Endless Context: the Future of the Digital Humanities Ringing in the Digital World

An Introduction

Every time I hear the words “Digital Humanities” I cannot help but think it is some little subset of the DigiWorld. As I have already mentioned in this course, the Digital World of Digimon is the product of massive amounts of information being packed into data, and eventually having enough information to simulate a world of its own. In my opinion, this is not so far-fetched. Take a moment to think about the Internet. There is nothing else that can hold such a massive amount of knowledge, and that is accessible to virtually any person at the speed and ease of the modern digital world. The knowledge comes directly form people who write about life, the planet, it’s functions, and everything their imagination can contribute beyond that. What the Digital Humanities actually is would be the branch between literature and technology. It has existed for ten years, maybe more. On the other hand literature is something that has been around since almost the beginning of recorded human history. It has had thousands of years of development in style and use, but also in cultural development. People have always had personal and historical inspirations for writing and because of this the context of even a single piece of literature is practically endless. Before the Internet, this context and background information was only accessible in physical form or within a great memory. However, by the incredible developments of technology, the Digital Humanities were born making years worth of physical texts into easily accessible data. Suddenly a text from approximately four-hundred years ago is instantly available and so is the history, interpretations, context and author’s biography with a few simple clicks of a button. This is what Sharon Leon is expressing in her post about if the Digital Humanities continue to expand information for countless users, then they will soon become the main resource for study in a given field; however, they will never replace the human aspect of comprehension.

Something New

The introduction to the Digital Humanities was a bit of a shock. For someone who simply adores the books and hours of cross referencing, it was almost unpleasantly simple to find a text in seconds immediately followed by various tools of text analysis. What would be gained by leaving all the work up to the computer and only using our gift of understanding to analyze Hamlet? However, it was no easy task. There were many searches to perform, and many results to be had, but the problem was what to do with them! From word frequencies to comparing Shakespeare’s entire opus we learned to read data. The best example is the NaiveBayes/Word tree analysis. You input a text, and the meaning you predict to come form it. And you get…

What exactly? At first glance this looks like a jumble of gradients and ratios. It looks like maths with visuals. The reactions were of course:

  1. What is Maths doing in the Humanities?
  2. What does it all mean?
  3. Why does it have to mean anything when we could just read instead?

In fact the word tree and NaiveBayes are ratios, probability, and percentages! As a group full of English majors we were both fascinated and terrified. (Link to second blog post) We had not yet deciphered this information, and we had not earned it; therefore, we did not understand it.

Luckily for us, Dr. Ullyot explained in our first few laboratory classes how words and speakers can be tagged. Voila! Instant understanding gained = instant credibility! Thus never caused a great tragedy, but we did need to learn how to link that data with our understanding. Eventually, and with a lot of perseverance we did. Some very cool things we found out were how to compare word counts between Shakespeare plays using the “comparison tool.” Imagine doing that by reading!

In other words Monk served us very well despite being the professed prototype of DH pioneers, one that was soon forgotten due to frustration. The unavoidable thing about frustration; however, is that it tends to lead to broken things… and the great thing about it is that broken things father ingenuity! Phase two was the reveal of all the ingenuity that followed Monk:


Then Monk met TaPOR, Voyeur, Wordhoard and Wordseer. The great discovery then was that each tool, whether cryptic or simple, supplemented the inabilities of the next as seen here: <http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/03/naive-and-decisive-actually-sums-up-a-lot-of-monk/>  Each partner had learned to link the data being uncovered to understanding, and we successfully delved into a theme of Hamlet that particularly interested each of us. The theme of Hamlet’s madness enables us all to utilize our tools strengths, whether it was searching for a speaker, someone described, or how much madness was in a particular act. Our Act 3 ended up being the maddest of them all including lines like: “That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft” (Act 3, scene 4).  We ended up using such discoveries from Monk as a starting point. The NaiveBayes tool provided us with direction on what, through association, could relate to our search about Hamlet’s madness, and the Monk concordance searches could find a bit of context. From there we could use one of the searches in Voyeur or Wordseer to place it in the text. One of the most intriguing results we found this way was that the tongue and the sword were both spoken of as weapons.  This started a whole project on poisoning the ear with words, and the damage caused by lies and words. Obviously: “The courtier’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword…” (Act 3, scene 1). In the end it turned out that a bunch of English students could learn to leave the searching up to the tools, and to focus on comprehending the results.

400+ years

What would Shakespeare have done if he were to find there was a technology to break down his entire works into categories, word count, or frequency? If there were something to link all his meanings together? He would probably rewrite his plays to make them that much more cryptic!
The wondrous thing about his plays is that they were even complicated for the time they were created. Nowadays there are scholars who devote their lives to discovering the meanings of Shakespeare and the voices of Shakespeare. The article I chose is speculative on the future of museums and archives whether it will be possible to provide on-site enough information to let the average viewer read a work of art or historical artefact like an expert. She imagines a world where information is immediately available to those who seek it. It sounds like the future for those who would take the time to pursue it. I believe this is the future of the Digital Humanities. It would not be that while reading Hamlet notes appear at the side of the text to divine meanings. There are already books suited especially for that. Instead, this would have the power of the internet behind it. All of the searches we can do in the five tools are to deliver what you are searching for in their location, location, location. Sometimes you can even figure out who delivers the line, how often and if similar words were delivered. It is up to us to understand it. The difference, and what I believe is the future, would be to deliver context to the seeker. Not just the immediate ability to see the context and meanings of Shakespeare in notes by previous scholars, but also maps of discovery. What this would mean is that a person would find Hamlet in a digital tool, and not just find a word. The word would come with the initial and evolved definition since Shakespeare’s time, any idiomatic references it may contain of the 1600s, and the option to dive deeper in to what other scholars think about it. From this our understanding would not only be our own limited experience. Sharon Leon wrote:

“The difference here is in the effort to bring together evidence in a user interface that allows for the consideration of many perspectives and multiple causality, as opposed to offering a single perspective that simplifies the past” (http://www.6floors.org/bracket/2012/02/18/content-and-context-visualizations-for-the-public/).

