I’m speaking this week at Presidency University in Kolkata, about NeoVictorian computing and the digital humanities. We’ve made lots of progress in the digital humanities in the last thirty years; already, we can see the time when they’ll just be the humanities. The important discoveries may come from a direction most people don’t expect.

The ancestor of Presidency was founded around 1818. I studied at Harvard. Here’s what Harvard looked like in 1828. (I did my undergraduate work at Swarthmore, which wouldn’t get going for another 28 years.)

The Kolkata Lecture 1: The American Scholar

In 1837, a very junior Ralph Waldo Emerson have a speech at the start of the school year. At that time, the US had been independent for about sixty years, roughly the interval that separates us from 1948. The annual celebration of studies, he wrote, was “a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more.”

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

This seems quiet, but it’s quietly hot stuff, a call to revolution. It was hot stuff then: that’s why the US today is filled with Unitarian Universalist churches. And it’s still pretty hot:

“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence.

Pity and doubt have certainly returned to the humanities, and it seems they’re seldom farther away from the heart of Digital Humanities than the shadow cast by a rejected application.

This call for self-reliance echoes the best of humanities and, at the same time, indicts the common frailties of #elit. Too often, elit has reacher for tools off the shelf and chosen to say what wass easily said with those tools. Too often, elit has been so worried that those young folks in libraries might find it inconvenient to read the work that elit has lost confidence in making the work at all.

The Kolkata Lecture 1: The American Scholar

The humanities are always troubled. Right now, they have trouble in spades.

We all know that kids today don’t work hard. They don’t know much. They spend too much time lying around, listening to music, reading trash, hooking up.

It was always that way. Augustus complained about the sensuality of new immersive media and shut down Ovid’s Web site.

The Kolkata Lecture 2: Plight of the Humanities

There’s far too much information for anyone to keep up with. There’s more, every year. There’s too much to read. But it’s always been like that. Not literally, of course: Franco Moretti did a terrific job of reminding us how discussion of books changes when there’s always something new at the bookstore. But it’s been that way for a very long time; Ann Blair’s wonderful Too Much To Know explores the tremendous self-help literature that helped ancient, medieval, and early modern scholars cope with information overload.

The Kolkata Lecture 2: Plight of the Humanities

The digital humanities span disciplines. Disciplines and departments can seem like artificial administrative boundaries. They sometimes are. But we forget that even within the humanities, disciplines insist on distinct standards of evidence and argument. In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs drew an important distinction between the role of the university as an educator, and its role in administering credentials or licenses. The humanities were long notorious for their role supporting artificial constraints on the unprivileged. Schoolboy Latin and Greek no longer hold the keys to office and influence, but the scholar’s complicity on that charade has not been forgotten. The rise of the for-profit university underscores resurgent credentialism.

Differences in standards of argumentation and evidence have all sorts of concrete and social impacts that org charts and cross-listings don’t change. I’m program chair for Web Science 2013 (May 2-4, Paris), a conference that bridges computer science and social sciences (and that might like to invite art and design to drop by after dinner), and disciplinary differences cause endless trouble. Computer scientists submit finished papers t conferences; that’s how things work. Social scientists don’t; they submit an abstract, and they’ll write the paper if it’s accepted. Accepting a paper that hasn’t been written yet makes computer scientists unhappy; it seems risky and perhaps a bit shady. Writing a paper that might be rejected makes social scientists unhappy. Rejecting a paper at all makes some professors of English unhappy, since social construction of knowledge means that you’re not really rejecting the paper, you’re rejecting them. Putting together a program that’s open to lots of disciplines is a very real headache.

Non-academic conferences like TED or SXSW can bridge disciplines by simply deciding who they want to hear. This approach is underrated in academe. But it, too, is flawed, because it so often leads to a continuing round of familiar celebrity speakers. In the worst extreme, the business motivational keynote, you get speakers who are famous for being famous.

It’s sometimes thought that computers are merely tools, like automobiles or ovens: useful for getting work done cheaply, but fundamentally uninteresting or chiefly engaged with manipulating lots of numbers.

Or, worse, people think such tools are inherently menial, used of necessity by businesspeople and service workers but ill-suited to the scholar’s hand. This is no more true of the tools of computing than it is of the tools of history, of painting, of chemistry, of verse.

