Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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The New Humanities. The Place and Practice of the Humanities in an Age of Ubiquitous Networked Computing.

Posted: Jul 19, 2013 06:07;
Last Modified: Jul 19, 2013 06:07


This is the Letter of Intent submitted by Cathy Davidson, Neil Fraistat, Alex Gil, Allan Liu, Geoffrey Rockwell, and me to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Global Call for Ideas Competition.

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This proposal is about the future of the humanities. But it is not a story of despair, neglect, or decline.

Although humanities scholars and students are increasingly and vitally engaged with issues of broader societal import, discourseabout the humanities often seems stuck in an oppositional register—defining, and indeed at times perversely celebrating, their status as outsiders to or even foes of developments in the worlds of science, technology, and commerce (see Bivens-Tatum 2010).

This is despite the fact that there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the humanities. The digital revolution that is transforming our world is vitally concerned with questions about the discovery, communication, and reception of culture, knowledge, and self-representation—questions that lie at the heart of humanistic research. The industries that have been most transformed by these new technologies include those with which humanities students traditionally have been most closely engaged. New forms of communication and social organisation are allowing the public greater access to—and opportunities to participate in—humanistic and cultural research. As a proponent of this LOI, Duke Professor and HĀSTAC founder Cathy N. Davidson, has argued, “if the humanities cannot make a case for themselves in the Information Age, something is very very wrong” (Davidson 2013).

It is time to address this disconnect. Our proposal to the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas is to establish a research network that will explore the place and practice of the humanities in this age of (near) ubiquitous, networked computing: investigate how humanities research can help us understand the impact of the ongoing technological revolution and how the technological revolution, conversely, can transform the way humanities research is carried out and understood.

These are questions that have broad implications. The place of the humanities in contemporary society is a current topic in policy, education, business, and technological circles. The impact of the digital on traditional humanities research methods and questions is being taken up by our major humanities funding agencies and scholarly societies. The conclusions this project will reach have the potential to affect the way governments set priorities, businesses and public institutions allocate resources, and individuals and families make decisions about their educational and employment futures. What is needed now is a high-profile, agenda-setting research network that will explore these issues and lead a transformative discussion of the role and place of the humanities in contemporary, networked society.

The humanistic web

The relationship between the humanities and contemporary networked society extends back to the creation of the Web itself. Although it was first developed at CERN, the World Wide Web was not designed to solve a physics problem. As the title of Tim Berners-Lee’s original memo suggests (“Information Management—A Proposal”), the technology that eventually became the World Wide Web was instead proposed as a method for addressing the age-old problem of document preservation, organisation, and discovery. The web’s unexpected value as a conduit for social and cultural information, moreover, became apparent almost immediately: the earliest web photo came not from a CERN experiment but publicity material for Les Horribles Cernettes, a comic singing group made up of lab employees and spouses (Riesman 2013).

The connection between the humanities and the web is also reflected in its engineering. Two of the most important technologies underlying the modern Social Web—XML and Unicode—were developed in part under the leadership of humanities researchers and drawing on the work of humanities research projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative, a twenty-year old humanities and library-science consortium led subsequently by the lead proponent of this LOI, Daniel Paul O’Donnell.

How the web was built, however, is far less important for our proposal than how it is used. From the moment the general public was first allowed access, communication, self-representation, information discovery, and cultural dissemination have been key to the web’s strong growth and global penetration. All but one of the ten most visited sites on web focus on these core activities: search engines and portals (Google [2], Baidu [5], Yahoo [4], Windows Live [7]), social networking (Facebook [1], Twitter [10], TencentQQ [9], YouTube [3]), and reference (Wikipedia [6]). Even the first pure vendor on the list, (8), began its existence as an online seller of books (Wikipedia contributors 2013). Similar activities, with the addition of games, also comprise the ten most popular smart phone applications.

The web’s overwhelming interest in the creation and dissemination of information and cultural material, coupled with an ethos that encourages users to research issues for themselves, has led to greater-than-ever popular engagement with the work of professional humanities researchers. Libraries and archives that post information about their collections online invariably see an increase in demand for their physical holdings. Humanities scholars with a strong online presence receive more requests for advice and enquires about their research than any but the most famous researchers of the pre-web era. New approaches to crowd sourcing and the rise of popular initiatives such as the Wikipedia have created a culture of popular participation and engagement in humanities research that has few historical parallels. And whether it is Steve Jobs arguing that an interest in the humanities provides Apple with a competitive advantage over its arch-rival, or Google developing high-profile tools and research programmes of immediate relevance to students of the humanities, business leaders too have begun to see the ability to understand technology and its place in the world from a humanistic perspective as a core economic and technical skill rather than a simply virtuous adjunct to more practical concerns.


The time is right for this kind of work. The last fifteen-to-twenty years have seen the rise of a critical mass of researchers with the requisite digital skills and humanistic training, a process in which Canadians and Canadian institutions have played an outsized role. These scholars are leading the introduction of new research techniques to the humanities and adapting more traditional methods to the digital age.

