Digital humanities is about eleven years old — counting from John Unsworth’s coinage of the phrase in 2001 — which perhaps explains why it has just discovered mortality and is anxiously contemplating its own.
Steve Ramsay tried to head off this crisis by advising digital humanists that a healthy community “doesn’t concern itself at all with the idea that it will one day be supplanted by something else.” This was ethically wise, but about as effective as curing the hiccups by not thinking about elephants. Words like “supplant” have a way of sticking in your memory. Alex Reid then gave the discussion a twist by linking the future of DH to the uncertain future of the humanities themselves.
Meanwhile, I keep hearing friends speculate that the phrase “digital humanities” will soon become meaningless, since “everything will be digital,” and the adjective will be emptied out.
In thinking about these eschatological questions, I start from Matthew Kirschenbaum’s observation that DH is not a single intellectual project but a tactical coalition. Just for starters, humanists can be interested in digital technology a) as a way to transform scholarly communication, b) as an object of study, or c) as a means of analysis. These are distinct intellectual projects, although they happen to overlap socially right now because they all require skills and avocations that are not yet common among humanists.
This observation makes it pretty clear how “the digital humanities” will die. The project will fall apart as soon as it’s large enough for falling apart to be an option.
A) Transforming scholarly communication. This is one part of the project where I agree that “soon everyone will be a digital humanist.” The momentum of change here is clear, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be generalized to academia as a whole. As it does generalize, it will no longer be seen as DH.
B) Digital objects of study. It’s much less clear to me that all humanists are going to start thinking about the computational dimension of new cultural forms (videogames, recommendation algorithms, and so on). Here I would predict the classic sort of slow battle that literary modernism, for instance, had to wage in order to be accepted in the curriculum. The computational dimension of culture is going to become increasingly important, but it can’t simply displace the rest of cultural history, and not all humanists will want to acquire the algorithmic literacy required to critique it. So we could be looking at a permanent tension here, whether it ends up being a division within or between disciplines.
C) Digital means of analysis. The part of the project closest to my heart also has the murkiest future. If you forced me to speculate, I would guess that projects like text mining and digital history may remain somewhat marginal in departments of literature and history. I’m confident that we’ll build a few tools that get widely adopted by humanists; topic modeling, for instance, may become a standard way to explore large digital collections. But I’m not confident that the development of new analytical strategies will ever be seen as a central form of humanistic activity. The disciplinary loyalties of people in this subfield may also be complicated by the relatively richer funding opportunities in neighboring disciplines (like computer science).
So DH has no future, in the long run, because the three parts of DH probably confront very different kinds of future. One will be generalized; one will likely settle in for trench warfare; and one may well get absorbed by informatics. [Or become a permanent trade mission to informatics. See also Matthew Wilkens’ suggestion in the comments below. – Ed.] But personally, I’m in no rush to see any of this happen. My odds of finding a disciplinary home in the humanities will be highest as long as the DH coalition holds together; so here’s a toast to long life and happiness. We are, after all, only eleven.
[Update: In an earlier version of this post I dated Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth’s Companion to Digital Humanities to 2001, as Wikipedia does. But it appears that 2004 is the earliest publication date.]
[Update April 15th: I find that people are receiving this as a depressing post. But I truly didn’t mean it that way. I was trying to suggest that the projects currently grouped together as “DH” can transform the academy in a wide range of ways — ways that don’t even have to be confined to “the humanities.” So I’m predicting the death of DH only in an Obi-Wan Kenobi sense! I blame that picture of a drowned tombstone for making this seem darker than it is — a little too evocative …]