In the last two days, Hurricane Xaver descended on north west Europe with a vengeance, complete with snow, gales, and floods, accompanying the intellectual storm that unleashed itself on us in the reconstructed Herrenhausen Palace. The venue is in many ways a fitting spatialization of the quandaries of the Digital Humanities. A semblance of Baroque exterior, carefully reconstructed from the ruins left by a British fire bombing in 1942, covers a hyper-modern, minimalist interior, where the surface whiteness of an Apple simulacrum hides the doors and openings of necessary bathrooms and waste bins.
Whiteness and wood, glass and marble are certainly the materials of the Baroque palace of the Hanoverians, but they have been transformed into the smooth and seamless spaces of the Volkswagen Foundation. The main auditorium is beautifully designed, technologically advanced with a high resolution projector that satisfies the most particular of digital visualisers. Knowledge design, as Jeffrey Schnapp would say, architecturally embodied.
We began the conference with Schnapp’s vision of a future model for the humanities that consists of stories’ collections, an examination of the social life of things, the development of new learning containers, and a ubiquitous curation. And not all these have to be digital, but they are parts of our culture, our dreams and our memories (see Facebook, Twitter, Flickr). These enormous collections of the social/historical record cannot be cared for, mined, analysed by our merely human capacities, we cannot compute such vast numbers, rather we need to develop ways of reading these collections.
Today, Lev Manovich showed us some of the ways in which he looks at these 1, 000, 000 images, using visualizations of magazine covers (Time), newspaper front pages (Hawaii Star), Instagram uploads over a 24 hour period in Tokyo and New York, trying to pull us Humanists away from the hermeneutical circle of hypothesis, examination, proof to the freedom of just looking. Put the data out there and see what you can see, is his manifesto (as though there is complete loss of memory in the act of seeing, never any re-cognizing) and what reveal themselves (in a pretence of objectivity) are patterns of taste, an aesthetics, a taxonomy of selfies. Lev invites us to participate in the semiotics of social patternings as revealed through big data, map the entropy of Manga uploads, visualize the social tag distributions on Instagrams to see what people are talking about when. What do New Yorkers worry about over lunch? over dinner? at night?
While we might harbor doubts about Lev’s overt rejection of any notion of metadata, what no-one could deny about his visualizations is they themselves are artworks, powerful renderings of moments in the human condition. And if that’s not what the humanities requires of us, then what is?