In the AIUCD ( Associazione per l'Informatica Umanistica e la Cultura Digitale) conference held in Bologna in September 2014 Manfred Thaller wondered "Are the Humanities an endangered or dominant species in the digital ecosystem?" (Thaller, 2014, also Thaller, 2012). The answer was not simple nor linear and directly involved the Digital Humanities (DH from now on) as a disciplinary and research field that was still poorly defined, DH hold the promise to bring out the Humanities from the Indian reserve where they are now confined, provided certain conditions will be met. In particular DH specialists should:
1) conceive of themselves as researchers and not as conversationalists;
2) strive for a vision;
3) change the epistemology of the Humanities;
4) drive technology and not be driven by it.
A few months after the conference Serge Noiret wrote on Digital History (one of my fields of investigation) trying to clarify what actually characterizes this subject within the wider field of DH, and - within the Digital History itself - what is the specific task of the Digital Public History (Noiret, 2015; see also Robertson, 2014). We could place Noiret’s article completely under the first point of Thaller’s list: Digital History and Digital Public History are clearly seen as areas of research and not merely as new forms of communication of old disciplines. Moreover he answered to items 2 and 3 too, essentially proposing a more accurate taxonomy of DH. In a way, he seems to answer Thaller’s question with an accurate definition of some components of the meta-discipline itself.
I do not want to linger in this paper on the definition of DH as a whole nor of its components: so many authors in recent years have-debated to define what someone thinks to be (or could be) a discipline and others a research or work field (McCarty, 2005; Svensson, 2010). Every exercise of definition of a “new” area of research is, of course, useful, but at the same time it is potentially frustrating and risky. Frustrating because, as many authors and research centers have declared, despite its now long history, the DH is still an emerging field, and as well as an open, multifaceted, ever-changing one; risky, because each taxonomy of knowledge unavoidably builds walls and fences that encase the knowledge itself in a series of sterile boxes. This could be, in my modest opinion, the risk in Noiret’s essay. It's more important to go beyond a possible but also difficult definition of DH and their several sub-disciplines, focusing our attention on items 2 and 3 of the Thaller list instead, namely on the need to have our own vision and on the importance to characterize DH in terms of the emerging changes of method in our daily research.
In particular I will try to connect the concepts expressed by both scholars, looking on the one hand to the recent history of DH in Italy (i.e. degree courses, associations, meetings) and on the other hand to my own research projects at the University of Pisa, especially inside the DH course degree (https://www.unipi.it/index.php/ects/ects?ects_id=IFU-L) and within the Digital Culture Laboratory (http://labcd.humnet.unipi.it/). Starting from some specific cases I wish to reason on the possible vision of the DH.
I will focus very briefly on some projects.
By shortly describing these project I will not try to figure out what distinguishes them from each other, but, on the contrary, what characterizes all of them as Digital Culture projects and what they tell us about a possible vision of DH:
The core of DH is unitary and lies in the conviction that the digital turn has permeated every aspect of our lives as people and scholars modifying them deeply.
In the 70s of XXth century has increasingly gained ground a vision of Humanities Computing that kept almost unchanged the traditional disciplines within their rigid internal divisions and distinguished the humanist from the expert in information technology, hoping and promoting a dialogue between the two main areas (still in Fusi 2011, I, p. 1-2). Today this position is no longer sustainable. The web in first place and the web 2.0 in the second (but also the Big Data emerging field as well as the Data Visualization tools) have slowly but surely changed the research landscape especially demolishing the barrier between tools, methods and ways of sharing. We are obviously still in a transitional phase. Highly specialized sub-areas remain (and also in the future will exist) and obviously several scholars strive to better define the old / new digital disciplines (digital history, digital philology and so on), but there is also a complementary phenomenon pointing to an inclusive and unitary vision of DH.
From the perhaps limited but interesting Italian observatory I believe this change has affected both the terminology used in the establishment of centers, associations and degree programs (AIUCD, Digital Humanities degree, Digital Cultural Heritage, Arts and Humanities School), both the organisation of courses and meetings.
It 's more and more widespread the awareness that we are a new type of scholar (and graduate, and PhD), the digital humanist, someone who has a mixed formation, an open mind, is able to master both languages and the main methodological issues of the two areas without considering one serving the other.
In doing so, we need to maintain the epistemological strictness that each discipline involved in the DH has developed over time: commingling does not mean carelessness or inaccuracy; but in the same time we have to claim the change or the changes in each methodology in order to build a new global epistemology.
In order to do this the digital humanist has to embrace a "systemic” or “organic” or “holistic” thinking of the humanities, leave the enclosure of the academic fields and get away from the temptation to create an old-new rigid taxonomy.
Speaking of “systemic” or “organic” or “holistic” thinking / view (I’m sorry for the repetition but the adjectives organic and holistic mean different things not only in different languages but mainly in different subjects), I refer to the epistemological approach that has emerged in some areas of the research over the past thirty years and which tends to oppose the reductionist approach flourished since the seventeenth century onwards and imposed in almost all sectors of the so-called "hard sciences" (Capra-Luisi 2014). As we know reductionism believes that studying in depth a peculiarity of a phenomenon and understanding it completely it will be possible, by progressive addition of discoveries, illuminate the entire system. The reductionist approach has been, as we know, the basis for the scientific revolution of the modern age, but it also led in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to an exasperate
fragmentation of the fields of scientific research. This phenomenon has also heavily influenced the Humanities,often creating absurd barriers and hyper-specialized languages, that have closed researches in several walled gardens. I believe that this long wave has exhausted its strength and that precisely the DH can reverse the trend. Now a new methodological approach have arisen alongside the reductionist thinking, considering the “system”, the “whole”, something more and different than the sum of its components. The “systemic thinking” reasons in terms of relationships, networks, patterns of organizations and processes; it proposes a change of paradigms: from the vision of the world as a machine to the world as a network; it takes account of the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena.
This change of paradigms could and should affect the DH as well for the reasons listed above, promoting a systemic view of this meta-discipline and therefore pushing Digital Humanists to deeply transform the old practice of work.