how far have we come in the digital humanities?

I spent a fair chunk of time last night reading through the first few months of emails (or notes as they were often called) traded in the opening days of the HUMANIST listserve. This goes back quite a ways in internet time, all the way to 1987. In the spring of 1987, when the list was started as a part of BITNET, I was finishing my freshman year of high school. I was familiar with computers, and used them often already at that point. At the time, we had a TANDY 1000 from Radio Shack, but it wasn’t the first computer in the house or amongst my friends, and I’d spent a fair bit of time in front of an Atari 800, a TRS 80, a Commodore 64, and an IBM box. My attraction to computers, though, was really based in an enthusiasm for early video gaming and my Atari 2600. Like most kids in the late 70s and early 80s, I loved the arrival of the JC Penny and Sears catalogs and coveted new games when they came out. I scrounged for quarters to play video games at gaming parlors and at our summer swim club. I was the family ace at Pitfall, Space Invaders, Pac Man, and Missile Command.

I think that my history with computers in the 70s and 80s bore more resemblance to many of my current students’ experience with the machines in that, 1. they seemed like a natural part of my life; and, 2. I knew next to nothing about how they worked and why. I was at home in Wordperfect (though I don’t miss that blue screen at all), but I didn’t have any hacking instincts. Computer class in middle and high school, where we had to learn Basic, was a drag. I felt no enthusiasm for it, and never had an instructor who was the least bit charismatic. There were times when I wished I knew how to hack something, mostly around my awe at the film War Games (1983). And, I think it’s likely that War Games was responsible for what little knowledge I had of the idea of networked computers. I just took for granted my interactions with the machine, and was a fairly slow adopter of new technology. I guess my first email account was in 1993 or 1994 at Appalachian State. I think I was pretty much a digital native in the way that my students are today– defacto and with little self-awareness of my relation to, or the potential off the technology. It was just part of our household. My personal journey with computer technology has come a long way. As I approach 40 years old, I’ve only recently started to learn python, xml (via the TEI), web frameworks, and even html and css. I made it there via edtech, digital history interests, and THATCamp.

So, what does any of that have to do with the title of this post and its opening lines?

Looking back through the first few months of exchange on the HUMANIST BITNET listserve, and the conversations and debates that were already occurring in 1987 I’m struck at how familiar they are. By the way, the amount of traffic is petty staggering, right from the start. The 1987-1988 txt file contains more than 1,000 messages dated between May 1987 and September 1988, counting some 377,267 words. If you printed it on 8.5×11 paper, you’d need some 1,200 pages. The list peaked, by those types of counts, early in 1990-1991 with 1,325 messages and an astonishing 809,495 words.

But, back to the conversations. In the first few months of the list’s existence we see these strikingly familiar topics: 1. junk mail; 2. complaints about receiving too many messages from conversations that should be taken off list; 3. concern about the fact that digital (or, in their words, electronic) work doesn’t count towards tenure and promotion; 4. discussion of the possibilities and limitations of electronic publication of journals as a replacement for print publication; 6. discussion of the public/academic perception that digital tools (in this case desktop publishing) was doing irreparable harm to typography and the book; 7. discussion of whether or not it’s necessary for computing humanists to learn to program, and anxiety over which direction that should take if needed; 8. recognition of the value of forming virtual communities across oceans (the early days were dominated by folks from the UK and from the University of Toronto); 9. the difficulty some members had in making the switch to reading large amounts of material on screen; 10. requests for recommendations or reviews of particular software applications.

I think in the past two years that I’ve spent easing myself into the DH world, I’ve had conversations face-to-face, over email, on twitter, and through blogs of just about every single one of these topics or their analogues. Why is that? Why do conversations almost 24 years old still ring so contemporary? Consider the technological advancement that has occurred over that time. Consider the computing power that’s in your hand right now, reading this piece (be it a mobile phone or a laptop or a desktop or something else). Is DH (or EH or CH or whatever) the Brazil of the academic world– always touted as the revolutionary potential that will take over the world, but never quite has? Or is the problem one of critical mass? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

EDITED TO ADD: You know, Brazil isn’t exactly the worst analouge to be. The place, and it’s people are beautiful, and they know how to do carnival. Plus, its as much the power and intractability of the world political economic order (or in this case, read structure of academia) that have kept Brazil from reaching it’s full potential. The the past few years Brazil has become a real leader in world affairs by managing a foreign policy network outside of the sphere of US influence. Plus, they won in their bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics against the likes of Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Digital History
2 comments on “how far have we come in the digital humanities?
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chad Black, Timothy Burke. Timothy Burke said: RT @parezcoydigo: New post– how far have we come in the digital humanities?: […]

  2. […] to exhaust us all when our newer colleagues, who are most visible online, make two assumptions: they think that all of this is new; and they think that the current scene is all there […]

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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