This blog post is dedicated to those of us who tend to think alongside digital reality. We know how to use search engines, we “work with” Word, PowerPoint, Excel – and yes, we can manage emails thank you. Those crafty f keys may have already disclosed some of their mysteries: a slight pressure on the keyboard works as a friend would unlock the door to a secret garden – and shut it neatly behind them. After groping in the dark for hours trying to find the magical spring, we still marvel at how that printer finally got to function: it’s empirical we say. Others would shrug their shoulders and refer to a properly followed set of instructions. But we do not think digital, that is, we do not yet adapt our human qualities to digital reality.

The scholarly and digital WeChangEd project has been teaching me a lot in terms of collaboration and teamwork. It is a wonderful opportunity to work with people who have different ways of progressing towards the same objective. If you scroll through previous blog posts you will have an idea of what I am talking about. We are constantly, and rightly so, provoked, to go beyond our comfort zone, to meet outlandish concepts and methodologies with an invitation to incorporate some of it in our own research. We collaborate, but do we learn from each other? Yes, we do. I will take my cue from several of my colleagues to make my point: computers are not impenetrable (some people even know how they work). If we trust our own abilities and accept to learn and do things differently we can create an approach to digital humanity, and add our insight to computerized programmes/databases that think mainly in terms of result and probability.

In her latest blog, Charlotte encourages us to “think beyond preconceived categories”; who would you add to our database is not a simple question, but one that requires the time to consider who would best fit the database, and so all those reflections that take time to mature. Time is also the answer to adopting digital reality – we are rushed into “high-tech” confrontations which prompt us to fold back instantly into our shells and build a wall lined with books, paper, ink and a word processor. Yes, the laptop is there, for we have become a little bit modern, see, almost without effort (but that is writing, not with pens but with keyboards).

I have been laboriously filling a spreadsheet with data extracted from long forgotten foreign periodicals, wondering (in a good way) where this collecting would lead me. As I saw the weeks ticking by and despaired at my slow compiling, I gave in to selecting as opposed to exhaustively storing. Julie has kindly been supervising this. As she remarked in her blog post “Data Pipeline”, we overlook the decisions we make in collecting and storing. In other words, this is fine, I am not just filling in a table, I am already actively working with the help of a data model and a spreadsheet which will aid me later to efficiently sort and organize the data to identify patterns. Is it “thinking differently”? I believe it is simply doing differently. Doing differently but with the same objective, developing a thesis question, and to me it is opening many paths.

Thomas Smits and Melvin Wevers at the “Seeing History” workshop, Ghent University, 10 October 2018. Photo by Julie Birkholz. With cameo appearance by John Keats’s death mask.

For literary scholars, research that does not yield result is in itself a result, so an approach to data stores with gaps and holes is actually exciting. Why are they there? We recently hosted our colleagues Thomas Smits and Melvin Wevers from the Netherlands for an enlightening digital humanities workshop on computer vision in which the following contrast came up several times: we, as digital humanities scholars, question the mistakes and missing data that those Californian whiz kids seek to eradicate.

Literary scholars may develop a thesis question with the help of existing or missing digitized data, but we do not need to be scholars to think digital. Digital humanity involves keeping an open mind, accepting to do things differently, for it is a question of how we can benefit from and add to the field by using our own abilities, as thinking and feeling human beings, in a pre-set intelligent programme. Most of all it is a slow process, and by keeping a positive outlook we will all get there in the end.

Eloise Forestier

29/10/2018