Communication and Media Studies, Digital Scholarship, e-Research, Humanities

Virtual Strangers: e-Research and the Humanities

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The Arts and Humanities have traditionally been worlds apart from Science and Technology in their ways of pursuing and generating knowledge and understanding. So much so that the famous term, ‘The Two Cultures’, coined in the mid twentieth century by C. P. Snow to describe the vast gap between these discipline areas, is still current and relevant.[i] It continues to dominate the organisation of disciplines in universities and drive the distribution of most national research funding. However, quite suddenly, at the end of the twentieth century, the digital environment began to trigger major changes in the knowledge economy, with the result that the humanities were thrown unexpectedly and involuntarily into a close relationship with technology. As one might expect in any forced marriage, it was not a case of love at first sight. In fact, the humanities have exhibited the full range of reactions—from totally ignoring the other, through unashamedly raiding their wealth, to wholeheartedly embracing the exciting future they seem to offer. Whatever the reaction, it is clear that the humanities are now inescapably entangled with technology, for better or worse, and the two cultures are connecting more than ever before, notably in the new research activities and spaces signalled by the term ‘e-research’.

While it is information technology that is the primary catalyst for this changing relationship, it is also important to acknowledge that other branches of science are involved in forming new alliances. The growing field of biological art—or bioart—for example, brings together scientists, artists and IT specialists to create artefacts that bridge the gap between scientific research and creative production, sometimes with bizarre and controversial outcomes. Projects such as these powerfully dramatise the paradox of the alienness of the two cultures towards each other, and at the same time their capacity to be drawn together into intimate closeness across physical as well as conceptual divides.[ii] However, the alliances that are the focus of this discussion are those that mark a more fundamental change in the relationship between the two cultures, and they are the new alliances between humanities research and digital information technologies. While these tend to be less ethically confronting and provocative than the radical experiments of the bioartists, they raise issues and dilemmas that are more deeply significant to the future of humanities research, relating to matters such as tensions between the philosophies underlying disciplines coming together for collaborative projects, and changes in the ways individual researchers think and work.

The increasing use of technology in humanities projects is starting to have an important impact on how aspects of our culture and history are expressed, documented, stored, accessed and interpreted, as well as on how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. At the heart of this change is a new capacity for connectedness—connectedness of information in and between databases, connectedness between the sciences and humanities, between experts and the public, and between communities across the world. With this have come new patterns of working, new attitudes, new behaviour, and new expectations. Our world is arguably being documented and appreciated in richer, increasingly multi-faceted ways, but there are also losses. The widespread use of digital media and technologies means that we are pushing aside the old written and print based modes of cultural documentation that have been at the heart of Western culture since the invention of the printing press and before. Indeed, until now, the last transformative technological breakthrough for the humanities may well have been the printing press and mass publishing five centuries ago. Photography and film changed the way events could be recorded and related, but the documentation and replication made possible through the printing press has been unrivalled until now. Genres and traditions have steadily and safely evolved around print formats, with their in-built quality controls through the publishing process. [iii] But in keeping with the scale and speed of recent change, there is the potential for the digital world to bring great benefits, beyond anything that could have been dreamed of even a decade ago.

The alliance between humanities research and information technology, signalled by terms such as ‘digital humanities’, ‘humanities computing’ and ‘e-research’, is a recognised border zone in the struggle between the old and new ways of working in universities. New kinds of research centres are springing up, new research topics are emerging and a whole new language is being developed, full of terms that would very recently have seemed entirely foreign to the humanities. Paradoxically, and despite their relative newness, many of the new ‘digital’ terms may soon begin to lose their relevance even as digital technology increasingly impacts upon humanities research. This is because whereas once the use of digital technology was novel and intriguing, now the practices and methodologies spawned by the digital revolution feature at some stage in most research and in the future will no doubt become essential and ultimately even invisible ingredients. This discussion, then, is concerned with a passing moment in the history of humanities research, but one which marks a very significant shift from one technological era to another.


Arthur, Paul Longley. “Virtual Strangers: e-Research and the Humanities,” Australian Cultural History 27, no. 1 (2009): 47–59. doi: 10.1080/07288430902877882.

[i] C. P. Snow, ‘The Two Cultures’, The Rede Lecture, Senate House, Cambridge, 1959.

[ii] One such alliance can be found at SymbioticA—The Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory (in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia). Dating from 2001, a series of their Frankenstein-like experiments has involved tissue engineered ‘pig wings’—sculptures made of living pig tissue, grown over artificial shells, in the shapes of wings. In another experiment, a photograph relayed from Perth to the USA stimulated the brain neurons of a dead rat to produce signals that drove robotic arms to draw abstractions. The art produced was strangely haunting and beautiful. See http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au.

[iii] The effort to introduce controls and guidelines for digital publishing and preservation has, until very recently, tended to create widespread confusion even in the scholarly arena. Programs such as the Open Archives Initiative, which grew out of the open access and institutional repository movements, are working to ensure better consistency, interoperability and access. See http://www.openarchives.org.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity