Entering the Digital Humanities

Three semesters ago (September 2012) I entered the Digital Arts & Humanities PhD programme here at UCC. I guess I should have blogged about that change in my life back then but I didn’t, I’m doing it now.

It is as if the reality of what I am pursuing has taken 15 months to go from action to reflection. First the purely factual. The DAH Phd programme in Ireland is an all Ireland inter-institutional programme. It is a collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy, University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, National University of Ireland, Galway, and as an associate University of Ulster.

I am in the digital humanities strand of the programme. I suppose this is where I should talk about what the digital humanities is all about. But I’m not going to. The truth is, the digital humanities is a new term and it is a term in flux. Part of what I hope to achieve as part of my research is to bring clarity to the ongoing and perennial definitional debates in the digital humanities.

There are two parts to my research. Firstly I must build a digital archive to virtually house the Boole Papers from UCC’s Special Collections. This involves digitally scanning, transcribing, semantically annotating, and finally hosting the papers. In addition it will be necessary to connect this digital archive to larger portals like Europeana via metadata. A neat twist on this fairly straight-forward series of steps is to harness the wisdom of the masses and get others involved in the transcription. So-called crowd-sourced transcription à la Transcribe Bentham’s Transcription Desk and Letters of 1916. A piece of cake for any halway competent software engineer. Well out of reach for all but a few humanities graduates. But this is to do the humanities an injustice. A good humanities scholar would take this as an opportunity for reflection. A humanities scholar would ask herself, “how many collections like this must there be the world over?” and, “where is the originality in what I am doing?” and, “why is it that a library archivist is not tasked with this project?” and, “how can I adequately documant the route I take so that others can build on my work?” A piece of cake for any halfway competent humanities graduate. Out of reach for most software engineers. And so immediately we can see that the DAH programme both highlights the technical ansd scholarly rift in academia and also provides a space within which to shore up that rift. That is what is most exciting about the DAH and leads me to the second part of my research.

The Robot Epistles. Initially I was asked to ground my research in the Boole Papers material. I imagined (indeed, I proposed and got accepted to the programme on the back of) using the personal correspondence, lecture notes and other material of George Boole and co. to focus on Boole’s place in mathematical history, Irish society, his teaching experience at the then Queen’s College Cork, and so on. All good humanities scholarship. Critical analysis and all that.

Except my background is a mix of code and philosophy. Historical scholarship does not really move me unless it is the History of Ideas we are talking about. The significance of working on Boole’s material nearly exactly 150 years after his death, as part of a digital humanities programme that seems philosophically adrift is not lost on me. Slowly the idea of the Robot Epistles has come to me. The Robot Epistles is to be a series of essays. Each essay will deal with the impact of the digital on each functional segment of society, on each social institution as it were. There will be a corresponding prelude which will elaborate a philosophy of the digital. This to my mind has not been done before, I would be delighted to hear otherwise. I imagine this prelude to be called Early Forms of Robot Life. That is not to say that nobody has done any work in this area. Of course that is not the case. There have been many who have written about technology and society. Castells springs immediately to mind (though I have not read his work, and frankly do not intend to) but there are many others. There are philosophers and thinkers who grapple with various aspects of technology: Heidegger, Benjamin, McLuhan, Aarseth, Hayles, Manovich, Chun, Turkle, Baudrillard, Lessig, and again many others. Then there are the technologists who have written about what this ongoing digital revolution means and what the likely impacts are: Lanier, Bush, Turing, Wiener, Engelbart, Kay, Joy, and so on. Their names are familiar.

I would like to take the following approach and see how it pans out. First one must start out with a decent theory of society. And I only know of one. That of Niklass Luhmann. I only see a theory as decent if it can be turned into a model. Show me another theory of society that can be turned into a model and I’m with you. Luhmann’s theory claims that modern society is functionally differentiated into autopoietic social systems. These social systems line up with the regular social institutions of sociology, And also strangely enough Althusser’s ideologicalal state apparatuses. (But that’s another day’s work). So the idea is to take each Luhmannian social system and inspect it from the perspective of the digital. These are the epistles and I am the digital prophet. In order to do that of course we need to have a worked out philosophy of the digital, which is why there must be a prelude to the epistles proper. The reason I use the language of religion (epistles, apostle, …) is because I want to subvert, or perhaps invert the rhetoric of ideology.

I realise that this all sounds very hand-wavy but it kind of has to be by necessity because this is just a heads-up as to what I’m about these days. I am putting together the final pieces of the software puzzle so that should see the light of day soon. I have already began fashioning the Robot Epistles but have taken a break from that writing in order to bring all my attention to bear on the Boole Papers archive. (In truth, I am an awful multi-tasker.)