AHA Day 1: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities

The panelists at session 67 “The Future is Here: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities,” the presidential session chaired by outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton, included presentations by Erez Liebman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel from Harvard University and Blaise Aguera y Arcas from Microsoft. Both presentations emphasized the necessity of collaboration and opportunities that digital computing offers humanist inquiry while also warning about the pitfalls of relying on digital technology.

Aiden and Jean-Baptiste outlined culturomics in their talk that almost exactly followed their TED talk. Aiden and Jean-Baptiste provided examples of word-frequencies and usages over time. Using 5 million books digitized by Google, they insisted their methods gave insight into a sort of cultural genome. They also confronted five “myths” of those critical of their approach to analyzing historical documents, insisting they were not trying to replace historians with machines but rather build tools that historians may find useful in their work. In their most provocative section of the talk was a discussion of new work they’re undertaking in to “cultural inertia,” or asking the question of whether we could use cultural data and history to predict the future. History, they concluded, will remain the domain of close reading, primary sources, and interpretation, but will also include big data, massive collaboration, data interpretation, computation, and science.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, known for his work on Photosynth, discussed his effort to understand typefaces in Gutenberg’s printing press. He examined how type was configured using clustering software and high resolution images of letters to analyze the components that made up the text. Moreover, he asserted that Gutenberg’s real contribution was the development of fonts rather than moveable type. At the core of his talk was an emphasis on collaboration. Only through collaboration in several areas of expertise could he come to understand different aspects of typesetting. The same holds true for any aspect of the past. Collaboration will be essential after the digital turn because we cannot make assumptions about digital data — the rise of proprietary digital environments, the inability to truly own data, the misguided notion that one can own a gadget, the filter bubble, and no guarantee that the lights will remain on. Invention does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, collaboration is essential for exploring or generating new ideas.

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