Men louen of propre kynde newfangelnesse. (Chaucer, The Squire’s Tale, l. 610).
My daughter is fascinating. For the first month or so, caring for a newborn seemed to be a series of diaper changes, sleepless nights, and incessant feedings, but a few weeks back she started interacting with the world. Miss S, as we call her, woke up when she was 5 weeks old: she began to look at objects, track movements, and turn towards sounds. Everything became possible and new. I know that other parents have experienced this before, but it was absolutely fascinating for me to watch her wake up to the world.
The digital humanities is a bit like Miss S at 5 weeks…it seems that people are just now beginning to wake up to the technology that’s always been around them. For the first time in years people from the humanities and social sciences are making tentative lunch appointments with faculty in computer science or reading TechCrunch and logging onto Twitter to see how the latest trends might change their corner of the world.
It’s not as if the digital humanities didn’t exist before now, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the phrase began to appear in job listings, journal articles, and message boards (or rather, that the reach of digital humanities extended into more mainstream academic channels). Sure, there were some souls who ventured into those uncharted technical waters before it became cool, but I would wager that most people hadn’t thought about how their research and the digital humanities could cozy up before now.
Honestly, I’m not sure if all of the un-conferences, coding workshops, and invited lectures can really give people a thorough understanding of such a complex field…especially because the discipline is growing, morphing, and changing as more people help to define it. This “newfangelnesse” of which Chaucer speaks heralds in a new age, but it also serves as a caution for us as scholars: just because we’re opening our eyes for the first time and discovering something new, doesn’t mean it wasn’t already there. Moreover, through all our excitement, we still need to approach the digital humanities with the same critical acuity that we give more established disciplines.