The Kolkata Lecture 3: The Wealth Of Books

Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau! The ultimate goal of all creative activity is the building, and the work of the bricklayer is no less a part of that than the work of the cabinet-maker, the sculptor, the engineer.

Nicolai Troshinsky just twittered to me that, “I know a lot of artists and coders and I assure you, they are different kind of people.” But which kind am I? I suppose poets and painters are different kinds of people, on the whole, but which was Rossetti? Which kind was Rabindrath Tagore? Novelists and bureaucrats are different kinds of people; which was Trollope?

If you think that programmers and artists are different kinds of people, you will eventually start to think that one kind is better. And, if you start to think that they’re different kinds of people, you will excuse your own failings because you’re not that kind of person. And, when your work is not what it ought to be, you can blame the other guy.

Today, computing may reasonably take its place among the arts and sciences. Or, if not, we may invite it to drop in after dinner. From the invention of computers, humanists have been using computers to do their work. Digital Humanities seem new, but already their influence on the intellectual landscape is profound.

The Kolkata Lecture 3: The Wealth Of Books

In the talk, I show a “victory lap” of landmarks in the digital humanities, from Father Busa to Perseus and TEI and The Victorian Web. But I start in an unexpected place: a charming fantasy novel that won this year’s Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s the story of a little Welsh girl. Her twin sister recently died in a terrible accident, she herself has been crippled, her mother is institutionalized. She is being sent off to boarding school. She already knows magic, but she finds solace in books. She reads all the science fiction in the school library. She scours the town shops. She cannot get nearly enough; her quest — familiar to many of us — is simply to find the books she wants to read.

This literary famine was long the natural condition of those who love books. And though it may not yet be over, digital delivery clearly shows us a path toward the end of this long drought. We do not think of this as a triumph of digital humanities, but of course that’s precisely what it is. I sit here in Kolkata, I push a button, and someone’s spare copy of Moretti’s Atlas Of The European Novel will be sent to my office.

Franco Moretti has made a number of contributions to our understanding of literary worlds, but none more than the crucial question of the rate of production. Old book worlds, and isolated ones, had only a few books which people studied and restudied. Time and again, book worlds transform themselves when there is, at length, plenty of new books to read, to discuss, from which to choose. The end of the book famine will have great consequence to the enterprise of the humanities

Linda sends a good illustration of the wealth of books: in our own time, we’ve experienced exactly this transition in film.

For the young Pauline Kael’s generation, an avid filmgoer’s world was whatever was showing in town. You’d see one or two double=features every week, and everyone who liked movies saw and talked about the same ones that week.

The Paulettes – Roger Ebert, say – inhabited a world where a really devoted critic could still see just about everything there was to see. But this wasn’t something you would, or could, do casually; you had to work at it all the time. And a serious film viewer – even a professional critic – needed to watch for opportunities: you’d think to yourself that “I really want to look at Battleship Potemkin in light of this new idea,” and then you’d need to look out for an opportunity. True enthusiasts would even buy films; Peter van de Kamp, a Swarthmore astronomer when I was an undergraduate, has a precious private collection of Chaplin.

The video generation, and even more the Netflix generation, inhabit a completely different world. If you need to review a scene from Potemkin, you can probably stream it or order a DVD.

At the Presidency University conference, Sue Thomas spoke of new media literacies. If you’d like to be well-read in film, Netflix and Amazon have wonderful libraries. But there’s a lot of reading you need to do. Just to cover the essentials, the very greatest movies, is a lot of work: Ebert has three volumes of Great Movies so far, and more are coming. That’s three or four years of watching a Great Movie Of The Week. Movies don’t take very long to watch, but they need to be thought about; just covering the essentials is bound to be tough.

And now we have serious serial forms, like Buffy and Babylon 5. Each runs to more than a hundred hours. Imagine teaching Buffy in a course on the coming-of-age story in the 20th century: it’s essential reading, it would fit nicely with Portrait and Mockingbird, Catcher and Portnoy, Nick Adams and Prep. But where are your students going to find a hundred hours in a 14-week semester in which they have three other courses?

