Are We Taking the Human out of Humanities?

Digital Humanities can be seen as a system of advancing the way in which we study literature; the inclusion of digital technology usually has a connotation of forward progress and efficiency, after all. There is no doubt there are plenty of advantages to the technologies we’ve been discussing in class; TEI is only one example of how computers allow us to process and store information in ways that can make analyzing the texts easier by leaps and bounds. But for all the good of the digital aspect of the humanities, we should keep in mind the motto of this very page: “Improved means to an unimproved end.” Better technology is not the deciding factor of quality discussion and analysis, and while we can all appreciate the benefits of the new wave of humanities we should keep in mind some of the criticisms this field has been facing in order to ensure we all play a role in advancing our own work in a useful direction.

Humanities is traditionally seen as the study of history through the lens of fine arts, philosophy, human nature; in a sense, it is the study of people across time. The inclusion of the “digital” aspect of humanities is brand new, and can often be jarring to people who are unfamiliar with the technology. Debates in the Digital Humanities is a book which discusses the place of digital humanities in contemporary society through essays by thirty academic contributors. In the words of Stephan Ramsey, a tenured Digital Humanities professor in Nebraska, “you have to know how to code [to be a digital humanist].” Upon receiving criticism for his stance, he altered his requirements to “building,” or contributing in some way or another to the creation of a new project. This is a notable shift from what humanities is traditionally accepted as, learning through “reading and critiquing” to studying through “building and making.” When the trends seem to be pointing to digital humanities as the soon-to-be new face of humanities in general it can be unsettling for some to learn that they may not find a home in the new landscape of the field because they are unfamiliar with computers, a tool which for so long seemed detached from the world of literature. I argue that digital humanities and traditional humanities can stand on their own, each bringing unique perspectives to discussions in a symbiotic relationship.

This shift in the field has raised plenty of eyebrows on the faces of those who question the legitimacy of digital humanists. But the efficiency of the digital age cannot be argued with. The internet provides us with a conduit for fast and easy communication; methods such as peer review can be done to a surprising speed; Debates in the Digital Humanities posted essay drafts online to be reviewed by scholars and received “568 comments– an average of nearly twenty comments per essay…” Not only did the internet provide fast solution to what is normally a substantially time, “often more than a year to review and publish a paper.” The keen eye will note that the link leads to an article entitled “Peer Review: A Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journals.” The process of Peer Review is clearly seen by some as being more trouble than it’s worth. What the digital humanists surrounding the Debates in the Digital Humanities hoped to (and believe that they did) accomplish through their use of an internet forum for peer review was combat the criticism of the possibility of “superficial praise or… suppression of negative feedback.” The reviewers were publicly tied to the quality of their comments and so were encouraged to participate actively and productively.

It is true that the field of humanities is moving in a new direction. Change is at the heart of every academic field and to avoid the stagnation of one’s studies it is important to keep up with the times. However, the history and literature that humanities is rooted in should not be forgotten and left in the dust. To completely disregard the analysis and critique on which the field built upon is to fulfill the prophecy laid out by critics that digital humanists are concerned only with empirical data, not with true meaning. Technology is a tool to be used as an improved means, to be sure, but our end game should still be focused on fostering a better understanding of the human condition as a whole.

Industrial Evolution

Remember when Napster, that old mp3 downloading program, was caught up in a legal battle with the music industry? Many people on the sidelines supported Napster because downloading music is just an easier method to be able to listen to the music they wanted to. Us Average Joes were simply looking for convenience and the pushback from the industry was massive. Big artists like Metallica were right at the front lines condemning Napster users– sure, it was grounded in the legal and moral issues involved in illegaly downloading music, but a large part of it was the industry’s unwillingness to change to better suit the needs of the consumers. But now if we look at iTunes, we’ll see that not only are people willing to pay a reasonable price for the convenience of downloadable music but that this new system is nothing but profitable. Itunes generated $12.9 billion in 2012, and though this doesn’t all go to the artist (in fact most only make ~9% of each sale) it has paved the way for a more fluid industry in which the consumers have more of a say.

So, what’s the point?

This is reminiscent of the introduction of the paperback we read about in Menand’s The Birth of Pulp Fiction in a number of ways, as well as being an event that we all have a more solid perspective on. The contrast between the music industry and the publishing industry, however, is a very important one to make: the publishing industry has been embracing change, capitalizing on not only paperback covers ut eReaders, eBooks, and other new technologies to raise their profit margins and give us the convenience we oh so dearly desire. In fact, those who are most opposed to evolution within the industry, both in the rise of the paperback and now the rise of the eBook, are the big-name authors: the Metallica equivalents, these days including Stephen King. Their argument? ebooks are doing more harm to the industry than good.

King himself was one of the first authors to dabble in the eBook format, and he even released a serialized series for $1 per issue. His experience in the field has led him to profess that the changes the inustry is taking is its toll not on the publishers but on the authors. Here are the numbers: In 2012, eBooks are accountable for $3 billion in revenue, a 50% increase from 2011. They generated 20% of the publishing industry’s total revenue on their own, all while physical book sales fell by 7% in that period. Those familiar with economics can easily see that the consumers are speaking, and they’re favoring eBooks. King asserts, however, that almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.” Like the artists on iTunes who only make ~9% of each sale (approximately 9 cents a song) authors who sell their eBooks dirt cheap are seeing a noticeable decrease in their own revenue.

Coupled with that issue is the increasing ease of self-publishing. In the words of Melissa Foster, an author of three international bestselling novels, “self-published authors have created a devaluing of the written word,” and are in a sense killing the industry. Self-publishers are able to create a work with as much or as little editing, merit, or what some may call “worth” as they please without the guidance of editors. They are then able to put their eBooks up for sale on websites like Amazon competitively priced among the likes of Foster and King themselves, the latter of whome claims that the market is being saturated with low class, gimmicky works which will inevitably lead to the death of the publishing industry. Sound familiar to Pulp Fiction yet?

In the words of self-published author Ed Robertson (who interestingly enough cites de Graff and introduction of the paperback in his argument): “If [indie authors] have killed anything, it’s the idea that books need to cost as much as they do.” He believes that the sharp increase in book prices since 1961 have caused stagnancy in both the publishing industry and many readers unwilling to pay for increasingly expensive books. Self-published authors who decided their own prices, often in the $.99 to free range, have provided what Roberston believes to have been a much needed kickstart to the industry and are responsible for the profits mentioned above just as much as the new formats of reading.

The problem with creative industries boils down to differences in goals: publishers want to make as much money as they can, authors want to make the best quality work that they can while adhering to their own vision, and consumers want to pay the lowest prices possible. I place no faith in the claims of an imminent demise in the publishing industry but I can see very clearly that there is a need for reconciliation among these goals in order to maintain the balance between quality, price for the consumers and profit for the authors.