Data Mining the Humanities

To even the least educated, subjects like computer modeling and post-hermeneutic deontology probably seem virtually unrelated, existing in their own academic worlds and drawing upon their own systems of knowledge. Not so, says Patricia Cohen, who reports on a new breed of humanities scholars who are turning the analytical power of technology on usually ephemeral concepts in history, the arts, and philosophy.

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical "ism" and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

These researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, searching through large numbers of scientific texts and books to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread, and combining animation, charts and primary documents about Thomas Jefferson's travels.

This alliance of geeks and poets has generated exhilaration and also anxiety. The humanities, after all, deal with elusive questions of aesthetics, existence and meaning, the words that bring tears or the melody that raises goose bumps. Are these elements that can be measured?

"The digital humanities do fantastic things," said the eminent Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. "I'm a believer in quantification. But I don't believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation."

"It's easy to forget the digital media are means and not ends," he added.

Read the whole story at the New York Times.
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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