[…] start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.
These researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, and searching through large numbers of scientific texts and textbooks to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread.
This alliance of geeks and poets has generated exhilaration and also anxiety. The humanities, after all, deal with elusive questions of aesthetics, existence and meaning, the words that bring tears or the melody that raises goose bumps. Are these elements that can be measured?
“The digital humanities do fantastic things,” said the eminent
Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. “I’m a believer in quantification. But I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.”
“It’s easy to forget the digital media are means and not ends,” he added. Digital humanities scholars also face a more practical test: What knowledge can they produce that their predecessors could not?