In one of last week’s class readings by Natalie Cecire, When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue, Cecire posed a question that resonated with me: “What is the moral and political force of digital humanities—what are its cultural and institutional consequences?” As a performing arts librarian, archivist, and artist working with digital collections and on digital projects outside of the digital humanities discipline, I am deeply interested to incorporate digital humanities tools, practices, and theory into my work, which for me, both personally and professionally, means finding answers to Cicere’s question.

Helpful on this quest for answers is the Software Studies Initiative’s web site which contains the slideshare How and why study big cultural data by Lev Manovich and a TED talk by artist Aaron Koblin. In the slideshare, Manovich makes the case for studying and using big cultural data:

  • in order to find a more inclusive understanding of history and present (using much larger samples),
  • to detect large scale cultural patterns, and
  • to map cultural variability and diversity

In regards to discovering a more inclusive understanding about historical or present phenomena through big cultural data, I am reminded of Tim Sherrat’s article, It’s All About the Stuff: Interfaces, Power, and People. In this article Sherrat details the process of creating the database, the real face of white australia, from digital copies of documents generated by the Commonwealth of Australia’s “White Australia Policy,” a policy enacted in the early 1900’s that restricted and monitored the lives of people because of the color of their skin. These records are housed physically and virtually at the National Archives of Australia.

Through the marriage of big archival data and technological tools Sherrat was able to extract portraits from a large volume of archival records (digital copies of the certificates – which include portrait photographs – that non-white residents had to use in order to leave and return to Australia) related to the White Australia Policy. the real face of white australia not only presents a new way to experience and understand archival records and an historical phenomenon, it also becomes a “moral and political force” by  its inclusivity of, and bringing to the fore, the people whose lives were captured in these documents.

In the TED talk, Artfully Visualizing our Humanity, artist Aaron Koblin, who specializes in data and digital technologies explains the concepts behind and building of his visual and aural art projects, which exemplify many of the ideas found in Manovich’s slideshare. A large number of his projects are produced collaboratively (crowd-sourced) and with community generated data in order to show and reflect upon large scale cultural trends, and to tell stories.

Koblin’s thought provides one possible answer to Cicere’s question (I believe there are many answers to her question):
“What is the moral and political force of digital humanities – what are its cultural and institutional consequences?”:
“To maintain our humanity and tell some amazing stories.”