Digital Humanities in 2040: Four Scenarios

It’s the year 2040, are the Digital Humanities still around? In general, I see four possible scenarios: DH replaces the Humanities, DH becomes its own discipline, DH turns into IT assistance and DH fades away. According to a short survey on Twitter, the second scenario is considered most likely. Whatever the outcome, I argue, the future of DH will depend on what results they deliver and what lasting contribution they can make to the Humanities as a whole.

Trends come and go. Paradigms are overthrown and turns happen. This is true for the humanities as it is true for society as a whole. Nowadays, the Digital Humanities feature prominently in Call for Papers, funding applications, CVs and most importantly in job advertisement. But will the DH survive? Will they make a lasting contribution? Or will disillusion take over, people change into the private sector and the Digital Humanities bubble burst?

Of course, no one knows the answer to these questions! But it may be very well worthy to explore them. We must discuss what is the most desirable scenario in order to find the best way to make it happen. Seeing myself primarily as a Humanist with digital skills, my perspective on future scenarios here will focus explicitly on the relationship between DH and the Humanities as a whole. Considerations about technical developments, I leave to others. I see four major scenarios where the Digital Humanities can stand by 2040:

Scenario 1: DH replaces the Humanities

This is a digital Utopia for some and a Dystopia for others. In 2040 the Digital Humanities have replaced all “traditional” or “analogue” research. This does not mean, that people  use the standard piece of commercial software available or their smartphone in order to support their research – even many “traditional” scholars already do that today! Instead, every single humanist has become an information scientist too.

DH completely took over the Humanities and by this has considerably transformed them. The results produced by digital approaches in the last two decades have been so overwhelming, the support by political and funding institutions so strong, the pressure on researchers so sincere that the landscape of the humanities has considerably changed after the “digital turn”. “Analogue” research is a niche, all humanities have become truly “digital”.

Scenario 2: DH turns into its own discipline

In 2040 Digital Humanities have established positions at every major university and conduct mainly quantitative research on large data sets. They develop tools and algorithms in order to answer questions on highly complex data.

However, their connection to the humanities is loose. Sometimes there is collaboration, but usually they work within their bubble that is more focused on doing innovative computer science with Humanities training data than actually collaborating and interchanging questions, knowledge and results with the humanities as a whole. Thus, they have become a discipline, yet preserved little of their “interdisciplinary” appeal.

Scenario 3: DH turns into IT assistance for Humanists

In 2040, DH are still here, yet they have lost a lot of their innovative zeal. Instead, they have become a well established auxiliary discipline. Whenever a large research project needs IT support, the Digital Humanities are called for. They build data bases, develop tools, curate websites and access large amounts of data on the web.

The same way one consults an expert on diplomatics when one deals with charters or diplomas, or a numismatician if coins are important, Digital Humanists are involved whenever more complex IT questions need to be considered. Apart from that, little is heard from them in the rest of the humanities. They do some of their own research and have their own conferences, but by and large they are regarded by researchers and funding institutions as a service provider.

Scenario 4: Digital Humanities fades away

In 2040 the term “Digital Humanities” sounds very old. Just like many trends and turns it has faded away. The people who conducted this research changed into the private sector or strongly rebranded what they do. But it is not just a rebranding: The euphoria for digital tools is over. After two decades it became clear: They provided no lasting results. Large data sets have been accumulated, but time and again they either found the completely obvious or failed to deal with the high complexity of the data.

Still, many relicts have survived into this post-digital period: better search algorithms have been developed, countless sources been digitalized and some tools are still around. But overall, simple commercial tools won out that only support, but do not change what Humanists have been doing for a long time.

Where do we want to go?

I asked people over on (predominantly DH-friendly) Twitter, which of these scenario they consider likely. Over the course of a week the race was very close, yet after some last minute retweets the 61 votes saw a clear winner:

It seems, most people see (and probably also want) the DH as their own discipline. However, more nuanced opinions have been given in the comments. As a fifth option it has been stressed that the DH as a discipline will be integrated within the Humanities “not as a single discipline but as a self-evident component of humanities’ methodological canon” (@ChNunn & @C18AH).

A sixth option stated that DH replaces the Humanities by and large, but a specialised subfield of DH concerned with technologies and methods will remain (@MaxKemmann). This opinion was explained in detail in a recent blog article by Fredrick Elwert. He envisions a specialised field separate from the “Digital Humanities” and calls it “Computational Humanities” (CH). These “CH” are more technology focused than the DH currently are. This strong focus could lead to a break with the Humanities, as he explains soon after on Twitter:

This potential scenario also met strong critique on Twitter, seeing this specialization and “breaking away” of Computational Humanities as a method of protecting (white and male) prestige, as Miriam Posner and many others have emphasised:

Conclusion

We see in this debate, that where the Humanities will be and especially where they should be is anything but agreed upon. In my four scenarios above, I have only discussed the relationship between DH and the Humanities, but there is much more to be discovered. In my opinion, the long term fate of DH will largely be decided by the results they produce. Only if we create new answers to meaningful questions and thus foster our increase of knowledge, we will be seen as more than a service provider. Thus, instead of isolating ourselves, we must seize every opportunity to reach out and discuss our results and findings with all of the Humanities, irregardless if “digital” or not.

Depending on the success of this endeavour, I see DH for 2040 somewhere between IT-service and a discipline. Only if we can prove our value beyond “prove of concepts” or “work in progress” and create results too good to be ignored, Digital Humanities will have a future, whose origins will be exciting to study in 2040.

Update July 21st: Briefly added the critique expressed by Miriam Posner and many others on Twitter.


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