(I pass over for the present a survey of various accomplishments of digital humanities generally, and of hypertext specifically; this was in many ways the meat of the talk, but regular readers of this blog have heard all this before.)

previous sections here

When I started to build hypertext systems, most people thought Ted Nelson’s vision of what we know as the Web to be a silly pipe-dream, a phantom of the sixties. That dream turned real, and its reality has transformed the humanities.

The Kolkata Lecture 4: Polish

But of course we now know to be wary (and weary) of master narratives and to be bashful about “naive American technodeterminism” when we attribute such wide-reaching influence to the simple everyday technology of the link. So, though I’ve been living through, and playing a small part, in these tumults, perhaps this account is a fable, fabula, invention, perversion.

It’s hard to be sure. If we know anything in these days After Theory , it’s that it’s always hard to be sure. But there is one thing we do know: there is work to be done. And those dishes won’t clean themselves.

The Kolkata Lecture 4: Polish

Emerson said, “We will walk on our own feet; We will work with our own hands.” Our hands may get dirty.

I once heard a poet who was interested in new media ask, “Do I have to become a programmer?” This was, mind you, a woman who had been willing to incur discomfort and injury in the course of her work, which was getting her poems right even if here wrists hurt like hell. She was a teacher who would not hesitate to insist that one learn medieval Italian because any poet needs Dante. Yet, the thought of programming seemed entirely too much.

The two cultures problem – the chasm that divides the humanities from the sciences – did not begin in 1945, but 1945 made reconciliation all but impossible. Most people think the fault lies with the scientists; it always does. And so a few years studying Italian is mere necessity, but a few days learning a symbolic vocabulary that borrows a few symbols from mathematics, that is asking far too much.

The Kolkata Lecture 4: Polish

Should digital humanists create tools, or merely learn to use them? This question ought to require no debate: the humanist must do what the problem requires.

Ruskin was not Turner. But if Ruskin had never attempted watercolor, could he have explained Turner half so well? If the critic is too far removed from the concerns of the creator – if she really has no idea how paint acts or how characters misbehave – criticism can quickly disappear down a rabbit hole of theoretical pretense, untethered to real work, unconnected to any sense of truth, and cut off from sympathy with the creator and her work.

The Kolkata Lecture 4: Polish

And then there’s the simple understanding that the tools are themselves made, not decreed by God or inflicted by malificent capitalism. It is terribly important that we not delude ourselves into thinking that the craft of programming is beneath us, that we should confine ourselves to seemingly intellectual tasks. The architect and the builder, the sculptor, the painter, all need to work together.

And, to whatever extent possible, they should be the same person.

Sympathy for the scholar, to be sure, requires that we temper our expectations. Too much of what we think we prize in software today concerns polish, mere surface issues. If a program hangs or crashes, or a button is a few pixels out of place, people speak of it as worthless junk. We cannot expect this sort of polish from humanists, and perhaps we should not expect it from anyone.

We understand this, or at least we understood it once. We accept brushmarks because, without them, we cannot have spontaneity. Yet, perplexingly, we demand nothing but polish from our digital artifacts.

One of the hazards of attending a conference on “Digital Humanities in India” is that, inevitably, people like me, ignorant of the arts in India, will sometimes get lost. Nonetheless, I had a ball.

Kolkata Highlights

A big challenge for me was not so much the complexities of Bengali or of the Indian Geographic Survey as the familiar puzzle of critical theory. The students at Presidency are very sharp, and they can problematize your premises and explore their feminist and post-colonial implications at the drop of a hat.

One paper I especially enjoyed, despite knowing nothing about its subject, was Abhijit Gupta’s survey of the typographic issues in doing OCR on early Bengali books, which have (it seems) many obsolete letterforms and numerous uncataloged ligatures. Nobody has the fonts or the sample books any more, though it seems there are rumors of some punches in a private collection.

Oyndrila Sarkar told some nice stories about ‘e-Stories of Mapping’ and the difficulties of working with archival maps. Simi Malhotra’s talk about digital humanities and the impending singularity was brave, and it had me scribbling objections (Stross? Ian M. Banks?) is the margins of my notes, which after all is what talks are supposed to do. And Debaditya Bhattacharya contributed that very rare bird, the successful contrarian denouncement of the discipline itself. I see some holes, I think, and I’m pretty sure I disagree with the conclusion, but this could be a formidable line of argument.