Apparently, I am a conservative. I have just learned that I am a stuck in the mud too blind to see that the revolution may not be televised, but that it is online. Accept this or be declared the “enemy,” a “great diminisher,” a “false fellow traveler,” too mired in a nostalgic reverie to realize that the revolution is here and it is made up of zeros and ones.
I am, of course, referring to The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, an over-the-top polemic that seeks to sell technology as an all-in proposition. If you are not with us you are against us. If you dare think that the digital humanities do not represent a “revolution” or propose that new technologies represent anything less than the vanguard of an XML army set to free us from the tyranny of books, newspapers, and magazines then you must be embarrassed into silence.
We live in an age when meaningful words are frequently diminished by overuse. Everybody is a hero. All the children are above average. Revolutions happen almost weekly.
Revolutions, true revolutions, are extremely rare. They involve profound breaks with the past, yet history has few such clear divisions. Scholars might like to declare them in order to sell books, those anxious to sell a new product might like to invoke the word, but that does not change the reality. Talkin’ ’bout a revolution does not conjure one into being.
Is this to say that computers, the Web, tablets and all the rest are not important examples of historical change? No. But do they mark a break with the past?
What do we really do with computers that would suggest such a brave new world? Most of us use them as typewriters. Some of us utilize their abilities to function as fancy calculators. More than a few play games. Quite a lot surf blue websites. Many explore the latest incarnation of the encyclopedia. In most cases, if we’re really honest, the display has changed, but little else.
Ah, but wait. What about “big data?” Certainly the American Historical Association is making much of the use of computers to crunch numbers. E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, directors of the ESRC Cambridge Groups for the History of Population and Social Structure back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, authored a massive study of demographic change across England between 1541 and 1871. To crunch their truly “big” datasets comprised of piles upon piles of parish records, they drew upon a team of researchers instead of a microchip. Different tool, similar results. Likewise, the first wave Annals historians, Fernand Braudel, for example, managed to cover some pretty astonishing ground back in the 1930s and 1940s—long before scanners, blogs, and technology celebrating manifestos.
So, for my money, digital tools are nifty but not revolutionary. Computers, the web and all the rest are tools. Nothing more. Tools that will only take us as far as the people who use them. Ultimately, whatever we do in terms of research or in our classrooms is a result of our humanity and how we use it.
The problem with this latest “manifesto” is that it seeks to dehumanize in favor of Wikis, crowd sourcing, blogs, and blinking clipart. It seeks to squeeze out differing viewpoints. It creates a sense that there is an “us” and a “them” and that insiders and outsiders are defined by their willingness to fall down before a consumerist alter of excess.
In the end, The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 is little more than an interesting historical document. It marks a moment, little more. Something to move beyond rather than something to take seriously or follow.
This said, I do hope that people will prove able and willing to make creative use of these new tools. That we will do more with computers in classrooms than show how “with it” we are relative to the “digital generation” or to encourage students to do “research” by trolling for factoids instead of undertaking rigorous critical examination of information.
Who knows, perhaps down the road there might actually BE a revolution . . . but that time has not yet come.