Monday, 24 August 2015

The disruptive chimera of the digital humanities ...

Over the past year I've become more and more convinced that Digital Humanities is a chimera, much as Eresearch is also a chimera.

Many disciplines in the physical sciences have always deal with large data seta and their manipulation. Many researchers in the social and health sciences have always carried out complex analyses of government statistical data to reveal both new trends and the impact of legislative changes.

Until recently the poster child for this was psychology - ore more accurately the cluster of closely related behavioural sciences from ethology through to neurobiology that are usually lumped together as 'psychology'.

Psychologists have used computers since they became widely available to contol experiments, present stimuli and illusions, and analyse data. Clever innovative work that has become increasingly more innovative as technology has become cheaper and more and more off the shelf components have bcome together.

But nothing was more than a logical extension of previous research. And that is what digital humanities are - a logical extension of preceding research. Yes, the easy access to large quantities of data and the availability of easy-to-use mapping systems, natural language toolkits, has allowed a step change in the nature of the research, but not a fundamental change.

For example, in a moment of rash enthusiasm, I thought you could do something with the tax return date in the Domesday book to graph the harrying of the north - after all the Domesday book is semi structured data and online as queryable resource - until someone pointed out that someone had looked at exactly that question some thirty years before, with some rather more traditional techniques.

In other words there was nothing special about applying digital techniques, they merely amplified what was already possible, and by extension there is nothing special about the digital humanities.

And because there is nothing special they need no special consideration in the provision of computing resources, they merely require consideration.

Where their disruptive effect comes from, and the thing that makes them look like something new and different is the scale of the step change - the large scale digitisation of resources though projects such as Google Books, and the comparitive cheapness of cloud based computing has meant that a guy with a laptop and a good idea can make a significant difference for a low cost, and unlike in the science the data collection cost is negligible.

However, even this difference will disappear as both various initiatives for the digitisation of legacy data in the sciences and the open science movement and its emphasis on data publication bear fruit. Just as in the humanities somone with a laptop and a good idea should be capable of disruptive change.

And in both these cases there is nothing special in the resources required. The real disruptor is that the person with the laptop and the good idea need no longer be at one of the big research centric institutions - meaning that research can spread outwards to smaller, and perhaps more nimble institions ...

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