Digital epistemology: Starting a 2nd generation discussion

By Tom Frank

Dr. Tom Frank

Tom Frank

Digital humanities in the sense of digital/computational methods in teaching, research, and writing in the humanities has (have?) been around for at least a generation now. From the launch of memory typewriters for humanities scholars to type their work for editing nearly 30 years ago, to the advent of e-mail and other forms of networking 20 years ago, to the explosion in digitizing of scanned historical documents over the last 15 years, and now to the almost daily appearance of dazzling new platforms for analyzing and presenting knowledge, digitization has become the water we swim in as scholars.

Since my career spans these years of digitization, I have probably heard most of the questions and criticisms posted valiantly in the tide of change.

  • Presentation platforms like Powerpoint are fads that have proved deadly to teaching and learning.
  • Digitized scholarship does not engage texts, only scans them or searches them for isolated words and phrases.
  • Too many people are writing glibly about places they have never actually been, people they have never actually seen, heard, or met in person, books they have never actually read.
  • Above all, scholars (and their students) are overwhelmed with information, their critical questions of sources and contexts and authors’ intent drowned in the currents, unable to get purchase on any single thesis or argument that would throw a consistent line of thinking into the ocean of data.

I have also heard a lot of the overreaching predictions and projections of the digitizers.

  • The book as a tangible, hold-a-ble object will disappear.
  • Schools will fade away as physical places in the land and classrooms will go global through virtual participation.
  • Academic associations will depart the cavernous urban convention centers of the past and conduct their scholarly exchanges through social media.
  • Students will no longer read books or write papers, but learn through constant Twitter-like engagement with issues and questions provoked by contemporary scenarios.
  • Scholars who don’t contribute to crowd-sourced encyclopedias, blogs, and wikis will be left floating in the backwaters without a paddle.

All of these criticisms and projections, lobbed back and forth across the rising tide of data, belong to the first generation of the digital age. It is time for a second generation discussion.

Somewhere along the way “digital humanities” got a name, a nominative phrase suggesting that “it” (or “they”) is (are?) a thing (or cluster of things), a verus res. A second generation discussion must begin by burrowing behind that perhaps inadvertent assertion and raising more critical questions provoked by the digital era: what does the digital contribute to the humanities, and what do the humanities contribute to the digital? Is the digital only another means, a souped-up engine of research, or does it substantively alter the questions we ask in humanities fields? What would happen if we brought the full critical apparatus of the humanities, especially the central modern questions of epistemology and hermeneutics, to bear on the digital?

If this discussion does not take place, the digital flood of information will simply drown out significant wonder about the human future. Besotted with data and astonished at the speed with which it arrives on screen, humanist scholars will forget themselves and the original passions that brought them to the point of inquiry.

One shockingly simple but almost completely ignored note on which to begin would be the reality that the digital is electronic. Computational wonders are totally and finally dependent on electricity. This magical energy (magical to most people, for sure – could the average person provide the merest sketch of how it works?) is generated in power plants. The vast majority of these plants are powered by coal. Coal is dug out of mountains, loaded on trains made up of hundreds of cars, hauled across landscapes and distributed to the plants for burning. The fumes then rise into the atmosphere, approximately 7 miles thick, that envelops the earth. Meanwhile back on the land, people are displaced by the expanding range of bulldozers, mountains are deforested and scalped, and the global climate is changing in ways that no one can predict. The plants that aren’t powered by coal usually have nuclear elements, for the future of which there really is no plan except to bury them very deep on land where the residents are too poor and scattered to make a fuss, and hope for the best.

Humanists, in their passion for understanding the “human,” cannot live in taken-for-granted worlds. Yet here is one of which few speak. The digital is no true “revolution” – an accolade often applied to it – if it just perpetuates the modern paradigm of destroying the earth to advance human activity. Much of the digital may be saved now in “the cloud,” but it is inseparable from earth and the questions of how human beings inhabit the earth.

At the moment, much of what we have at our disposal is a profusion of information technology – the exponential production and reproduction of technological means that beget new technologies to manage the existing technologies. Like earlier generations in the modern period, we rely on “the principle that still governs our response to the knowledge explosion: The remedy for the problems created by information technology is more information technology,” as Geoffrey Nunberg put in in a recent Chronicle Review [“Noted” 01/11/13].

The only important second-generation line of inquiry is whether this reflex response of technical expansion actually creates new knowledge and insight, and if so, of what kind. Unquestionably IT adds immensely to the amount of data at the researcher’s disposal. At this level it is little different from a ramped-up, inconceivably speedier “literary cabinet” of the type in which Leibniz kept his notes three centuries ago [Nunberg]. But in what ways does IT help researchers ask the best questions of that material in order to generate the most insight from it? How does the digital foster the making of sense and the organization of a train of thought and interpretation?

Now we are at the heart of the modern issues of epistemology and hermeneutics. What is knowledge and on what grounds do we assert what we claim to know? On what basis do we interpret information, creating a narrative or designing a plan of (re)presentation that makes sense? While digitization appears to make the humanities a player alongside biotechnology and myriad other sciences in advancing empirical data and technical solutions for human problems, the premises of control and production prevalent in a technical sciences syndrome beg the question of what the humanities really contribute.

Many digital platforms appear to organize information from above. They create a platform (striking term) on which to stand to observe the swirl of data. One of the most prevalent metaphors for organizing digital information is “mapping” – but what kind of “map?” Is this a view from a satellite looking down and naming observed patterns in a “landscape” – a more taxonomic approach? Or is this a view from a sidewalk looking around at the inhabitants – a more naturalist approach? Will researchers be drawn toward Hegel or toward Heidegger? Toward finding the global by naming themes that organize all knowledge, or toward finding the global by examining closely the local? In Alan Liu’s culture criticism terms [“Where is cultural criticism in the digital humanities?”], does the digital advance close or distant reading? Quantitative or qualitative analysis? Is the digital more companionable with types, forms, and structures, or with the particular, the individual, the local?

But lest these questions sound like one more bit of bipolar analysis, the better point of discussion is how digital approaches become part of a continuing negotiation and conversation about what we know or what we can truly say about the world. Too often digital analysis appears on the screen as the best and highest word on a subject, the reductio ad scientiam, the real revelation of new information analysis based on the latest, fastest, most nimble and astonishing software, rather than as a contribution to a conversation that in most cases began long before the digital era. These metaphors – of proposal/hypothesis/negotiation/conversation – would go a long way to moving the questions into a second generation discussion. As would dropping the adjective [“digital” and its nominative “the”] and focusing on the humanities themselves.


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