The best of all possible (DH) worlds

As our Translating Networks project begins to unfold, and the long-term vision becomes more necessary (and in ways less clear), I’ve become interested—vis-à-vis the thoughts and directions of Dawn and Tom—in musing about and trying to unravel the slew of concerns that plague the development of new, expansive digital resources.

It’s no secret that large-scale digital projects, especially those focused first on public resource creation (e.g. the digitization, collection, and/or presentation of data) and only then on individualized research and argumentation, frequently suffer from a kind of enterprising overzealousness. For all of their optimistic daring, those DH projects that cater to Stephen Ramsay’s “Screwmeneutical Imperative” are no doubt at a disadvantage to those who emulate more traditional, business model-esque routes. It’s true that many DH scholars have long championed the benefits of failure in the progression of the Digital Humanities (see, for example, Bethany Nowviskie’s keynote on the history of UVA’s Scholar’s Lab), but it’s also difficult to imagine a long-standing, repeatedly funded digital project that institutes its research goals on the basis of “screwing around” or a “failing-to-success” model. (And the increasing necessity for expanded research proposals/projects to adjust themselves toward a kind of economic attractiveness is perhaps in part why some scholars see the digital humanities as ushering in a new era of academic neoliberalism.)

Yet so frequently, that kind of scholarly exploration is precisely where DH projects thrive. Many DH scholars (and whole DH conferences) laud experimentation as a fundamental tenant of digital research—and indeed, it most certainly is; after all, it’s difficult to know the right questions to ask before you’ve seen the data from which your answers are supposed to derive. DH projects often depart most obviously from traditional humanities scholarship here, where the investigative methodologies, and the research processes required by them, are so fundamentally different in their expectation of particular end goals.

Our own large-scale digital database endeavor embodies an interesting facet of this issue, preoccupied as it is by the kinds of resource-heavy startup concerns that, on their own, are not normally structured around particular research questions of individual scholars. Those, as many of us know, come much later. However, if a digital resource is not developed in a way that constructs a space conducive to those future, unseen research questions, it’s more than likely doomed to be short-lived.

So, how do we balance the need for attainable end goals and defensible academic payoff with an uncanny prescience for future scholarly research concerns? It seems to me many of the answers to that question focus more on responsible digital stewardship than anything else. How do we build a digital infrastructure that preserves data (and its accessibility) without inadvertently pushing our own scholarly agendas in terms of what data are or might be important to someone later? Archives, digital or otherwise, are indeed acts of scholarship, and despite what some may claim, it seems to me one of the benefits of the digital humanities is how its methods require equal parts self-awareness and healthy skepticism: How do our digital resources and the methods employed to create them operate with agendas that erase as much as they attempt to combat erasure?

One common avenue taken in response, and one our project plans to take for a variety of reasons, is to make the project publicly accessible, and to engage (as far as is possible) with open source, open platform, crowdsourcing systems that allow public experimentation to, effectively, hedge your bets. Not only does this allow many voices to be heard in terms of what’s worth collecting, recording, and preserving, but it also increases the potential for the resulting project to become a long-lasting resource vital to academic and public communities alike. As Matthew Kirschenbaum concludes in his chapter of the 2012 Debates in the Digital Humanities,

Whatever else it might be, then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active, 24-7 life online.

Public facing, large-scale digitization efforts certainly introduce many of their own issues, but as Kirschenbaum points out, they create the necessity for a kind of network-oriented digital scholarship, which is quite fitting given the nature of our own project.