Miriam Posner What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

Recently, I watched the first episode of the BBC’s latest Back In Time series. In the opening episode 15 teenagers and their teachers are transported back to the Victorian era to experience the education system. It was interesting and entertaining, featuring the kind of things we have come to expect: insights into the past through 21st century eyes and a chance to see people squirm when they have to eat tapioca pudding and also at times, surprising – the Suffragette who taught the girls Jiu Jitsu in 1913.

The aim of the series is to show the changes in education and I watched it with the vague idea of considering some of the course materials such as Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on Changing Education Paradigms. But Miriam Posner came to mind. There was a geography lesson, an inaccurate world map, quotes from a 19th century textbook on the virtues of colonialism. Teacher and students struggled with these ideas.

Posner’s blog post, What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities, is she says a title that’s both wildly huberistic and something about which she cares deeply. For Posner, the great value of teaching Digital Humanities is not showing students all of the ways that you can use fun new technology, although of course, there is great enjoyment and scholarship to be hand in that.  It is more importantly, about looking at where we get our information from, how is our world being constructed around us with data and how provisional, relative, and profoundly ideological that world is?

Television is often unexpectedly timely. Take for example, the Handmaid’s Tale, with its themes of sexual oppression – a dystopian world where technology is banned and women aren’t allowed to read. When we shudder about representations in 19th century maps and texts and look at the Victorian and Edwardian views on Empire, both antiquated and more relevant than is comfortable, we also need to consider how data visualisations are flattening spaces and that they are not good at representing conflicting opinions.

The ability when we revisit the past, to consider ‘boy’ history from the point of view of ‘girl’ history, to include different points of view, other voices and more detail in the fabric of the stories that we are now telling, is important. But this is about more than expanding the database so that marginalised communities are given a more prominent voice. Poser speaks about the necessity of dismantling the database, looking at the original logic that we used to construct it in the first place and then rebuilding the database, so that digital humanities can really critically investigate structures of power like gender and race.

We can do what we know how to do: visualize datasets that we inherit from governments and cultural heritage institutions, using tools that we’ve borrowed from corporations. Or we can scrutinize data, rip it apart, rebuild it, reimagine it, and perhaps build something entirely different and weirder and more ambitious.

Developing models that accurately reflect people’s lived experience is a complex problem and one which DH hasn’t yet fully taken on Posner believes. But if we aim to hold ourselves to higher standards and attempt to develop our data categories in collaboration with the communities they represent, at least it’s a first step.