: Marshall McLuhan)
- software studies: treating computational artifacts themselves as texts to be analyzed; thinking about the role of human values in their creation.
They do, of course, meet at one point: the human reader and writer. That is to say, the same person may at different time interacting, creating, interpreting both kinds of texts, along with many others. And it՚s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the mental machinery used for both kinds of texts is the same: both require parsing into small chunks with formal relationships to each other, for instance. Both require creativity in their creation, although of fairly different sorts. Literature requires creativity in its reception as well; does software? Arguably yes, especially in the common case where one programmer is trying to understand another՚s code (for purposes of fixing or extending it).
But the real thing that the humanities brings to the software table is the idea of critique, or in other words, the idea that it is a perfectly proper and useful thing to do to take a cultural product (aka text) and dissect the ways in which it works, how it relates to its subject matter and its audience, what it tries to say about the society that produced it and what it actually says, what effects it has on that society, what values it embodies, and what values we should be applying when we sit in judgement. And techniques for doing so.
This is something that is almost entirely missing from the engineering culture that most software people are trained in, and it's pretty clearly desperately needed. Software is eating the world, very smart people and corporations are busily figuring out how to eat faster and more effectively, and there needs to be better ways to think about this process, to critique it and possibly even resist or redirect it. I՚m not sure these obscure academic fields will do it, but they are better than nothing.
And I՚m looking forward to the day when software critics become major cultural players, passionate minds on the order of Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs who can teach us new ways to read the latest releases on Github.