What do we talk about when we talk about Digital Humanities: Let’s start from the beginning.

The concept of Digital Humanities imposed itself between the late 90s and the beginning of the new millennium, after almost half a century of dialogue between computer science and humanistics, on the traces of a long experimental history where Italy was by no means absent. The very first “contamination” projects connecting computer science and humanity studies date back to the end of the Second World War, when the Jesuit father Roberto Busa was fascinated by the idea of experimenting with the use of computers for analysis of the works of Thomas Aquinas. Busa understood that those machines that filled whole rooms, the typical mainframe computers of those times, could facilitate and make more rigorous the infrastructural work that the researchers had conducted as artisans: the creation of concordances, indexes, bibliographies, registers, and so on. From this experience on, we have gone through a series of milestones and phases of evolution of this dialogue between computer science and humanities studies. The de fi- nition of this experimental space has changed over time: Humanities Computing, Computational Humanities, Humanities Informatics … and many other labels. What has changed recently with the advent of the phrase “digital humanities” is, on one hand, the growing importance of the network and its diffusion as a public communication space, that has radically changed the patterns that were prevalent until then, and on the other hand the passage that the computers themselves faced: from “mono-media” objects tied to desks, fixed in space and in time, they became multimedial portable objects, everyday objects, fundamental mediators of every aspect of people’s lives. Today, the vast majority of us carry small computers in our pockets, namely our phones. These changes have opened a much wider space for this dialogue, also from the point of view of the kind of cultural objects that may be part of this orbit: we have moved from experiments that were limited to text analysis, and inventory, to the analysis of sound, images, videos, and multimedia, that has become a key component of the digital culture. So the space of digital humanities, its laboratory, … let’s say its library, covers all the forms of culture of our time. Nowadays, the data not only document the history of cultures, but are a basic component of the cultural heritage itself.

 

What was your path in this context?

I briefly took part in one of the previous stages of digital humanities: for a couple of years I was co-director of the first digital project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, titled “Dartmouth Dante Project” (DDP) accessible today at https://dante.dartmouth. edu/. During the project we tried to think about what the computers can add to our research work as medievalists, and Dante scholars (that is my background). We understood that the entire Divine Comedy commentary tradition is already a database “avant la lettre”, and was perfectly suited to being analyzed through an electronic tool. The Dartmouth Dante Project still exists today and is a key tool for the medievalists’ community. It was a first important step (but not a point of arrival). The value of this kind of tool is that it makes a rather winding research much more efficient: only a few libraries have all the commentary tradition to hand, and it is tiring to consult dozens and dozens of volumes, to conduct the researches, to compare the exegetical tradition. With DDP though it is done quickly and thoroughly. But, again, it is a first infrastructural step, that not necessarily leads to high level issues that researchers and experts justifiably get excited about. No matter how powerful these new tools were, they were not enough per se. That’s mainly why by the middle of the 1980s I stopped: not because of lack of interest in computer science, but because I felt that they did not carry beyond the most traditional search patterns. A decade later, in the mid-1990s, the situation began to change. I was in Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where there was a new atmosphere: the Internet was emerging as a kind of wide public square, both locally and globally. And it was at that moment that I understood the potential of joining these two worlds in a more generative and creative way, also to address the inadequacy of traditional forms of scientific communication in the university world and to forge new patterns of production of knowledge. One thing I even experienced personally in Stanford, a campus known for its openness to interdisciplinary forms of work, is that much was said about innovation in the humanist world but often without putting it into action deeply, so I happened to want try to build an alternative platform type: another way of connecting not only computer science, human sciences and communication, but also to think creatively and experi - mentally on new and / or emerging forms of knowledge on the bound - aries between art and science. It was in this context that I found - ed the Stanford Humanities Lab - oratory, directing it from 1999 to 2009. Our ambition can be sum - marized in the word laboratory, and as the Latin word “laboratori - um”, suggests work (both mental and manual), experimentation, making, and collaborative or team engagements. Our ambition was to complement the solitary and artisan models of producing humanistic knowledge - which is a force but also a limit of the humanistic tradition - and to experiment alternative models where “pure” research blends into applied one, where research prob - lems beyond any disciplinary grid can be faced and where training takes place through practice. In - stead of adopting an aulic training model, the approach aimed at “solv - ing a research problem” (problem solving) with a deliberately promis - cuous definition of the results of these works, always team works, in - volving exhibitions, archives, books, digital platforms, software, installa - tions, performances ... One of our mottoes was “get your hands dirty”; of course, deepen your expertise, become a connois - seur of a disciplinary area, but also push yourself beyond the limits of that training to try other models of doing, thinking, and producing. The laboratory for us was this: a space for experimenting new re - search methods, but always with a strong practical component.

