How was your “entry” into the universe of Digital Humanities? How would you put it to an audience that is hearing about it just now, what would Digital Humanities be, and how would you locate the Digital History there?
Andreas Fickers: I came in touch with the field of Digital Humanities quite late (some 7 or 8 years ago). As it isn’t a discipline but rather a field in emergence and constant negotiation, I was actually active in the field before knowing that there was a specific field. My entry was through a European research project called “Video Active” (2006-2009) in the FP7 framework, which later became EUscreen (www.euscreen.eu) The idea was to build a European platform for digitized audiovisual heritage from broadcasting institutions in Europe and thereby promote research on transnational and European television history. So, from the very beginning, my role was to build bridges between the archival world and the network of scholars working on transnational television history. For that reason, we created the European Television History Network in 2005 which consequently organized workshops, conferences and published books and special issues on that topic. In a way I started my “career” in DH a domain which still is rather marginal: audio/visual history.
The term Digital Humanities has conquered more and more scholars around the globe. Nevertheless, we know that financing, technologies and other structuring elements for the construction of a program or a laboratory dedicated to the digital humanities are already available and accessible asymmetrically more for ones despite others in the global scenario. In a critical perspective how to deal with such a fact?
Andreas Fickers: One way to deal with that asymmetry / or inequality is to promote the sharing of tools / resources through online platforms. Platforms like Github are aiming at sharing open source software for DH applications; so the DH community must take full advantage of open data policies and initiatives. On the other side, initiatives like “DARIAH-EU” aim at sharing best practices and tools among different national platforms – basically with the ambition to avoid (costly) reinventions of the wheel and in building on each other’s competences and lessons learned. One big problem of many DH projects is their project character – that is the limited lifespan of funding associated with a project, making many short-term investments a risky business in terms of sustainability and long-term impact. Building on existing infrastructures / tools / technologies and adding specific features based on concrete research needs is certainly a more sustainable strategy and will probably help to develop some “gold standards” or “best practices” in the long run.
If this fact is relevant. The Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History has digital methods and tools for research and teaching history as one of its main objectives. Do you think that the example of the C2DH, as well as of other centers, contributes to an epistemological change in the specific field of History and lato sensu in the field of the humanities?
Andreas Fickers: Our Centre focuses on the critical reflection of the epistemological and methodological challenges linked to the development and use of new digital tools and technologies for doing history in the digital age. Rather than developing / inventing new tools, we try to put our hands on existing tools in order to test their usability for historical research. The Centre thereby aims at promoting an experimental approach that we describe as “thinkering” – bringing thinking and tinkering together in order to advance both our digital literacy and to update the classical hermeneutics of humanities to the digital age. Digital hermeneutics are needed to critically reflect on both the possibilities and limitations of digital tools and technologies and to expand our methodological toolkit – algorithmic criticism, tool criticism, digital source criticism and interface criticism need to become part of the hermeneutic repertoire in humanities.
In a research I have been doing, I have been very interested in the aesthetic value behind the dissemination and production of information and knowledge in the Digital Humanities. An attempt to elaborate a critical thinking about this, called by some as a transdiscipline. Would you say that the historian’s narrative has also been increasingly developing an aesthetic value for its legitimation and circulation in an era of likes and sharing?
Andreas Fickers: Definitely yes! I don’t use the term “aesthetic value”, but in my own teaching and research I try to experiment with new narrative strategies online, especially transmedia storytelling. Using different kind of digitized sources (textual, visual, aural) asks for a better understanding of the narrative conventions of specific media, and their combination (in transmedia storytelling) is a real challenge for historians (which are generally trained to write articles & books!). So, the narrative conventions and aesthetic expressions of historical storytelling online differs drastically from classical written narratives. But most historians are badly prepared to make full use of the narrative potential of transmedia storytelling.
Another critical element in the production of new knowledge in DH is the growing trend towards data visualizations (networks, word clouds, simulations etc.). I’m concerned that many humanities scholars take the “visual evidence” of such presentations for face value rather than being able to “deconstruct” them as representations based on algorithms, statistical approximations and graph – or vector –based drawings. The “trust in numbers” (Ted Porter) weighs heavily and humanities scholars are often afraid to question / interpret the constructed nature of many of such data visualizations.
It is possible that someday we will have naturalized in our curricula and praxis of research and teaching the digital as an aspect sine qua non to our craft. In this context would it be possible to consider that one day Digital History, like Digital Humanities, will no longer bear this name? It will only be history again?
Andreas Fickers: Yes, I hope so! The digital literacy is for me one part of a broader “multi-modal literacy”. Specific forms of expertise and knowledge now closely tied to the emergence of new digital tools and technologies will certainly become part of the “canon” of humanities sooner or later.