- Digital and Environmental HumanitiesStrong Networks, Innovative Tools, Interactive Objects
Since the early 1990s, various humanities disciplines have been developing specific branches to respond ethically, historically, creatively, and critically to issues related to humans and the environment. Environmental history, philosophy, ethics, literary theory, education, and art, all share the belief that the humanities play a key role in understanding the ways in which environmental problems are socially and politically driven. Moreover, these new studies and approaches are keenly aware of the need for interdisciplinary scholarship when attending to complex environmental issues and concerns.1
Gaining momentum since around the 1950s, the digital humanities (previously known as humanities computing) have been responding to the increasing use of computer technology in contemporary culture. Inclusive in nature, the digital humanities include media studies, digital text analysis, big data, and visualization studies, to name a few.2 Collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature, the digital humanities have much in common with the environmental humanities. And yet these two fields have evolved largely independently.
In the present article, we will describe the work we have been doing to bring the digital and the environmental humanities together by way of a set of timely projects. We begin by offering a rapid overview of the parallels between these two fields. We then outline an initiative in the digital environmental humanities that we have been leading for the last six years. What began as a networking workshop held at McGill [End Page 156] University in September 2013 (funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) has subsequently developed in two different directions: (1) the application of topic modeling and visualization, to study a collection of scholarly texts and understand the emergence of the environmental humanities; and (2) the creation of interactive digital exhibits, to disseminate research in the environmental humanities. We will conclude by proposing some further ways in which the digital environmental humanities can continue to build strong networks, innovative tools, and interactive objects.
Parallel Paths: The Digital and the Environmental Humanities
At first glance, the digital and the environmental humanities appear to represent opposing forces. How can a field that embraces environmentally unfriendly computer technology help to further understand environmental issues? Should we not be reducing our use of high-energy cloud computing and discouraging the production of yet more e-waste? While these questions have merit, they remain quite narrow in scope. Rather than dismissing outright any association with computers (are electronic gadgets not just as prevalent in academic scholarship in the environmental humanities?), the environmental humanities can learn much from critical engagement with technology that has characterized the digital humanities since its inception.3 At the same time, digital humanities scholars can take away from the environmental humanities a more critical look at how the Internet, cloud services (Google, Facebook, etc.), and the electronic devices we use to access them have a real impact on the environment.
A closer look reveals that the digital humanities are very much steeped in a humanities culture like that of the environmental humanities, a culture that promotes critical thinking and public engagement.4 Moreover, the digital humanities' long historical view on the emergence of new technologies is helpful in contextualizing the changes that contemporary culture is undergoing. In other words, the digital humanities are not simply embracing quantification and big data in the humanities (though critical perspectives are not always at the forefront).5 While introducing new methodologies that would have been foreign to the humanities in the past due to limits of time and scale, the digital humanities are also illustrating what makes the humanities [End Page 157] distinct from purely quantitative approaches. They underscore the role of interpretation, experimentation, play, reflection, and critical thinking when developing tools for humanist scholarship.6 Moreover, the hands-on approach within the digital humanities has called for more inclusivity in terms of details such as who learns to code, what tools they have access to, and where research centers are established. The visible and ongoing debate about coding and diversity illustrates that the digital humanities are necessarily bound up in the questions that identity politics have been...