Monday, January 18, 2016

Digital History: Week 1

For the first week’s assignment, the class jumped right into learning about the broader concept of digital humanities through the reading of Digital_Humanities by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. In the preface, the authors explain that Digital_Humanities purposes to ask “what it means to be a human being in the networked information age and to participate in fluid communities of practice, asking and answering research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution” (DH, vii). The authors then explain that there are individuals who believe that the humanities are experiencing a “crisis,” sacrificing quality for quantity (DH, vii). Acknowledging this, the authors reveal their “counterargument” that favors a “convergence between quality and quantity” (DH, vii). The authors argue that the humanities are not in a crisis, but rather, the humanities are experiencing a shift in human activity and that the humanities are vital to shaping this shift and change in culture (DH, vii). To support their thesis, the authors look at the transition from humanities to digital humanities, the emerging methods and genres that use and digital tools, the social life of the digital humanities, and the provocations in the future of digital humanities. As examples of the methods and theories of digital humanities, the authors provide several different case studies.
Considering the case studies, one in particular stood out to me: Case Study 4, Virtual Reconstruction of an Afghan Refugee Camp as a Site for Cultural Memory. In this case study, the project purposed to recreate a virtual model of an Afghan refugee camp that existed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Having a bachelor’s degree in political science and pursuing my MA in history, this case study fascinated me. First, I was intrigued with the individuals chosen for the collaboration of this project – professors specializing in politics, architectural history, and performance studies (DH, 68). While I would have likely chosen professors in politics and history, I would not have thought to include a professor of performance studies; however, I now see how a professor of performance studies is absolutely necessary.
Yet, perhaps what fascinated me most about this project was some of the ethical concerns in recreating a virtual refugee camp. As the authors explain, it is difficult to attain active participation from the community without trivializing the trauma they personally experienced at the camp (DH, 68). I can imagine how members of the community could see their traumatic experiences objectified and made impersonal through what they might view as simply a video game. In reading about the methods and work plan of the case study, I was fascinated with how closely this project resembled what I imagine to be the development of a video game.
Having read through the book, considered the book’s thesis, and analyzed a particular case study, my eyes were opened to the larger implications for historians, educators, and humanists working in the digital age. While there were many implications that struck me, several stood out. First, I was most intrigued with the concepts of authorship and intellectual property. The book explains that in the digital age, the question is “no longer what is an author…but what is the author function” in the many different aspects of digital design and composition (DH, 83).  This also raises concerns regarding intellectual property – as open source material has been significantly spread in the digital age, “…if code – or any cultural product - is produced by a distributed network of sometimes unknown creators, how is it to be regulated? …who owns it?” (DH, 78). The concepts of authorship and intellectual property are intriguing. In print material, it is relatively easy to cite books and articles, giving credit where credit is due. Considering digital projects, how does a person know the proper way to cite the project? For example, considering the refugee project, as a history student, I would see the history professor’s work as most important to the project and probably not consider the individuals who contributed to the technical side of the project. Yet, if the project is a collaborative effort, does not the professor of performance studies deserve as much credit as the professor of history? While authorship and intellectual property are just two examples of the larger implications for educators working in the digital age, Digital_Humanities is full of thought provoking ideas about the opportunities and challenges that educators, humanists, and historians face in this digital age of the twenty-first century.

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