From Humanities Computing to Humanistic Informatics: Creating a Field of Our Own

Espen Aarseth
Dept. of Humanitistic Informatics
University of Bergen
Sydnesplassen 7, 5007 Bergen, Norway
aarseth@uib.no


I first address the basic question: What is Humanistic Informatics? After that, I will examine the relations between the Humanities and Humanistic Informatics. Finally, I will suggest some areas and topics where the field (as I see it) is in a special position to develop a body of knowledge, that so far has been marginalized and neglected by other humanistic fields. To precipitate the conclusion, the Humanities is best served by a field that is able to claim an autonomous research program, independent of the needs and opinions of other disciplines. Humanistic Informatics (like most field partitions) is a problematic concept, since it can be seen from many different perspectives, and not always be seen as the same thing. Sometimes, it is not seen at all. Do we need a separate field for what goes on everywhere anyway? We may need some kind of training center for our students and research candidates, if only for the economical advantages of scale, but does that justify a specialized research dept.? The answer is, of course, no. Only the need for research can justify research. A computing section with technical support staff and programmers for special projects, perhaps a lecturer for introductory undergraduate courses, fine. But a autonomous department? Looking at the humanities computing activities at a place like The University of Bergen, we find a very rich diversity of computer-based research: Computational linguistics, historical informatics, corpus-based linguistics, computational art-history, classical philology, digital runology, machine translation, textual criticism by exploratory data analysis, computerized teaching methods, and much more. Most departments at our faculty can boast some sort of computer-based applied or basic research, many at a very sophisticated level, and in addition there are three or four centers also devoted to IT strategies. Most of these activities seem to be doing very well on their own, and seem to be welcomed, rather than frowned upon, by their mother departments. So is there a need for a separate Department of humanistic computer research?

In several fields, however, IT methods are not very well integrated. It is easy to see how the lack of successful integration into existing disciplines might motivate the forming of a separate field of Humanistic Informatics, but this is of course not a very good justification for any field, and conjures up the image of a ghetto or a reservation. A far better reason for such a field is the computing humanists' methodological community, which crosses the traditional disciplinary boundaries, and can stimulate interdisciplinary research and the exchange of ideas even far beyond the Faculty boundaries. This would be reason enough for a research center, where researchers could receive special training and eventually return to their home fields with new methods and ideas. But for a permanent, independent, tantamount humanistic field to exist, one must be able to establish that 1) its research is a worthwhile addition to existing fields, and that 2) it could not be better fostered within existing fields. Therefore, Humanistic Informatics, in order to exist as an independent field, must display a core research activity that does not naturally belong to the established fields.

The Humanities has always been concerned with human expression, whether Literature, Drama, Visual Art, or cultural discourse in general. In fact, we have organized a large part of our departmental structures to follow the media genres rather slavishly. When the electronic mass media arrived, they gradually became worthy of our attention, and eventually got their own department, as the departmental logic dictates. Today we are faced with a new addition; a new type of technology of expression has arrived.  We may then ask the questions to determine whether we have cause to set up a new field:

- Is it an important addition that entails significant new structures of communication?
- So it seems.  Today several hundred million people are connected to the Internet, and the number is still growing fast.  Computer games have become an industry threaten the cultural hegemony of movies, and have passed the movie industry in terms of annual income. And perhaps most importantly, the digital media entail a shift in the way we organize our stored experience, from narratives to the dynamic models of games and simulations.

- Can the same phenomenon be studied sufficiently by an existing discipline?
- No. The opaque nature of digital information technology, the programmed mechanisms beneath the sign surfaces, makes special knowledge of computing necessary for the study of these media. Criticism, as well as exploration, must be informed, or it will be worthless.

To study the effects and consequences of digital technology on our culture, and how we are shaping these technologies according to our cultural needs, we can now begin to see the contours of a separate, autonomous field, where the historical, aesthetic, cultural and discursive aspects of the digitalization of our society may be examined. That way, the field of Humanistic Informatics may contribute to the goal of the Humanities, which is the advancement of the understanding of human patterns of expression. We cannot leave this new development to existing fields, because they will always privilege their traditional methods, which are based on their own empirical objects.

This kind of examination is best done when integrated into laboratory practice. At the Dept. of Humanistic Informatics in Bergen we propose a program where we focus on four key areas:

1) Humanistic IT-methods. Studies of how humanities research apply new digital methods to solve problems within the various disciplines.
2) Multimedia- and hypermedia research. Understanding and development of multimedia-applications; distributed multimedia platforms and network communication, WWW-programming, hypertext-development and research on standards such as XML, VRML, HYTime, etc.
3) Pedagogical software and the development and use of network communication for pedagogical purposes, such as distance learning. Information- and communication technology (ICT)-based didactics.
4) Digital culture and digital rhetoric and aesthetics. The study of digital modes of communication and topics like computer art, digital literature, Internet cultures, virtual reality, computer games, gender/identity and ICT, through cultural and communication theories.

By combining explorative, methodological, and critical approaches, we hope to offer a uniquely humanistic perspective on ICT, and create an independent theoretical framework for the study of the new digital fields. Laboratory research and critical perspectives should complement each other and form the basis for a flexible, yet clearly profiled graduate program. The key emphases are on understanding and mastering ICT-based method, mediation, and representation. The students will choose between theoretical and development work for their thesis, but in such a way that those who specialize in theory are required to do coursework in development and vice versa.