Dear Humanists: Fear Not the Digital Revolution

Ted Underwood:

Historians and literary critics started out with the same generalizing impulse. In the 18th and 19th centuries, we posited taxonomies of genres and laws of cultural evolution. But we found that those approaches weren’t usually flexible enough to describe human history. It turns out that Homo sapiens excels at making up new games — a talent that gives culture a remarkable and maddening specificity. It can be clear that there are only six possible narrative arcs — until someone invents a seventh, or until an expanding middle class decides that stories shouldn’t be characterized by clear narrative arcs at all, but should become long, baggy things called “novels” that imitate the chaos of biography. This is why humanists make such a fuss about situating every piece of evidence in a specific historical context. Since the 18th century, we have been stung repeatedly by the discovery that our descriptive categories are less universal than we thought. We have learned to temper generalization with attention to the quirks of particular places and times.

In short, humanists have spent centuries acquiring a distinctive interpretive expertise, and they are right to feel that research on cultural history would be more meaningful if it were built on that foundation. But there is, alas, another side to this story, less likely to be popular in history and English departments. While scientists usually do a better job if they work in collaboration with humanists, it must be admitted that today they can often make genuine contributions to historical understanding with or without our assistance. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture in Millions of Digitized Books” may not have created a new field called culturomics, but it did (in collaboration with Google) help produce an interactive website that journalists and schoolteachers still use to understand linguistic trends. The project wasn’t led by humanists, but it was nonetheless one of the most consequential public humanities projects of the last decade. And this was only an early, crude example of interdisciplinary interest in the humanities. More recent publications go far beyond graphing the frequencies of words. Sociologists have theorized the function of ambiguity in literary criticism; cognitive scientists have used information theory to describe historical change; the economist Thomas Piketty stormed the best seller list with Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), reinterpreting the last two centuries of history with illustrations drawn from Balzac. Humanities departments really are no longer alone.