By Jesse McDowell
This is a repost from an ongoing class discussion in a doctoral seminar at the Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) regarding digital humanities and pre-modern studies with Christopher Fletcher and Isabella Magni (Center for Renaissance Studies)
Often we as humanists veer away from speaking so freely about the technologies which will govern our future. I too am reticent to make assertions with certitude when it comes to what kinds of technologies – robots, fiber optic cables, and google glass – will win out in the techno-melting-pot we seem to find ourselves in now. Since the advent of the computer and the internet after that, we have experienced innovation (or maybe just ‘invention?’) on a compounding level, compared to the centuries preceding us. This not to say that those previous centuries have not set the stage, as it were, or that they have not also seen great innovative moments. I am not to be the one here to judge the Victorians. Hell, they’re the ones who created the London Bridge and redirected the Chicago River. No, if anything, I think it is only because of inventors and practitioners of the past that we are able to build on their innovative spirit.
One thing I have learned in my short years of studying topics related to medievalism and technology is that images are sometimes the only thru-line we humanists get when it comes to foreseeing our digital futures. And it’s not just us: radiologists, scientists, and techies from the private to the public sectors have used images in ways that we never thoughts was possible. Google Maps, the US Government and other (cough, cough) organizations are clients of Digital Globe, a corporation that invests capital in running a few satellites that take updated high-resolution images of the entire world. This is mythic-like abilities which cartographers from all periods would only dream of. In radiology and other fields, the interpretation of data through images has not changed but revolutionized those fields. Finally, and I say FINALLY, the humanities has thought to put credence to images as useful and innovative as well.
James Cuno is right: by and large, humanists don’t collaborate as well as they (we) should. We remain isolated in our work, for the most part, mainly because tenure and peer-review systems of reward still operate within this framework of the lone scholar producing work that is ‘field-changing.’ If we want to change the field, we’d better know that we should do it together, which is why Cuno’s call-for collaboration for art historians is so important. One may ask, though, “why do research differently when what we do works for most people just fine?” This question is an important one, but made overwhelmingly moot when set to the backdrop of mostinnovative movements in technology. When Carl Sagan, a renowned astrophysicist, dreamed of the futures attainable through interstellar flight, he did not make those dreamy claims under the pretenses that one day an isolated thinker in his field would come up with the perfect doable plan on how to get to Mars. If anything, his vision was a call to action to all of his colleagues to think bigger.
Speaking of space, images have led the way in many instances. Take, for example, the Voyager missions I and II. From 1977 to 2013, a small spacecraft went from earth with a huge camera drilled into it and ready to take some badass pictures of plants no human has seen up close with the naked eye. The biggest, perhaps the only reason the Voyager program was both difficult and history-altering was its dependance on and use of images. Voyager’s primary mission was to send back images of the planets of our outer Solar System. The images of these planets we have today are detailed from these Voyager images. The craft would send back enormousimages in large pieces that would take days to download and colorize before scientists could even begin to analyze them to make conclusive grounds about what it was they were looking at.
Images can so often be reduced to being not that important. But for us medievalists and early-modernists, they can really help us rediscover extant materials extending from the print medium. Digital editions now aim to create images that are not only high-resolution, but that also interoperate. This means that they are highly usable by so many different people and in so many different ways; images are important cultural copies of the heritage associated with the objects they come from. Images offer us a way to catalogue the data and deep histories of manuscripts as cultural but analogue forms of history, the kind of documentation and indexicality which our forbears dreamed of. A critical last question may be: what to do with all this data? The department of Archives for the US government, for instance, doesn’t really know what to with all of the stuff they have in their many boxes of declassified documents. Raw history, just sitting there. Companies need to institute better versions of big data research, facilitated through image-making methodology, to begin to understand how to preserve, but also how to re-interpret our shared human cultural heritage.