The digital revolution in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) is most definitely here. It has been slow and difficult in coming, for multiple, complicated reasons. Cyberinfrastructure (CI) is just starting to be explored in academic fields outside of high-performance computing. HASS scholars are finding ways to overcome impediments to their participation in CI, and are producing new knowledge by using advanced technology to pursue their research.1 This article will first lay out some of the obstacles these disciplines face in using technology, and will then profile two projects in the University of California system that exemplify what computational analysis can bring to HASS fields.
Compared to scientific disciplines, HASS have historically been “low tech” in their methodologies. So it can seem surprising that their technological needs for research, now that they are turning in this direction, pose significant difficulties for programmers. Data sets, if indeed the data exist as “sets” at all, are disparate, fragmented, and may actually be larger than those in the scientific fields. Structuring data for access and display is extremely complex. Technological difficulties abound: comparative analysis with respect to geographical location and temporal, societal, linguistic, and cultural aspects requires capabilities for creating hierarchically structured data with various levels of abstraction. The challenge lies in determining how best to aggregate, organize, and display the data and in developing the most beneficial tools for analysis. The final report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure and the Humanities delineates many of the deterrents that HASS needs present to efficacious CI:
Digitizing the products of human culture and society poses intrinsic problems of complexity and scale. [This cultural record is] multilingual, historically specific, geographically dispersed, and often highly ambiguous in meaning. . . . [A] critical mass of information is often necessary for understanding both the content and the specifics of an artifact or event, and this may include large collections of multimedia content. . . . [HASS] scholars are often concerned with how meaning is created, communicated, manipulated, and perceived [which further complicates programming for access and display]. Recent trends in scholarship have broadened the sense of what falls within a given academic discipline: for example, scholars who in the past might have worked only with texts now turn to architecture and urban planning, art, music, video games, film and television, fashion illustrations, billboards, dance videos, graffiti, and blogs.2
An equally important if not greater barrier to HASS participation in CI is the requirement for enormous cultural change. The first thing that may come to mind is faculty resistance. Most faculty members welcome the increased access to objects of study that digital technologies have made possible. But some, especially in the humanities, have not believed that advanced technology can make a real contribution to their fields, or they may fear an overemphasis on technology, i.e., that it is largely whistles and bells, ultimately distracting scholars and students from careful interpretive study requiring close attention to text, context, artifact, human communication/ interaction/ performance, and other objects of study. Resistance, however, is not the most significant impediment to the use of advanced technologies in these disciplines - plenty of HASS researchers are tech-savvy and excited about new tools for their research and teaching. The far more pressing obstacles concern data, collaboration, and funding.