digital humanities

building a platform for humanistic problem-solving

This is an extension of my previous post on Alan Liu's discussion of the role of cultural criticism in the digital humanities. It's not that the humanities need to abandon their current role of problem posing (i.e, critique) but rather that the humanities might expand into the realm of problem solving. So my question here is two-fold: how might that happen and what role might the digital humanities play? I've been thinking about these questions in terms of Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From.

Shirky ends his book with something of a thought experiment. He offers three possible approaches to new technologies: as much chaos as we can stand, traditionalist approval, and negotiated transition (his terms, but I think they are self-explanatory). He argues that the first is the best approach. As he remarks, traditionalists will almost always nix any potential innovation. They are generally opposed to innovation by principle; they have much invested in maintaining the status quo (think scribes and the printing press); and they genuinely value the status quo as the best thing (e.g., but we really love books). Negotiated transition is also untenable because it would require knowing where we are going, and we simply don't. Ultimately, the digital humanities cannot negotiate with cultural criticism because we don't know where we are going. More importantly, wherever we are going is unlikely to be where we have already been. Regardless, "as much chaos as we can stand" has its own limits in the adoption rate of new technologies and methods, as well as the energies and resources of those involved. As such, when we ask the question of what should we do/build, I don't think the answer should be "something to accomodate cultural critique," but rather a platform (or platforms) for humanistic problem-solving. 

Here I am using the term platform as Johnson does, where analogies would be a coral reef or a beaver dam (in that both create conditions for creativity, measured in these cases by diversity of life). Unlike a cultural-critical theory, a humanistic problem-solving platform wouldn't tell you what problems to solve, let alone what the answers are. It would instead facilitate innovation. We already have platforms in the humanities: the library, the department, the classroom, the journal, etc. Of course these are all print platforms and worked well for a century or more. We even have generic digital platforms (blogs, wiki, etc.) and a number of potential tools we can use (like these listed on the UCSB wiki— thanks @mkirschenbaum for pointing these out to me). Even email and listservs could fit in this category. And some things have happened for some folks. I don't know what my scholarship or teaching would look like without blogging, twitter, and the like. Not just because I study those things but also because I rely on those networks for my learning. To me it's equivalent to imagining writing my dissertation in them 90s without a word processor. I'm sure I would have written something, but it would have been different for sure and certainly taken longer. 

So a generic platform that could be used for humanistic research and problem-solving exists, and some of us take it up to assist us to varying degrees.But as I've said before on this blog, we lack the professional ethos that would lead us to collaborate in the way that digital networks can make possible. We also, I think, lack a scholarly view that would impel us to take action and solve problems (or maybe we don't really believe that the humanities can help to solve problems). Of course one cannot simply impose an ethos. In any case, that might be the wrong approach, a variation of what Shirky terms the "milkshake mistake." As he relates, McDonalds wanted to sell more milkshakes and conducted a great deal of research on the product itself, only later to discover the surprising fact that most of the milkshakes were being purchased in the morning by commuting drivers presumably looking for an easy-to-consume breakfast. The lesson, Shirky points out, is that one needs to focus on how users use the tools to create and connect with others rather than assuming you know what the milkshake is for and designing based on your assumptions.

I don't have a solution to the problem of building a platform. I think the basic advice Shirky gives about building social media, as well as the general principles about encouraging innovation that Johnson describes, are useful, at least conceptually in moving forward. One principle is starting small. In my own backyard that means building a social media community among my composition instructors, mostly TAs. They have told me they want to share their ideas, lesson plans, assignments, etc., so that's a starting point in terms of motivation. Pedagogy is perhaps a good place to start with the humanities, as I think we are more open to solving problems there than we are in our research.

Building such a community is hardly revolutionary. Many programs have successful communities of this type, I would imagine. And many also have unsuccessful communities. So that's one problem to solve.