THATCamp Switzerland (2)

Our first session, a talk by Prof. Willard McCarty of King’s College, London) turned out to be a “new media” talk, because Prof. McCarty was not feeling well and couldn’t travel to Switzerland–so he spoke on Skype up on a screen at the front of the room. The video feed was very jerky, but the audio feed was just fine. Despite the sort of Max Headroom quality of the video, McCarty’s lecture was a interesting think piece on the early days of digital computing and how digital humanities fits into all of that.

Note to self: Don’t ever do this to an audience or a speaker. McCarty had some great points to make in his talk, but an hour long lecture is probably note the best way to start an unconference and one where the speaker is in a small video box on the screen at the front of a lecture hall is worse. Having run several conferences over the years, I know it’s a real problem when your keynote speaker can’t make it at the last minute. But I think it probably would have been better to either redo the schedule or to invite someone else to fill in at the last minute.

That said, McCarty did offer some interesting suggestions. The first is that it might be better to think about digital humanities as a series of actions or processes rather than a cluster of things (products).  While I don’t agree, because I think that many digital projects are indeed “things,” i.e., the substance of scholarship just like a book or an article, it is nevertheless useful to think about this distinction between processes and products. For one thing, computers are very good at modeling and simulating–playing with alternatives–a process that is often very difficult and time consuming in the analog world. Thus, to take McCarty’s view for a moment, one of the big contributions to scholarship that digital humanities can make is to use the strengths of computers to examine many more possible analytical outcomes than would be possible otherwise.

His approach is clearly conditioned on a computational view of the world, which is quite different from what many of us are doing in the digital humanities, which is driven more from the user experience side of the world. I think it’s likely that before too much longer, some of us will be returning to this computational view, if only to start figuring out what we can do with the supermassive databases that are making their way onto the Internet.

A second point he made that is worth keeping in mind is that when we use a computer we are automatically adopting a specific style of scientific reasoning–a style conditioned by the internal routines of the programming languages and physical structure of the computer itself. On the user experience side of this issue, I’m reminded of Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble. What the Internet is Hiding From You. Students (and probably plenty of researchers) don’t understand just how much the results of our searching is conditioned on the algorithms used to drive those searches and how much our past search history influences what we see on our screen.