Why Study the Digital Humanities?

There are a number of reasons to keep an eye on digital humanities research, but I think the most pressing one is that it is quickly modifying humanities programs. I am personally thrilled about this shift. Even the most traditional and conservative professors are beginning to incorporate the study of technology into their curricula, although many may not even realize it.

One day, my Modernity and Enchantment class was discussing Alejo Carpentier’s Kingdom of this World. Carpentier invented the term lo real maravilloso, or the marvelous real to describe a style of writing closely related to what is now called magical realism. His novel describes the Haitian revolution from the perspective of the slaves, and takes their ontology and epistemology into account.

My professor, a self-proclaimed luddite, had us read about the Haitian Revolution off of Wikipedia and then compare it with Carpentier’s account. Of course, the Wikipedia article lacked the magical component present in Kingdom of this World. What my professor did not realize is that Wikipedia is edited and monitored by bots, meaning that computer scripts catch any “errors” in the articles. This prevents volunteers from submitting any blatantly wrong information. In other words, while humans write the articles, a bot cleans them up. This made me wonder what would happen if I were to add information from Carpentier’s novel which isn’t “correct” according to the Western historical tradition, but which maybe held true for the slaves. Would the bots notice?

For example, in Kingdom of this World, when one leader is burned at the stake, his death is viewed differently by the white men than it is viewed by the slaves. The white men think that he has died, and that the slaves do not care. The slaves, on the other hand, believe Macandal has transformed into something else and that he will return. They go home to the plantations cheering. What would happen if I edited a paragraph in the Haitian Revolution page with information about the transformation of Macandal? Would it be deleted? How long would it take for either the bots or the humans to notice? How do computer scripts reflect Western values and epistemology, even though they are not human?

I find these questions fascinating, and I only think they will become more pressing as we move forward. Will we ever have a magical realist programmer? What is the difference between a programmer in the metropole and in the periphery? Perhaps these traditionally humanistic questions can be asked of computer science. The possibilities are endless for this interdisciplinary study and I think students should be well-versed in that field.


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