Just as importantly, they are also now leaders in the broader domain. Most organisations focussing on the integrative value of humanities research are led by digitally-active researchers, including the authors of this LOI: e.g. HĀSTAC (Davidson), 4Humanities (Liu and Rockwell), CenterNet and ADHO (Fraistat), GO::DH (Gil and O’Donnell), and the Praxis Network (Davidson). Many traditional humanities organisations and agencies, likewise, are led by scholars with a significant digital profile, including, in North America, SSHRC, the Modern Language Association, and numerous disciplinary societies. Funding agencies too have begun to cooperate internationally in the development of competitions on the integration of technology and humanities research. Recent government initiatives, such as the Canadian consultations on the New Digital Economy and, in the U.S., the appointment of Digital Humanists such as Davidson and John Unsworth to President Obama’s National Council on the Humanities, demonstrate the impact the “digital turn” is having at the policy level.

The pieces, in other words, are in place. What is missing is the catalyst that will allow this sense of moment to develop the kind of high-profile, transformative agenda a CIFAR-supported research network would support.


Canada has a history of excellence in pioneering the use of digital technology in humanistic study.

Early and innovative funding programmes such as the SSHRC Information, Text, Sound, and Technology (ITST) networking grants and the Canada Research Chairs programme helped Canadian researchers develop a strong national infrastructure of expertise in the area. Building on the work of Canadian pioneers, including Ian Lancashire, Willard McCarty, Christian Vandendorpe, and the Dictionary of Old English project, these initiatives have established Canadian researchers of the current generation as world leaders in both the new discipline of the Digital Humanities and the integration of technology into more traditional forms of humanistic research. Important contemporary Canadian projects include Synergies, Erudit, the Public Knowledge Partnership, INKE (Implementing New Knowledge Environments), ArticIQ, Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, and the world-leading Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Canadian researchers of the current generation with extensive international leadership in the discipline include Ray Siemens, Rowland Lorimer, Susan Brown, Peter Robinson, Christine McWebb, Kevin Kee, Chad Gaffield, Michael Sinatra, Stéfan Sinclair, and the Canadian members of the team behind this application, Rockwell and O’Donnell.

These people and projects are part of a wide and increasingly diverse global network of researchers, centres, and projects. These include the non-Canadian proponents of this LOI, Davidson, Fraistat, Gil, and Liu, and others ranging from Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations and the Consortium of Humanities Centers to individuals with well-established international reputations such as, in the U.S., Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA), Laura Mandell (TAMU), Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech), and John Unsworth (Brandeis); in the U.K., Andrew Prescott (KCL) and Melissa Terras (UCL); Ernesto Priani and Isabel Galani (Mexico); Jieh Hsiang (Taiwan); Domenico Fiormonte (Italy); and Amlan Dasgupta and members of the Sarai project (India)—to name only a few of the many researchers and organisations around the globe who are engaged with topics of relevance to this call.


The core group behind this application are all leaders or emerging leaders in the Digital Humanities (corresponding authors marked with an asterisk). Cathy N. Davidson* is John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, co-founder of HĀSTAC and the Praxis Network, and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation/Gates Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities in 2011 and is the first educator to join the six-person Board of Directors of Mozilla. Neil Fraistat is Professor of English and Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland. He currently chairs the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), is Co-Founder and Co-Chair of centerNet, and is Vice President of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. His is also Co-Founder and General Editor of the Romantic Circles Website. Alex Gil* is a recent PhD (Virginia) and textual scholar at Columbia University, where he is Digital Scholarship Coordinator at the University Library. He is a founding officer of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities and organiser of the first and second Caribbean THaT (The Humanities and Technology) camps. Alan Liu is Professor of English at UC, Santa Barbara, founder of the pioneering early humanities portal, Voice of the Shuttle, co-founder and -leader (with Rockwell) of the international 4Humanities advocacy initiative and director of the NEH-funded Teaching with Technology project. Daniel Paul O’Donnell* is Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge, editor of Digital Studies/Le Champ Numérique, former chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, and co-founder of Digital Medievalist and Global Outlook::Digital Humanities. He is Principal Investigator of both the Lethbridge Journal Incubator and the Visionary Cross 3D visualisation project. Geoffrey Martin Rockwell* is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta and a former Director of the Humanities Media and Computing Centre at McMaster University. He is currently the Director of the Canadian Institute for Research in Computing and the Arts and a network investigator in the GRAND Network of Centres of Excellence that is studying gaming, animation and new media.

Works cited

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. 2010. “The ‘Crisis’ in the Humanities”. Blog. Academic Librarian. November 5.

Davidson, Cathy N. 2013. “It’s Not a Crisis in the Humanities, It’s a Crisis in the Society | HASTAC.” Accessed May 12.”.

Wikipedia contributors. 2013.“List of Most Popular Websites.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Riesman, Abraham. 2013. “Crossdressing, Compression and Colliders: The First Photo on the Web.” Motherboard. Accessed May 26.





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