This would be the ultimate information sharing. Anyone could learn about anything. It would open the flood-gates for textual analysis over the internet. The amount of information eventually becomes its own little official world of Shakespeare. If you remember one of my previous posts, Digimon and Divination (http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/03/digimon-and-divination/), this is a continuation of my theory. Not necessarily that the DH world will become a different dimension where small monsters run around (even if this sounds accurate for some of the plays), but that any structure of a certain size becomes official. For proof, just look at the recent additions to the dictionary (e.g. to heart as seen here: http://www.inquisitr.com/101669/omg-lol-fyi-oed/).   The digital humanities may very well become the official source for literary scholars. Although the Humanities, like everything, will become digital it will never actually lose its footing in the physical world. The world of Digital monsters careened out of control because it lost its basis in the physical realm when the programmers abandoned it. Really though, the Humanities will always exist through humans because that is where the value lies. Besides all that the Digital Humanities will never lose its base as long as books still exist in paper… and let us face it; are there really any humanities scholars who do not adore an old fabric bound, gold edged novel from a by-gone era?

For the Love of the Digital

The next question may be… one I have already asked. “Where does the world end and data begin?”
The most shocking thing about computers is really how ridiculously simple they are at their very base. They just constantly make decisions. 1 or 0? Seriously, that is all they are in essence. So what is so complicated about that? Well you should see the extent that it goes to! Have you ever seen a software engineer’s homework? I have, it does not look like it has ANYTHING to do with 1s and 0s. What I do understand about computers and the Internet is, of course, the humanity of it all. I quote myself:
Internet, and the Digital Humanities; “must hold significant portions of the literature that shapes the world we live in. Literature is made in the image of the earth and of human experience, and the characters that inhabit it are in the image of its creatures. The depth that it reaches to is too far to count. It is too far a stretch to say that the universe of data is alternate to the universe of reality?” (http://engl203.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/03/digimon-and-divination/)

This is where the appearance of math I mentioned earlier meets that of the humanities. People are fantastic at taking literature and finding meaning in it. Computers are simply made to learn the basics of our patterns of association, so both must contribute. Monk, TaPOR, Wordseer, Wordhoard, and Voyeur can show us what they find, but without knowing how the user cannot appreciate the results. Although we are miles away from writing these programs ourselves, at least we now understand the power we are accessing.
It is incredible how much can be stored in virtually no physical space. It probably would blow Shakespeare’s mind. However, this wonderful thing has its demons. If people can burns books and art to erase ideas, then how hard could it be to highlight and delete…? Fight Club had a point: if you erase all proving data of debt, does it still exist? Banks already lend money that does not exist, making 100% plus interest of it back, effectively stealing from you for using a service.

Anyway, that was a tangent, but hopefully it gets the point across. Things that do not have root in the physical world have no credibility, but the Humanities will never survive without human interpretation. A computer can do whatever it is told, but at present, it will not understand why or how. You can tell it how to find the word “cowardly” and that sometimes “yellow” will mean the same thing, but it will not be able to distinguish when. Nuances are another thing that might never be known to a computer. Also idiomatic meanings, connotative meanings, emotional effect, so the list goes on. In Monk workbench even, you can search for lemmas of “madness” and you will be lucky if it comes up with anything about possession. However, in context, as the Sharon Leon (“Content and Context”) this will be the future. Even then the computer will not care. There are in fact many businesses and services that have gone digital beyond the need of human input. Luckily, this will not be one of them. The humanities have always been rooted in the realm of human experience, in passion, and in literature. As you can tell by the very word “humanities” it will never extend out of the influence of human intervention. The “digital humanities” depends fully on the cooperation of the digital and physical, the computer binary and the abstract human brain, and the fabrications of both. Thus at least there will always be the credibility, and always be the earned knowledge.

And So…

The introduction of the Digital Humanities has been like no other experience. Having comprehension transcend physical books was a scary idea, but I understand now that neither the DH nor literature can exist without the other. Reading will always have understanding and relation to fuel it, and the digital humanities will have its massive stores of data and the ease of accessing it to continue with. Thus the use of the five tools has become a triumph, and it will continue. Since understanding will always be required, the Humanities can march on to provide endless rounds of data association with works of art, literature and artefacts, and no meaning will be lost. Hopefully this is the pure future. Information will be accessible to everyone who chooses to find it, and not just through months of study. There will never be any loss of credibility because only some will choose to understand it fully. And the parallel universe made up of our data about the world we live in will never materialize with digital monsters and a doomsday prediction because… actually I cannot promise that one.

Works Cited:

Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, eds. 2006: Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare. 3rd

Series. London: Thomson Learning. 613 + xxii pp. ISBN 1-904271-33-2

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