May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Cathy N. Davidson, Duke University


The first generation of the digital humanities was all about data. The excitement and impetus of digital humanities throughout much of the 1990s and continuing to the present was that massive data bases could be digitized, searched, and combined with other data bases for interoperable searches that yielded more complex and complete results in a shorter amount of time than the human mind had ever imagined possible.1 In this way, revolutions in digital humanities were similar to those in other fields. In biological science, sequencing the genome could never have happened without dramatic increases in computational power. In natural science, we know more than ever about global warming due to such projects as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), which evaluates the global changes to 24 separate life support systems (including biodiversity, ecosystems, and the atmosphere).2 In social sciences, human complex systems theory combines results based on social network theory, demography, migratory patterns, social regulation and laws to analyze movements of persons and goods globally. And in the human sciences or humanities, myriad projects digitize the texts and artifacts of world culture, from the beginning to the present, in order to create new understandings of the history of ideas.

Second-generation digital humanities are the scholarly equivalent of what Tim O’Reilly has dubbed “Web 2.0.” If Web 1.0 was the World Wide Web’s collection of websites and data bases (what human scientists would call “archives”), Web 2.0 is a fully developed platform that serves a variety of applications to its end users.3 However, there is also an important difference between the business and humanistic history of cyberinfrastructure. O’Reilly’s term “Web 2.0” was coined to differentiate what was coming next from what didn’t work in the burst dot.com economy. By creating a “before” and “after,” the concept of Web 2.0 was designed to encourage a new generation of investors in internet technologies. But there is no equivalent “bad before” in digital humanities. Rather, the current generation of digital humanities extends and builds upon the foundation of Humanities 1.0.

The transformation of archives into interoperable and professionally-constructed digital databases has changed the research and pedagogical questions of our age, by providing the individual researcher almost instantaneous access to far more data than any one person could gather in a lifetime and by allowing more people access to these materials than ever before. Let me give an example of how transformative this has been for teaching and education in the human sciences. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I taught courses on mass education, reading, and writing during the highly contentious political period following the American Revolution, I used to have graduate students do archival research in early American newspapers and magazines, some of which were available on microfilm or microfiche, unindexed.4 A student might have spent a hundred hours rolling the films in the dizzying light of those unwieldy machines (I had one in my office and used to call it, without affection, The Green Monster). If the student found one good example, it was a successful project. Two examples constituted a triumph. In many cases, the search was so frustrating that the student might well have applied for a scholarship to travel to an archive in New England, such as the American Antiquarian Society, where the resources were far richer.

If I teach that course now, my students can go to searchable data bases of early American imprints, of eighteenth-century European imprints, of South American and (growing) African archives, and of archives in Asia as well. A contemporary student could, in far less time, not only use digitized and indexed archives to search U.S. data bases but could make comparisons across and among popular political movements world-wide, and possibly make arguments about the spread of dissent along with commodities such as tea, sugar, or rice. The barbarism and ubiquity of the slave trade as part of the spread of global systems of capital also meant for an exchange of ideas about personhood, statehood, individual rights, and human rights.

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Reference this article
Davidson, C. N. "Data Mining, Collaboration, and Institutional Infrastructure for Transforming Research and Teaching in the Human Sciences and Beyond," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/data-mining-collaboration-and-institutional-infrastructure/

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