The Humanities, the Laboratory and “Culturomics”

[This post is the first of many reading reflections written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. I will be posting my reflections each week. Jason Heppler and William Thomas will also be blogging about the class. This week the readings were Reinventing Knowledge and “As We May Think.”]

Predicting the future is, unsurprisingly, difficult. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Vannevar Bush describes a future machine, the “memex,” which congregates, organizes, and dispenses information that bears remarkable similarities to the current technology. Writing over sixty years later, Ian McNeely looks backwards more so than forwards, though he seems comfortable projecting the laboratory’s dominance as the center of knowledge into the foreseeable future. Understanding this dominance is vital for humanists to remain socially relevant and avoid the fates of the library, monastery, university, republic of letter, and disciplines, all of which remain though with much less power over knowledge.

One of McNeely’s final thoughts, that academics in the laboratories are beginning to confront “humanities scholars on their own turf,” (273) provides the best example of why humanists must assert their position in the laboratory. McNeely’s suggestion also appears particularly accurate in the light of the “discovery” of “Culturomics .” A good example of the university-industrial complex that dominates many research universities, Harvard and MIT researchers teamed up with the Google Books project to examine an unprecedented amount of written works throughout history. While a useful tool, the, as McNeely puts it, “hubris that comes from transgressing disciplinary boundaries” (273) is painfully clear. Leading humanists from any number of the universities in the Boston area could have been included, but were not. If there had been more humanists, perhaps the academics who “founded” “Culturomics ” may have realized this type of research had already been happening for years.

Humanists, then, must fight for their relevancy within the laboratory system. “Culturomics ” clearly shows society can embrace humanistic endeavors. However, the humanities should not simply get lost in the university-industrial system the laboratory has created. Just as Bush made special note of the memex as a tool for humans, humanists should view the university-industrial system as a potential tool. Bush envisioned the memex as a means to drastically increase the speed of research. However, the user still had to make associations and connections among the resources provided. Similarly, groups like Google can provide amazing data sets and tools, but academics are needed to interpret the data and use it to create information. Humanists may not always be the most qualified to seize opportunities that develop from partnerships with companies like Google. However, there will be times when humanists are needed and they must be prepared.

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