What are Digital Humanities?

It was early spring in Uzbekistan when I was sitting at home in front of my computer with a cup of tea trying to make a decision of what I would be studying at the International College as my minor program. The offer consisted of three subjects: Sustainability, Global Asian Studies, or Digital Humanities. Few hours of “research” on the Internet didn’t really help me to fully understand the underlying core of those three subjects. However, among them there was a strange, completely unknown for me and yet pretty appealing field of study: Digital Humanities.

In the lines below, I would like to tell you the story of how my initial perception of what Digital Humanities are was completely transformed, only after a couple of moths of taking the course ‘Introduction to DH’.

In the very first lesson, the professor told us to divide into two groups, and we were given the task to visually describe our thoughts on the definition of DH. Being students from substantially different backgrounds, we could look to DH from a variety of perspectives. We concluded that it is a sort of bridge connecting the past and the present. The combination of words “digital” and “humanities” might sound way too puzzling at first, but things start to become clearer when you go a little deeper into history. In fact, studia humanitatis have been there since the dawn of time, while the computational sciences have a history of about half a century. Thus DH is something that constitutes a delicate balance of these two seemingly incoherent fields of research.

DH boasts a wide range of applications, from helping scholars to explore ancient civilizations, to the smart management of the data in the study of the works of a particular poet. Drones, as well, might represent a clear instance where “digital” encounters “humanities”: in their scientific expeditions, archaeologists take advantage of digital component of drones and then use the data obtained through remote sensing . The class discussion stressed also the link between DH and equal opportunities. Digital museums and online collections of works of different forms of art serve as a clear example of that. In fact, ages ago not everyone could visit museums and ordinary people didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the greatest pieces of art. Now, thanks to the integration of digital technologies with humanities, most of the people have the possibility to become acquainted with at least fundamental principles of history, art and all other sub-fields of humanities.

It is important to look back to the origins of Digital Humanities and understand how it all started. The first encounter of humanities with the world of computers took place in 1949 when Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit and theologian, approached Thomas J. Watson, the founder of International Business Machine (IBM) Corporation, seeking help in indexing the works of Thomas Aquinas. The outcome of this encounter introduced new tools, such as text searches and the system of word counts to humanities. Thus, it can be stated that the collaboration between these two fields has lasted for almost 70 years.

Now there comes a question: how had humanist scholars been conducting their research before the arrival of computers? The answer might challenge the principles of Digital Humanities and therefore might lead us to the actual definition of the subject.

Firstly, it requires us to look closely to the composition of Humanities: Literature, Arts, History, Philosophy, Psychology… and the list goes on and on. For the moment, what we need to realize is not how long we can keep this list going on, but rather understand how enormous the field of Humanities is. It is everywhere; it is everything that can relate to a human being: in what one believes (religion and traditions), what one feels (emotional state), what one creates (a craft) and what one sees (nature). As we can see, Humanities is constructed mainly on spiritual and irrational aspects of humans making it to have objective views. And when this objectiveness confronts with as strictly rational field of study as Computer Sciences, this is where Digital Humanities comes to light. Not only do the computational tools make the job of humanities scholars easier, but also they play major role to interpret the abstract and sometimes too complex language of humanities to the external world. Coming from this logical chain we have no right to consider the digital tools outweighing humanities by wrongly assuming that the latter couldn’t have survived without the former. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the presence of computer sciences in DH since it makes no sense to call this field the way we call it now: Digital Humanities.

by Javohir Isomurodov


Versione italiana: Cosa sono le Digital Humanities?

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