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Living History

I read with avid interest Susan Hockey’s piece, “The History of Digital Humanities”. It turns out that this history closely parallels the arc of my life. By sheer coincidence, I was born in the year that Father Busa began work on his “index verborum” and I finished school about the time the concordance was first published in 1974. Like James Mason (https://dhpraxis14.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2014/08/29/digital-humanities-instilling-optimism-in-academia/) , I got my degree in English and could not do anything with it.

Finally, in 1978, I fell into a job as a mainframe computer operator. I had fun driving that big old machine, working with punch cards and huge reel-to-reel data tapes. My career led me to programming and then project management. Just as Hockey describes the advance of technology in the humanities, I lived through a similar evolution in the corporate IT world. The “invention” of word processing, the arrival of personal computers, the breakthrough of GUI (graphical user interface) and of course the history shaking impact of the Internet. I remember sending my first email. I remember working remotely on text-based terminal that operated over a telephone line at 300 bytes per second (it had no CRT; the I/O took place on spool of paper).

What is intriguing to me is that the tension between technologists and users of technology that seem to be taking place in the Digital Humanities is not a new phenomena. Techies have always been more interested in the tools than what can be done with them. I believe that Humanities has only lately been grappling with these issues because the technology is finally mature enough to deliver real value. It was much simpler to create systems that keep track of debits and credits, than to open up insights into the complex subjects that concern humanists. What seems to me to be unique to academia is the ongoing argument over the definition of Digital Humanities. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply do the work rather than agonize over what to label it?

Time will tell if this MALS program will lead me into a new way to study literature and theatre again or if it will open up a new arena for me leverage my technology career. Perhaps it will do both.

3 thoughts on “Living History

  1. (Martha) Joy Rose

    Really good point: ” Techies have always been more interested in the tools than what can be done with them. I believe that Humanities has only lately been grappling with these issues because the technology is finally mature enough to deliver real value.”

    I find that history keeps repeating itself – just with new “toys.”

  2. madi

    I totally agree on the point of focusing on the job rather than on the label. I feel that the label doesn’t dictate to the field; content quite definitely does. The fact that DH is finding widespread application seems like an indicator of its growth trajectory, as the field develops it is likely to develop some branches that may not bear much resemblance to its roots, necessiating new labels later on.

  3. Yitian Liao

    I have a programmer friend, and his slogan is “why I am smart, because I’m a programmer!”.
    And sometimes in a group chat that our friends join together, he and his programmer friend will send a line of codes as reply of our conversations, which could be only understood by them. They found fascinating about “coding” with other, but the rest of us don’t. My friend one day showed me how he “took off a entire website’s data and saved them on a cloud”, and I looked at him saying: so? I know I should be excited about this but I rather want him to show me something more visualized that I can SEE “what the codes mean” . Therefore, I said, you should just make a flash. He replied, as a programmer, flash is too simply for me.
    But to me, a flash looks much fancier than those coding lines. This reminded me when I was really young, the cell phone was not a cell. It was a giant tool, and I do remember some people doubted whether the giant tool would function the same when someone tried to make it small. And the phone became small and function even better. I’m thinking when DH becomes a main track for most people and we are more knowledge about technics, and it would be so funny when I recall what I said to my friend: why you don’t just make a flash? The history is very similar but different at the same time.

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