And today?

After that first explosion at the end of the 1990s, today the whole area has been exponentially multi plied. I think that now more than ever we are in front of a landscape where traditional forms of knowl edge and disciplines themselves, are facing both challenging and truly extraordinary opportunities, so that the sentence “digital humanities” for me is no longer sufficient. It would be strange to talk about digital physics, digital chemistry or digital biology. The reality is that digital methodologies and tools have invaded the whole field of culture and scientific research. What was strong in the Digital Humanities formula, which is always strong, is an invitation to experiment: to experiment and shape new forms, new genres new solutions. Also imagine new constellations that bring together different skills to face new challenges. Digital humanities represented the definition of an experimental attitude about what it is, what forms it can take, how research can be done within human sciences today. Harvard’s metaLAB, which I founded in 2011, to some extent comes from the Stanford Humanities Lab: there is always the word laboratory, which is fundamental, and there is also the word meta, which suggests we are outside any disciplinary grid, but there is not the word digital: not because digital is not fundamental, but because it is now the air we breathe. To explain how we stand, and the type of work we do at this time, we use a threefold definition: “knowledge production laboratory”, a laboratory where knowledge is created, “idea foundry”, which is a metaphor to indicate that we are generators of new ideas, new concepts, i.e. we experiment models and forms of production of knowledge, and “production studio”. We produce, in the sense that we are software, experiences and interventions producers, in museum spaces, experimental books ... in any case there are products, deliverables. Everything that can be part of this desire to shape the future of knowledge.

And today?

So your experience is geared towards getting out of the classic approach I stressed the importance of this experimentation approach and what was meant by digital humanities, which remains very important, but there was also another fundamental principle, which remains fundamental: the idea that knowledge must also circulate, it is not about dissemination in the traditional sense, but it means that it is important to experiment with new forms, new ways, new meeting places with research and knowledge, on a higher level, and also to reflect about the channels by means of which we communicate and translate things in different practices; translated also in an etymological sense: meaning transported to unusual places. So partnerships with museums, libraries, archives, public institutions, and even businesses are part of this broad framework.

Again, the concept of collaboration and contamination between different domains returns. How does public-private collaboration work in this context? How, between academic and private worlds, can synergies be created in this field?

We have an explicitly entrepreneurial attitude, compared to university traditions maybe this may seem in contrast. We know that we could never support (not to mention funding ...) all our projects without a network of partnerships, and without an entrepreneurial attitude. Instead of turning in on our areas of expertise, we often find ourselves facing new or adjacent areas. I do not mean the word “entrepreneurial” financially, but I mean the entrepreneur spirit, the adventure of going beyond the boundaries of a specialization, to look for areas where many different competence and different sectors are converging and interacting. Do the United States support multidisciplinary projects, like those supported by the European Community? The financing models are so different that it is difficult to compare the European situation with the American one. In Europe, there is the opportunity to build largescale projects whereas in the United States this hardly succeeds, due to the lack of resources at national and international level. Our tradition has so far been a bit of a boutique style: there are several laboratories in different universities that have shaped and have developed a model that may have been imitated or resumed by others ... There are some emerging realities such as The Digital Public Library of America, which represent largescale efforts to build unitary research platforms, there are some projects in Canada... But European initiatives have the potential to represent a leap forward over what we could only perform craftily or in tighter contexts, and yet it is too soon: the digital revolution has been going on for only half a century, a short time confronted with the development of manuscript culture or the press.between academic and private worlds, can synergies be created in this field? We have an explicitly entrepreneurial attitude, compared to university traditions maybe this may seem in contrast. We know that we could never support (not to mention funding ...) all our projects without a network of partnerships, and without an entrepreneurial attitude. Instead of turning in on our areas of expertise, we often find ourselves facing new or adjacent areas. I do not mean the word “entrepreneurial” financially, but I mean the entrepreneur spirit, the adventure of going beyond the boundaries of a specialization, to look for areas where many different competence and different sectors are converging and interacting.

Do the United States support multidisciplinary projects, like those supported by the European Community?

The financing models are so different that it is difficult to compare the European situation with the American one. In Europe, there is the opportunity to build largescale projects whereas in the United States this hardly succeeds, due to the lack of resources at national and international level. Our tradition has so far been a bit of a boutique style: there are several laboratories in different universities that have shaped and have developed a model that may have been imitated or resumed by others ... There are some emerging realities such as The Digital Public Library of America, which represent largescale efforts to build unitary research platforms, there are some projects in Canada... But European initiatives have the potential to represent a leap forward over what we could only perform craftily or in tighter contexts, and yet it is too soon: the digital revolution has been going on for only half a century, a short time confronted with the development of manuscript culture or the press.