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Salvatori, E. (2016). Digicraft and ‘Systemic’ Thinking in Digital Humanities. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 341-344.
Digicraft and 'Systemic' Thinking in Digital Humanities

Digicraft and 'Systemic' Thinking in Digital Humanities

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.

  1. For what concerns Epigraphical Studies, Public History and Education:
    1. Epigrapisa: A re-reading partly driven and partly spontaneous of the epigraphic messages left over time in a city. Competence/knowledge at work: history, public history, epigraphy, paleography, writing, dramatize, processing images, audio and video, web design.
    2. Teaching (Digital) Epigraphy: a novel education experience in teaching students to transcribe and interpret Roman inscribed lead tags, using a Digital Autoptic Process (DAP) in a Web environment. Competence/knowledge at work: history, education, epigraphy, paleography, writing, manipulating images, collaborative tools.
    3. Pisa e l’Islam and Pisan Romanesque meets Contemporary America: two examples of historical web dissemination with a reasoning about both the potential and the limits of the medium to involve the audience. Competence/knowledge at work: history, arts, archaeology, public history & archaeology, epigraphy, GIS, writing, dramatize, processing images audio and video, web design.
  • In the area of Digital Public History:
    • Tramonti. Itinerari tra generazioni lungo i crinali della Val di Vara a complex project aimed at enhancing the cultural heritage of an Italian rural valley through the active participation of residents. Competence/knowledge at work: history & archaeology, public history & archaeology, invented archives, education, writing, dramatize, GIS, manipulating images and videos, libraries, collaborative tools, web design, project management.
  • In the field of Digital Editions:
    • Codice Pelavicino Digitale: the digital edition of a medieval manuscript built to provide all services of the digital world and to invite the readers to actively participate. Competence/knowledge at work: history & public history, text encoding, philology, paleography, codicology, writing, manipulating images, collaborative tools, web design, project management.

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:

  1. they are digital;
  2. they are inevitably and necessarily interdisciplinary;
  3. they are open;
  4. they were built in a kind of new Renaissance workshop, a digital craft (DIGICRAFT).
  • They are digital. This may seem trivial but it is not. These are projects “born digital” not because the digital world offers the most useful tools to achieve the same purpose in relation with the “real” world, but because they could not exist outside the incredible interaction between real and digital world that it is now our life. They are digital because they might not otherwise exist.
  • Interdisciplinarity is compulsory. DH is a field unavoidably and profoundly interdisciplinary and we have to deal with each project as a complex set of activities and skills that crosses, by its true nature, several fields; this change of practice and approach implies by itself a methodological revolution, because it requires an organization of work similar to a Renaissance workshop (a DIGICRAFT), with an articulated division of labor in relation to several levels of skills, where education and training could be provided by the same learners, coordinated by a strong and mature central idea.
  • Openness is a result and a choice. Working in a multidisciplinary team built upon research and with different tools, sustainability requires using open source tools, sharing data between individuals and giving everything to the public. Then Openness is a natural result, even it is also an ethical, political and philosophical choice as the Digital Manifesto 2.0 says: “the digital is the realm of the open, open source, open resources".
  • A DIGICRAFT. In a Renaissance workshop it was possible to produce different objects: statues, paintings, goldsmith or less valuable coroplastic objects. Each handwork was a “project” that included on the one hand a strong artistic and cultural vision (meaning, style, function, purpose, style) and on the other hand a complex set of different techniques made by different workers with different levels of capacity. The owner of the shop (or the head-artist) had not necessarily to know each technique as an expert, but his employees could in many ways be superior and the various members of the workshop could learn from each other. The owner had to keep the team together with a well clear idea of the work itself.
    Likewise a DIGICRAFT could work (and actually does in our LabCD in Pisa) in the same way: each project is taken over as an interdisciplinary complex object that requires specific skills and different but profoundly related competences. The basis (first phases) of the work are often composed by students of the Bachelor and Master's degree in DH, who work, in the labCD, as interns or undergraduates. The work is directed by one “manager” but followed at various stages by experts, who assign specific tasks to the students, always ensuring an active connection among everyone in the team through the usual or more useful collaborative tools. While the work goes on, often happens that some student acquire, in a particular technique or phase, a greater capacity and knowledge than the others and then he/she becomes able to propose substantial changes in the work chain. The manager is not required - nor humanly could - to know every aspect in depth, nor to be fully aware of all the problems related to it, or to master each technique: however, he/she must be able:
    *) to see always clearly the aim and the nature of the work;
    *) to communicate effectively with everyone in the team.

    A “digicraft” is anywhere on a DH project teachers and students exchange knowledge and leverage this interaction to offer innovative and effective solutions, combining the theoretical reasoning with practices and skills. This is possible only if the manager and the team share a common strong vision of what a DH project is, embracing a "systemic" or “organic” or “holistic” thinking of DH itself.

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.

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