As underlined by the name, Digital Humanities are deeply involved with technology. Either we want to digitalize a document or explore a big database, we need for some computer skills (or some computer scientists). In this blog we’ll try to investigate this link between Digital and Humanities: how algorithms, software and coding are central in this discipline, and not only. In order to answer the question in the title, we’ll look at three conference abstracts from DH2015.
One of the main goals of the Venice Time Machine project is a 3D reconstruction of Venice as it was in the past. Starting from written sources (both direct and indirect) and ancient maps, we’d like to bring back to live the buildings of the Serenissima, keeping the same arrangement. However, since Venice founded its wide empire especially to its invincible fleet, why don’t we apply the same procedure also to this field? This is what has been done at EPFL by A. Cavinato et al., as shown in A 3D model of the Venetian Galeazza.
The Galeazza was, among all kinds of ship, the masterpiece of Venetian fleet. The first step of the project was to find reliable information about it. They found eleven drawings representing this vessel and some other books regarding its evolution over the time. Once finished this pre-processing phase, to exploit sources at best they used a software called Rhino3D. Similar to CAD tools, this program allows user to draw 2D sketches and then extrude them to build a 3D entity. Following the drawings, it was so possible to realize and assembly all 3D pieces and to reconstruct the interior of the Galeazza.
The last step of this designing process was the rendering. For each part of the model, they looked for the material it was made of in order to come up with a realistic model, as the following picture witnesses.
At first glance, all this could appear as mere design. Although it’s clear how designing skills are fundamental, we can go beyond. For example, the authors made calculations about the fluid dynamics of the boat, to address questions like what Venetians really knew about physical laws underlying the sea and which of their acknowledges have been forecast till nowadays.
It could be nice to apply this 3D reconstruction also to other fleets. Looking at similarities and differences, we could infer whether or not different cultures got in touch and what features they shared, for example.
Art is surely a main topic in DH, although its complexity. In order to really appreciate an artwork, understanding hidden meanings and messages is needed; but to do this, you have to put together some side information, not always easily accessible. This is why some museums have launched mobile apps to provide user with all the sources he needs to live his cultural experience at his best, in some cases even better than in a guided visit in an art gallery.
As discussed in A close look: developing mobile applications to reveal hidden meanings of art (Downing et al., 2015), the benefits of these apps are many and evident. Their first goal is to make people more confident with art. Sometimes, people are not comfortable in a museum: it can be quite difficult to look at a picture and try to catch all its grades and tiny details while surrounding by too many (intelligent) persons. Being generic location, namely accessible anywhere, the apps let user to get in touch with culture anytime, in a comfortable and relaxing environment. The user himself drives his learning process, enriched now by powerful means of technology. As showed by different surveys, this self-made education make user to remember longer what he has experienced.
We have just spoken about details. Thanks to visual graphic tools, apps can highlight particulars once imperceptible. They enhance the experience not only pedagogically but also visually. On the other hand, the screen somehow makes the magic of art lost. When you admire a masterpiece in person, you feel emotions that cannot be reproduced digitally. This is the price we have to paid to get a “pocket-size” art.
The article ends with a warning. Through the app, museums are almost fully responsible of what people can learn about art. They must be careful to provide right and neutral information. “Right” because a wrong information is worse than no-information; “neutral” in the sense that at the end of his digital experience, user should have his own idea about what he has seen without having been influenced by external comments.
A critical point of view
In the first case, we have seen computer skills in action to build a model surely interesting for humanists but maybe not so useful for audience. It was a sort of “From DH to DH” process. Instead, museums mobile apps are thought to be for people: their goal is to help people get closer to art, and so to humanities. We could call this “From DH to world”.
These two simple examples give us just a perception of how Digital are becoming more and more crucial in Humanities. Starting from this central position, what is argued in When is coding scholarship and when is it not (Van Zundert and Haentjens Dekker, 2015) is that coding, software and algorithm shouldn’t represent for humanities only tools but also subjects of studying.
Actually, the whole society is living a digitalization era. Nowadays, almost everyone has a laptop or a smartphone, so internet is one of the main sources of information. If we are looking for something, we just type the keywords on Google and we get all what we need. But behind Google or any other search engine, there is no trivial coding, so there are people and these people, maybe unconsciously, put their thoughts, believes and intents inside the code.
This opens two scenarios. From one side, information about author can be directly inferred from his code; on the other one, it can influence the user, making its research non-neutral. The fact that generally users are sure of neutrality of code, being it founded on mathematics and informatics, makes this aspect even more dangerous. This is just the problem we have addressed in the second point: museums should provide information remaining impartial not to create a “driven” culture.
It’s not difficult to realize how this argument is complex but at the same time trending. Nevertheless, neither humanities nor digital humanities have treated this whole digitalization as scholarly object so far. While humanists see software as a mere tool, the question is a bit more subtle for digital humanists because it is still not clear if one has to know something about coding to call oneself a digital humanist. Personally, I think a deep computational knowledge is not necessary. We may make the mistake of confusing Digital Humanities with Digital Computing, while DH is a wider field, including also Digital Studies. So even though it’s obvious that sometimes computer skills are strongly required, as in the first case analysed, they are not compulsory.
This lack in studying coding by (digital) humanities has led to a practical issue too. Before releasing a new software or program, several formal tests are performed to guarantee the right behaviour of the code whatever the input data are. This testing process is quite unused in Digital Humanities. Since one is interested only in the results and not in how these results are reached, code validation is not taken into account.
Finally, we claim that Humanities and Digital Humanities shouldn’t ignore coding any more, but they should create a suitable environment to treat and analyse code as scholarly object, to assert its validity and understand its role in nowadays life.
Cavinato, A., Geissman, B., Vandevelde, K.R., Dalang, O., Rodighiero, D. (2015). A 3D model of the Venetian Galeazza
Downing L.K, Lawless L. (2015). A closer look: developing mobile applications to reveal hidden meanings of art
Van Zundert J.J., Haentjens-Dekker R. (2015). When is coding scholarship and when is it not?