How much will digital tools change the nature of scholarship?

Will new digital technologies radically transform the nature of research in the arts and humanities? Generally I think I might be relatively old fashioned about this.

Of course new technologies may change our modus operandi, and may alter the kinds of research we do. For example the (arguably disproportionate) dominance of the monograph and the article as the sole legitimate ‘units’ of contribution to scholarship in the humanities, may be challenged as digital tools make it easier to share annotations and micro observations, and to create vibrant, dynamic, living conversations around texts and topics. Technology will make it easier for us to traffic in small things like footnotes, asides, linkages, and momentary reflections in addition to the big things, like five-hundred page theses or multi-volume Festschriften.

But I strongly suspect that many of the core virtues of scholarship will remain the same. We may have tools and technologies to help us out with things which were previously a lot more laborious such as creating comprehensive concordances, searching for the occurrence of a certain name in literary Nachlässe, collaborating more easily and more effectively and so on. Lone researchers will be able to do things which perhaps in the past could only be undertaken by large teams of researchers over decades. But these tools and technologies will predominantly be there to support the creation of interesting insights and interpretations, hypotheses and meditations, to support scholars in continuing doing things which they have been doing for centuries.

If we can compare scholarship to walking around in the countryside, then perhaps digital tools are like satellite navigation systems. They can help us plan routes and get a big picture of where we are, but they are no substitute for direct acquaintance, or years of immersion. A good scholar will still have an intimate knowledge of the landscape: which part of the river dries out in the summer, the way that that tree has grown over time, where that stile crosses the path, the way to lift the gate on its hinge to make it turn more easily, the way the path slopes down the hill, and so forth.

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  1. Posted February 18, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Maybe so. But I’m not sure if I agree with your characterization that scholars are “doing things which they have been doing for centuries.” Or at least I’m not sure what those things are. The journal article and monograph would be inventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, right? Perhaps there are core virtues of scholarship shared by Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, and their lesser known contemporaries that are still common to us. However, it strikes me that the more salient characteristics of contemporary scholarship are products of a particular historical-technological period, a period that will eventually end as all periods do. Are we witnessing the end now? Not sure. But there’s some reason to think so. And if we are witnessing that end, it would seem reasonable to imagine that the next period will invent its own practices just as the last one did.

  2. Posted February 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment Alex! You’re definitely right to point out that there are many social, technological, institutional and other factors that affect how people write. I have no doubt that e.g. the invention of the print press, the invention of email and so on affect how and what people write. I’m sure things like the variation in practices of composition, the space that people have to work with, the style implied by a certain medium, and so on, all have a not insignificant impact on the way people work (e.g. I’m inclined to write differently in a blog post, in an private email, to a mailing list, in a comment box, in a word processor, in a new notebook, on a scrap of paper, etc). I’m certainly not arguing that there are fundamental, unchanging scholarly virtues, which are unscathed by the messy, changing world (perhaps “nature of scholarship” is a bit misleading, and implies a kind of essentialism!).

    In saying that scholars are “doing things which they have been doing for centuries”, I meant rather more general things like interpreting texts, reflecting on texts, responding to things that they read, putting forward theses, writing and discussing things with each other and so on. While digital tools may support this process, and even change the way we operate (affecting the kinds of debates that are possible, etc), I’m not sure that digital tools which enable us to create things things like network diagrams, statistical analyses, nice visualisations, etc, will do a great deal more than support scholars, and increase the evidence base that is available for them to refer to in their discourse and debate.

    For example, we might ask something like ‘to what extent does Nietzsche hold a view of the world which we could broadly characterise as naturalistic?’. We could use lots of amazing tools to show instances of naturalistic terminology in his published and unpublished writings, we could aggregate information about which publications contain details commentary or interpretation of certain key passages, we could use sophisticated algorithms cross reference certain bits of his text with other key naturalistic texts that he might have been acquainted with, we could aggregate information his personal library, the books he’s borrowed and his reading habits to get a better picture of the authors and texts that have influenced him, we could use social tools to aggregate bits of texts which lots of different scholars have tagged as evidence in supporting or rejecting this thesis, and so forth. But none of these things will answer the question at hand for us. However we may be able to expand our evidence base, however much we may be able to have more fine-grained or direct interactions around the question, I would argue that giving a plausible answer depends on scholars interpreting and discussing his texts in a way which is more similar than not to the way in which they would interpret and discuss texts fifty years ago, two hundred years ago, perhaps longer.

  3. Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Glasperlenspiel anyone? 🙂

    I like to point out that ToC is an artifact. There was a time when there were none. That is, there were books that lacked the table of contents that we now take entirely for granted. Likewise index, and footnotes, and … as I found out quite recently … page numbers too! (IIRC the first text to have numbered pages appeared some 70yrs after the printing press.)

    So I set out to find something just as elemental, in order to provide yet another mmmmm conduit for facilitation. (And I did, too; I call my GNodal technique a method for “participatory deliberation”, a “discourse-based decision support system”.)

    I’m quite sure small refinements have vast effects, but I’m not sure that these call attention to themselves. Anymore than footnotes and page numbers … or zippers and velcro. 😉

    @bentrem | @ITGeek

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