As all well-trained academics, I read this week’s selections in the order they appeared in the syllabus. As much as Michael Widner’s protestations to the contrary in “The Digital Humanists (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State” and “Digital Humanists Responses to Surveillance”, he paints the uses and abuses of Big Data by the NSA as part of the above video’s narrative of the History of Evil. Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart, however, show how humanists can use these Big Data tools for the forces of good (good being understanding history in new and novel ways, of course) as well.
Widner’s pieces foreground that there’s “an awful politics built into the current digital environment.” I find this doom and gloom a bit naïve however, as aren’t there “awful politics” built into all of our environments? Last week’s readings showed us how skewed the current academic publishing systems are. And the History of Evil animation demonstrates how the “awful politics” of systems of power have permeated Western society since ancient Grecian times.
But this week’s pieces have also demonstrated how Digital Humanists can use the tools of these systems to combat some of the “awful politics” afoot. Graham, Milligan, and Weingart and Tim Hitchcock demonstrate how using Big Data digital tools can let historians perform distant and close readings, on a scale unfathomable before our current digital age. These four authors, in concert with Franco Moretti, also usefully point out that although these tools may offer new ways of seeing, they also require the keen eye of the humanist to make sense of the data and question the systems that lead to these conclusions.
I think all of our authors would agree that the keen eye of the humanist is still required throughout academia – in the digital world or otherwise. And just as it may be “safer, really, to keep an eye on everyone,” we have to make sure we keep our gaze turned steely back at the systems that watch us, too.