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He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

(George Orwell, 1984)

Remembering 1984 by George Orwell, I will always be asking myself if there exists any chance for people to understand who controls the past. There are myriad of books, stories, newspapers and magazines, which have been printed over the centuries. How does literature change over time? How do people’s language and opinion change over literature? Those are subjects, which will always be debated by book historians and researchers. However, is it possible that Digital Humanities is the answer to all our questions?

Paisius of Hilendar – oil painting by Koyu Denchev

A new trend for historical and linguistic simulations aims at developing theoretical models of not only what makes some literary texts more popular then others, but also how those texts affect cultural interaction and people’s opinion.

Digitizing books and building models for their analysis could one day gives us the complete picture of how beliefs and historical ideas were transmitted over generations and countries. Papers, presented in the Digital Humanities Conference in 2013, discussed many different concepts, which, if someday combined, can give us full access to how societies and literature have been changing together over the centuries. More detailed, their goal is to show the connection between human decision-making and dynamics of literary texts.

Publishing culture

In his paper “Agent-Based Modeling and Historical Simulation”, Michael Gavin from the University of South Carolina uses agent-based modeling software for simulation of the history of publishing culture. He looks at publisher’ life span and offers models, which connect the cost of publishing, the different kinds of books as well as what readers buy. His idea is to generate historical data and to build a model, which will be able to explain what keeps one book for sale while others are thrown away.

Reprinting Networks

Another paper, presented by Ryan Cordell, Elizabeth Maddock and David Smith from the Northeastern University, suggests different ways for “Uncovering Reprinting Networks in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers”. Although, they use different basis from Gavin’s one, they also aim at discovering what qualities particular reprinted texts have. Both papers raise the question of how ideas, spread through those readings, played influence on the then society. If we consider that there are dominating texts in the public circle and that there are book highly more preferable by the press, we should also consider that this could have a possible impact on audiences. Leaving publishers to develop our reading habits and not having access to ancient texts could result in distorting our perception of history.

Cultural Interaction

Moreover, creating a network of reprinted texts will give us notion of how literary copies were moving geographically, how ideologies have been traveling across territorial boundaries. This could also be useful to find some regional patterns in language, which is the main topic of another paper, written by William Kretzschmar and Thomas Bailey from the University of Georgia together with Ilkka Juuso from the University of Oulu. Their publication “Simulation of the Complex System of Cultural Interaction” presents the idea of modeling diffusion, i.e. finding distinctions of language expressions between people from different areas, affecting both oral and written communication. Compared with the previous two papers, which are mainly focused on analyzing literary material, this one achieves a simulation of speech to discover social outlines and repetitions in language. Taking different approaches, all three records have similar objective to educe information about features and characteristics of humanities, which have been changing across space and time.

The question all this brings me to is “Will we be able to soon understand how true it is that ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’ (George Orwell, 1984)?” I honestly believe that the answer to it lies within books and history, because to find out who we are, we, first, need to know who our ancestors were. That’s why we should keep our positive thoughts that Digital Humanities will soon bring the world to us.

References:

1. Gavin, Michael. “Agent-Based Modeling and Historical Simulation” Digital Humanities 2013. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-114.html

2. Gavin, Michael. “DH2013 Talk — Agent-Based Modeling and Historical Simulation” Digital Humanities 2013. July 2013. http://modelingliteraryhistory.org/2013/07/24/dh2013-talk-agent-based-modeling-and-historical-simulation/

3. Cordell, Ryan. Maddock Dilllon, Elizabeth. Smith, David. “Uncovering Reprinting Networks in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers” Digital Humanities 2013. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-150.html

4. Kretzschmar, William. Juuso, Ilkka. Bailey, C. Thomas. “Simulation of the Complex System of Cultural Interaction” Digital Humanities 2013. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-261.html

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