Geeks Bearing Gifts: New Tools for the Humanities

Transdisciplinary Collaboration Is Key to Keeping the Past Alive

annual meeting sessionWe saw the future, and it works, was the message of panelists at presidential session 67, “The Future Is Here: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities,” chaired by outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton, and a part of the series on digital methods in research and teaching in history. But we have to be wary, the speakers warned—not only can we not assume that the lights will stay on, but we also have to collaborate across disciplines if historians want to continue to explore the past.

In an entertainingly choreographed duologue, Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, both of Harvard University, described their Culturomics project as “the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” Providing examples from their analysis of word-usage frequencies over time—with the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer—Aiden and Michel declared that what they were building was a tool that could help historians in myriad ways. They insisted that their intent was not to create a digital robot to replace historians, but to help them explore the past in hitherto unimaginable ways, especially by drawing upon the skills of practitioners of other disciplines such as mathematics. Already, others have been developing the culturomics project in new directions: creating more refined searches, posting new questions about the past, and even extrapolating predictions for the future of the past.

In his wide-ranging presentation, Blaise Aguera y Arcas of Microsoft Corporation (best known for his work on Photosynth) described how his efforts to understand the multiplicity of typefaces in the books produced in Gutenberg’s printing press led him to see how drawing on the expertise of various fields is the only way to comprehend some aspects of the past. Moreover, he said, he also discovered that contrary to popular belief, invention cannot be a solitary practice, and that inventors have to draw upon the work of many. Such collaboration is essential, he said, if historians wish to continue to explore the past, especially because we cannot assume that the Internet is “free” or that the lights will stay on.

Earlier, when introducing the speakers, President Grafton said that the session was a reflection of the AHA’s attempts to move into the digital age, and that the Association is making efforts to keep up with the digital times.

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