The paradox of semantic technologies

An ongoing debate in the humanities is that of methodology: hypothetico-deductive approaches are often rejected, and analytical definitions of the objects of study are usually believed impossible or not desirable. However, suitable alternatives are rarely produced without friction or heated discussion.

It is true that methodologies are taught at universities and considered an important aspect of research by most scholars; however, I have not found many occasions where methodologies were documented and communicated in a systematic way by practitioners. For this reason, I argue that methodological guidance in the digital humanities is scarce, which makes reproducibility of interim and final research results, as well as the communication of work processes to colleagues or the public, very difficult. This is especially relevant in relation to the separation of descriptive vs. interpretive processes. By descriptive processes I refer to formalising tasks by which researchers generate data from observed evidence, e.g. by recording finds at an archaeological excavation site. By interpretive processes I refer to deductive, inductive or abductive tasks by which scholars generate new knowledge from existing data and through argumentation, sense-making and other cognitive devices. Such poor separation of descriptive and interpretive processes in the digital humanities leads to bigger reuse barriers and scenarios where collaboration is harder, especially between individuals of different disciplinary backgrounds.

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The concept of “digital humanities”

I will start by delving into an issue that has shown to be heavily contentious: I don’t think that the digital humanities constitute a new field of enquiry, one that is significantly different to good old humanities as we know them. I may be wrong, or you may disagree with me, so help yourself to the comments section. I will be glad to discuss, and I may as well be persuaded to the contrary of what I state below.

In a well-known interview, Kathleen Fitzpatrick [Lopez et al. 2015] states that digital humanities

…[is] bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media.

According to this, digital humanities are about doing humanities by using digital technologies, or about digital technologies. Let’s explore both options.

On the first sense, I would argue that any current scientific research endeavour must necessarily employ digital technologies. In today’s world, you cannot be an active researcher without digital technologies. In fact, we do not hear about “digital biology” or “digital physics”, because the “digital” aspect is taken for granted in these disciplines. Similarly, I would think that you need digital technologies to carry out research in the humanities, and there is no way around it. In this regard, I argue that the “digital” qualifier in “digital humanities” of the first kind does not contribute much to the meaning of the expression.

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What I am planning to write about

I have wanted to write about the digital humanities for some time now, and I hope this blog will be the place. I chose a blog because many things I’d like to say are too informal or too opinion-based as to be part of a scientific publication. Also, I am interested in hearing comments from other people and seeing how much my views are shared.

As the blog title implies, I will be writing about the digital humanities but in an unconventional way. This is so because my understanding of what the digital humanities are, what they should be, and how to practise them, is quite different to that of most of my colleagues, as far as I understand. My background is in software engineering and science (biology, in particular), although I’ve been working in the digital humanities for over 25 years, before the “digital humanities” term was mainstream. This means that I have come to this place from a direction that is very different to that of most other people. According to my experience, most people in the digital humanities are humanists (archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists or whatever) that have been attracted towards the digital and, very often, learnt about it. On the contrary, I am a software engineer who has been attracted towards the humanities, and (hopefully) have learnt about them. This difference will be very patent in my posts.

I am planning to write about what the digital humanities are and what they should be, as well as on whether they make sense at all, to start with. I am also planning to write about specific trends and technologies within the digital humanities, such as TEI, linked open data, thesauri, repositories, databases, metadata, etc. And I am also planning to write about topics that are rarely discussed in the digital humanities community, but which I believe should be, such as conceptual modelling, abstractionsystems design or research management.

Usually, I will write in a quite informal tone, like this. I will try to provide scholarly references when needed, and sometimes I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of things. However, I hope my posts stay accessible to a wide audience, even outside the digital humanities community. Please read on and leave your comments.

Thank you.