I am going to come right out and admit that though digital humanities is a large part of my major, I don’t have a concrete definition for what it means. In fact, I had to consult my good friend Wikipedia to try to define humanities so that I had a jumping off point. This is what i found on the subject. If you actually clicked on the link and tried to read the definition, you might notice how even the term humanities is very broad and wordy. If narrowing in on a definition for humanities (a discipline that’s been around since the 15th century) is difficult, then it makes sense that defining digital humanities (a comparitively new term) accurately would be tough at best.
The humanities are essentially an approach to understanding the human experience. It is inclusive of bits of literature and music and even history. It is hundreds of years (and perhaps more) of culture distilled into useable parts. It is a call to look outside of yourself and into others worlds. Some would go so far as to say it is an attempt at cataloguing and interpreting the meaning of life itself.
In the article, “The Humanities Done Digitally” Kathleen Fitzpatrick says:
Scholarly work across the humanities, as in all academic fields, is increasingly being done digitally. The particular contribution of the digital humanities, however, lies in its exploration of the difference that the digital can make to the kinds of work that we do as well as to the ways that we communicate with one another.
I like her choice of the word communicate, and think that it is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle. Digital humanities are a form of communication (a conversation) with the world around us that is consistently being changed by new technology.
I was having a discussion with my Grandfather yesterday about the digitization of our world, and the amazing things that can be accomplished using computers or other digital devices. He was telling me a story about how he had been at a friends’ house and no one could remember the name of a steakhouse they wanted to go to. He looked it up on his smartphone and within seconds, they knew the name of the steakhouse, had directions on how to get there, and were calling in reservations. These are, of course things that weren’t possible when he was my age (nor even a few years ago for that matter). If you didn’t know the name of the steakhouse, you might just be out of luck. Now anything is possible.
There is an oft-used saying “with great power comes great responsibility” and I would argue that it applies in this case. Digital media gives us magic powers unlike what the world has ever seen, and the magic grows every day. Todays technology is already obsolete by the time it reaches our outstretched fingertips. There has to be some semblence of responsibility, some deciding factor on what the correct approach to using this power is. Digital humanities is that deciding factor in some ways. It is a deliberate approach to interpreting the human experience in its current form using technology. It is creative and collaborative and always open to new forms of interpretation, while still working to increase civic responsibility and projects that benefit humanity on a broad scale.
I’m aware that my brief interpretation muddies the waters more than it offers clarity, but perhaps that’s the beauty of the digital humanities. It is constantly changing and evading a description that would pigeonhole it and force obsolescence. Scholars should be constantly striving to better understand and define it, and even to improve upon it. Change is the only constant.