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The Roles They Are A-Shiftin’: Challenges and Possibilities for Tool Criticism

In my previous blog post, ‘Quantifying Autobiography‘, I introduced the ‘Me & Myself‘ (M&M) pilot project, for which I am a research assistant. In this post I will try to explain the role that we as a research team have within the larger CLARIAH project, and the shift in research object this entails. Furthermore, I will make a reconciling statement about the much-discussed engagement with the development of digital tools in the humanities on the one hand, and the critical attitude towards them on the other.

From Media Historian to Co-Developer

A short recap: the M&M project is part of the Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (CLARIAH). From the outset of the project we wanted to explore Dutch documentary history, by means of new tools, e.g. video annotation. The project was formed on a call from CLARIAH, who’s aim is to develop digital tools, within a research infrastructure wherein media scholars can gain access (as researchers) to digitized material from archives across the Netherlands. By bringing in scholars with questions driven by their respective fields (like journalism studies, documentary studies, oral history et cetera) they attempt to align the design of their digital tools (the specific features et cetera) with the needs of the scholars. In other words, we are becoming co-developers.

By becoming co-developers our object of study has shifted slightly from Dutch documentary history to the tools (and methods) that could be used to research it. This is a shift in focus that can be seen as typical for the digital humanities, that has been characterized by Richard Grusin as a “distinction between making things and merely critiquing (Hui et al. 2016, 499).” This is the way, he says, many digital humanities scholars have separated the traditional humanities from its digital branch. And working with the developers of the CLARIAH project this has become a reality for the M&M team. Although this distinction somewhat obscures the fact that we are still critiquing, and maintaining our critical disposition towards the use of tools. I would say that is actually our strength—what we bring to the table—in the co-developing activity.

A recent edited volume called The Datafied Society. Studying Data Through Culture (2017) also investigates the implications of ‘datafication’ on the humanities. In the chapter “Humanistic Data Research: An Encounter Between Epistemic Traditions” Eef Masson states that “humanists have adopted digital tools in the hopes of making their results more verifiable, [while] others have questioned the underlying assumptions, arguing that they threaten to undermine the very project of the humanities (2017, 26).” This statement somewhat echoes Grusin’s assessment in that it divides the humanities in two camps; builders and critics.

But I want to make a case for an interrelation between both camps, as I do not see the engagement with the development of digital tools as a threat to “the very project of the humanities.” Rather, in my experience as a research assistant in the M&M project, I have found that to explore the possibilities of digital tools has proven insightful with regard to the overall evaluation of the incorporation of digital technology in the field of media studies. Moreover, it has provided me with an awareness of the challenges faced by projects that incorporate digital tools. So, I consider myself to be a builder (in the co-developing sense) as well as a critic, in other words as a tool critic and a co-developer.

The Challenges of the Co-Developing Critic

As I see it, CLARIAH nourishes the endeavors of those (digital) humanities scholars who wish to explore the possibilities of digital technology. That is, to see what may be possible if we open our minds to new research paths and to experience the challenges that come up when working with digital tools. Moreover, by engaging in the development of a digital research infrastructure and its accompanying digital tools, we can also develop the grounds for a critical attitude towards them. This will hopefully synthesize in the building of digital tools that actually could be useful for the wider field of the humanities. As such, we are performing a sort of ‘bridge function’ or ‘translating function’ between traditional and digital research.    

In practice this entails that we (the M&M team) are working together with the developers of CLARIAH to design the infrastructure—called the Media Suite—through which future users will have the ability to perform their research, e.g. access collections, create corpora, set up research projects, use digital tools. This collaborative and interdisciplinary effort has created an awareness of the practical issues faced by programmers when they build the digital infrastructure that humanities scholars can work with.

Furthermore, this means that on the one hand we are thinking about the implementation of digital tools within a media-oriented research. What new ways of researching the object of study (in this case Dutch documentary history) are afforded by digital tools? In this regard, Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, in his doctoral dissertation Reflexive Inertia: Reinventing Scholarship Through Digital Practices (2015), warns us that “in many collaborative digital projects, the traditional boundaries between scholarly activity and support work are blurred (2015, 18).” Which to some extent has been true for the M&M project: the challenge is that we have to create a critical framework with which we can evaluate the digital tools we are co-developing. This is taking the place of the implementation of these tools to research Dutch documentary history.  

On the other hand, we are triggered to think practically about the usability of the Media Suite. For that purpose, we investigate the different ways in which the features and functionalities of the Media Suite can be organized, and imagine how users (including ourselves) might find their way in the Media Suite. That means that we also have to think about which generic tools should be developed, useful for many rather than only a small number of scholars. This perspective partly stems from John Unsworth’s philosophy of developing “scholarly primitives” such as discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating and representing (2000). Not every scholar is alike, however, nor is every research project. So, to think of a user in a generic way is extremely difficult.  


In conclusion I would say that we are faced with a shifting role; from media scholars, to co-developers, to tool critics. The statement that I have tried to make, however, is that the strength of the M&M project lies exactly in this shift. This means that we continue to encounter practical issues faced in the process of developing a digital infrastructure such as the Media Suite. This is part of an important process: providing us with a more informed stance towards the development of digital technology as a whole, and engaging us with the debates surrounding the incorporation of digital tools in humanities research. To that end, we are currently working on an article for a special issue of View: Journal of European Television History and Culture, devoted to “Audiovisual Data in the Digital Humanities.” There, we will continue our reflection on the challenges and intricacies of the M&M project.

Read Rob Wegter’s previous blog post ‘Quantifying Autobiography’ here.

Hui, Wendy et al. “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities”. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. Red Matthew K. Gold en Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Kaltenbrunner, Wolfgang. “Reflexive Inertia Reinventing Scholarship Through Digital Practices”. Leiden University, 2015.

Masson, Eef. “Humanistic Data Research: An Encounter Between Epistemic Traditions”. The Datafied Society: Studying Culture Through Data. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Unsworth, John. “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?” Humanities Computer: formal methods, experimental practice (2000).