Making the Humanities Digital

UNC School of Information and Library Science, INLS 890-186, Fall 2011

September 12, 2011
computers as tools for the humanities

There is some nice current debate at the Humanist that looks relevant to the discussions we had in class this morning.

I was particularly tickled by these few paragraphs:

The computer is just a tool, but so is a paintbrush. No one dismisses a painter’s art just because it was done with a paintbrush, even though you can produce some good art with just fingers and paint. At the same time, I can’t pick up a paintbrush and produce art. I haven’t had enough practice. Coloring by number doesn’t make art.

The current crop of tools act like the color by number painting. There are simple buttons to push and slots for information. There’s a lot of handholding because the users aren’t expected to be proficient in computation, any more than I’m expected to be proficient in painting. The results are useful, but they don’t capture anything of the researcher using the tool. Instead, they capture arguments made by the tool builder on how humanities should be computed. Does the tool user understand and agree with these arguments?

Not every paintbrush needs the training of an artist. I don’t need to have years of experience in order to paint the side of a house. Nor do I need to have years of experience to use the computer to write an email or use a word processor. Humanists aren’t interested in the broad strokes that paint a house, but in the details that create art.

The computer is just a tool, but it’s different than most tools. It’s malleable. It’s a medium like clay that takes on the shape of the artist. We should mold the computer to our will to answer our research questions. We shouldn’t mold ourselves to the computer and change our research questions so that the computer can help. Right now, I fear that we are using the computer like a hammer. We know it can do something well, so we turn everything else into a nail.

I feel I could copy and paste almost the entire post, honestly, so I would just encourage everyone to read it. I think it’s the second or third email, and can be found by finding “jgsmith” on the page.

Posted by Matthew L Belskie at 9:28 PM.

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