The next big idea in language, history and the arts? Data.
Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.
The article goes on to describe a few interesting projects. For example:
In Europe 10 nations have embarked on a large-scale project, beginning in March, that plans to digitize arts and humanities data. Last summer Google awarded $1 million to professors doing digital humanities research, and last year the National Endowment for the Humanities spent $2 million on digital projects.
One of the endowment’s grantees is Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University who is charting the flow of ideas during the Enlightenment. The era’s great thinkers — Locke, Newton, Voltaire — exchanged tens of thousands of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than 18,000.
“You could form an impressionistic sense of the shape and content of a correspondence, but no one could really know the whole picture,” said Mr. Edelstein, who, along with collaborators at Stanford and Oxford University in England, is using a geographic information system to trace the letters’ journeys.
He continued: “Where were these networks going? Did they actually have the breadth that people would often boast about, or were they functioning in a different way? We’re able to ask new questions.”
One surprising revelation of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project was the paucity of exchanges between Paris and London, Mr. Edelstein said. The common narrative is that the Enlightenment started in England and spread to the rest of Europe. “You would think if England was this fountainhead of freedom and religious tolerance,” he said, “there would have been greater continuing interest there than what our correspondence map shows us.”