Digital Origin Stories

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What follows are the remarks that I delivered at the 2012 ASA annual meeting, as part of a roundtable I helped to convene, “What can the Digital Humanities Bring to American Studies, and Vice Versa?” The roundtable also featured remarks by Natalia Cecire, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Susan GarfinkelAlex Gil, Matt Gold, and Miriam Posner. Abridged versions of their remarks can be found on the ASA’s Digital Humanities Caucus page.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, All-Star Superman #1 (DC Comics, 2006).

It’s true of superheroes. It’s also true of scholarly fields. Each one has its origin story. So in my short time today, I want to present two such tales: one about the origin of the digital, and one about the origin of the digital humanities. And then I’ll suggest a few ways in which we might, through the lens of American Studies, refract both of these stories into something more complex—and consequently, more meaningful—for understanding today’s digital world.

An American Studies (ca. 2000) origin story.

The first origin story begins in June, 1945, at the height of the war in the Pacific. Allied forces in Germany had only just assumed control of the recently defeated nation, and in the United States, citizens continued to mourn the loss of FDR, their wartime commander in chief. In this midst of this global tumult, six women were summoned to the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were assigned to the top-secret “Project X.” As the women would soon discover, Project X was the code name for the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer project—also called ENIAC—an enterprise that would culminate in the world’s first electronic, digital, and programmable computer. Upon its completion, in 1946, the ENIAC machine was immediately deployed to calculate the firing tables required for targeting the Army’s long-range ballistic weapons. However, the “ENIAC girls,” as the women who operated the machine were known, would be acknowledged for their pioneering role in the history of computing—for as it turns out, they were the world’s first computer programmers—only fifty years after the fact.

“Two Women Operating ENIAC”

The surprise in this story is not only how strongly it resonates with many of the issues engaged by American studies today—such as the gendering and valuation of labor (or lack thereof) and the rise of the U.S. military-industrial complex—but also that it has only recently begun to be mined for its significance as the starting point of today’s digital culture. Moreover, it suggests how the fields of American studies and the digital humanities, so often viewed as disciplinarily, methodologically, and ontologically distinct, are in fact deeply intertwined. For decades, the creation of digital tools and the application of digital methods was the purview of “humanities computing,” a close-knit field of dedicated practitioners. Renamed the digital humanities in the early 2000s, the field has since been extended to encompass what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in her contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities (edited by Matt Gold) as the array of “changes that digital technologies are producing across the many fields of humanistic inquiry.” But if the digital humanities is to become an umbrella term for a generalized epistemology of the digital, it is of the utmost importance that we understand the origins and implications of the digital itself.

Father Roberto Busa

Which leads me to origin story number two. DH. The origins of the digital humanities are most often traced to 1949, three years after ENIAC, when an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, approached IBM with an idea to employ a computer to compile an index verborum of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas—nearly eleven million words of medieval Latin. This story, replete with anecdotes about punch-cards trucked through narrow, sixteenth-century streets, and a meeting between Busa and the CEO of IBM himself, establishes intellectual ambition, technological resourcefulness, and a not insignificant amount of whimsy as the foundational values in the field.

Taken together, these stories reveal a more complex prehistory, one that is shot through with contradiction. And what I want to suggest today is that the history of the digital humanities, in both its original and its expanded meanings, is also, necessarily, a history of gender, labor, and empire. By the same token, the ideological and conceptual systems that underpin each of these terms are, in ways that have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged, informed by our ideas about and experience with the digital.

Looking at the landscape of American Studies today, there remains an uncharted space for scholarship that can engage the history illuminated by the women of ENIAC, Father Busa, and digital culture more generally conceived. This includes more targeted media history, of course, but also digital mapping projects, oral histories, archeological approaches to those old machines, visual essays, intermedia art—even hastily cobbled together comic book ripoffs. I say this jokingly, but I don’t want to diminish the stakes: if American Studies is to incorporate an understanding of the transformation of cultural life in the twenty-first century, we must fully engage in the study of the implications of the digital, its structure and its scope. We must display an increased willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries and to bring together diverse forms of scholarly work. We must embrace technical rigor with the same ease that we embrace ambiguity. We must continue to insist on the relation between scholarship and public life. In this way, we can begin to model an American Studies that does not merely deploy the digital, but rather, employs the digital in order to facilitate new modes of inquiry, new forms of scholarship, and new pathways for exchange.