Defining the Digital Humanities

Tanner Higgin has written an excellent essay on his ambivalence towards the digital humanities. His post is particularly interesting to me in light of my recent reading of Jaron Launier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab, both of which deal with the same problems of techno-romanticism/fetishism, albeit in different contexts.
The digital humanities is still a relatively new field, with roots in humanities computing, texts and technology, and many other names. In 2008, NEH institutionalized what had been their digital initiatives into the “Office of Digital Humanities.” The Office of Digital Humanities offers a brief explanation of the digital humanities, highlighting the digital humanities as a “game-changer” in several respects, including “the introduction of technology-based tools and methodologies” (ODH). Tanner’s post, like Launier and Drucker’s books, questions the emphasis placed on the tools and methodologies.
With an ever-growing corpus of materials available digitally or readily findable as existing in another form through digital channels, the possible scale of humanities work has exploded. And, scale changes everything. New tools and methodologies are clearly needed to handle the scale for current research and to explore new ways of working, and this isn’t at question. What is at question is the balance of emphasis placed on tools and tool/tech-work versus on critique, how those tools are being used, and what all of this really has to do with the humanities.
Tanner kindly states that the digital humanities has strong suits in core humanities concerns like “the ethics of copyright, privacy and open source.” I’d argue that the problem extends to those areas as well by narrowly viewing copyright as only a property right (ignoring the complications of moral rights, cultural heritage rights, privacy rights, and the context of the work), viewing privacy in certain instances and not the much more complicated issues of privacy in a database age (see Daniel Solove’s work), and viewing open source in overly simplistic terms and not within the range of open standards and the politics of open source’s “free software”  namesake.
Of course, not all of the digital humanities has these problems and what is and isn’t “digital humanities” is still being defined. That’s part of Tanner’s post and another part is arguing to define the digital humanities as having cultural critique at its core. I couldn’t agree with Tanner more, and I think most folks in the digital humanities or related fields would also readily agree. The definition of the digital humanities has to include both the creation and application of new tools (data and text mining, visualizations, etc) and the speculation, exploration, discussion, and philosophical application/integration/interrogation of “digital” with humanities work.
Tanner doesn’t implicitly state the more difficult secondary component that, because so much of the work in the digital humanities is applied/production work with concrete products/deliverables, the digital humanities has to also show its critical work in a parallel manner to ensure that one is not subsumed by the other.  This doesn’t have any easy answers, and it will be complicated by cultural  techno-fetishism which will privilege the tech-toy aspect of the work being done.
As a relatively new field, and a rapidly changing field, the digital humanities needs a lot of work. I see this as a positive situation because of younger scholars who have critical approaches to the problematic nature of current technologies and because the same is true of scholars with different types of technologies. The digital humanities is supporting, teaching, and normalizing  technology in line with other scholarly tools to enable the more advanced critical and speculative work.