On April 4, 2016 by Madeline Miller

digital britain

Author: Bay ByrneSim

Recently, I had the chance to attend Digital Britain: New Approaches to the Early Middle Ages at Harvard University (March 25-26, 2016). The two days were packed with fascinating presentations on the use of digital methods in medieval scholarship, from K. A. Laity’s digital recording of a sung charm to Erica Weaver’s online network of Anglo-Saxon letters. As a non-medievalist, I missed some of the jokes, but the group was warm and welcoming, and the conference gave me some insights into how other scholars embrace digital tools.

Until this conference, I didn’t truly understand how unique Remix was. Most scholars using digital humanities are embracing the methods — Remix examines the methodology. We’re trying to build a framework that allows other scholars to understand not just the pros and cons of a particular software or program, but the phenomenology of it, and (potentially) how said software or program will influence their scholarship. This is not the status quo, but that only hit me after the two days of the conference.

In the last session, a Round Table on Open Access Digital Humanities, Arthur Bahr (MIT) gave a talk called “Against Techno-utopianism.” Arthur asked how the questions we ask from the material object differ from the questions we ask a digital object, based on his experience with the Pearl manuscript at the British Library, where the digital manuscript was his only option, unless he had a specifically material question to ask. That digital object — one CD-ROM that could only be experienced on a computer running Windows 95 — was frustrating. He wished he could just look at the actual manuscript. Technology had become a barrier to access, and therefore, a barrier to asking specific types of questions.

Frustration with technology had also emerged in Samantha Leggett’s talk (“‘As far as the eye can see’? Digital Methods for Mapping the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons”), where she displayed some of the error messages she encountered almost daily while using GIS. Erica Weaver emphasized that the vectors produced by her mapping software did not actually account for medieval travel patterns. There was a sense of limitation to the digital, a growing understanding that the “humanities” part of DH continued to influence how digital tools were used.

But there was no consensus (or discussion) on how digital methods were shaping scholarship. Various scholars, including James Simpson, pushed back against the seductiveness of DH results, with a special animosity towards the visual. At one point Professor Simpson asked Erica Weaver what her maps showed her that she didn’t already know. She pointed out that mail routes emphasized the cities in between, not just the endpoints, as analog considerations had done. The general feeling seemed to be that digital tools are useful, but have their limitations. How these limitations already are impacting or will impact scholarship remained implicit — unless you’re working on a project like Remix, where the product is the process.

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