The Digital Age (English remix)

Last year, Wolfgang Schmale wondered in a blog post (in German) whether the expression the digital age has established itself as designation of a new historical period, noting that it is “doing quite well in the competition with other labels such as ‘postmodernity’ or ‘postmodern era’.” The following is a free English translation of my German-language comment on this post.

I think Wolfgang Schmale’s observation has a lot going for it: the “digital age” may indeed be a new period label, which, as he points out in paragraph 8, allows interesting conclusions about the “social construction of reality” if they are widely used. One point supporting this view is the observation that the term digital has, in general language, undergone a shift of meaning, like modern before—and now more or less means the same thing as modern: buzzwords like “digital economy,” “digital society,” etc. do not really mean much more than “modern economy,” “modern society,” etc. The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., defines modern as “of or relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past” and as “characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, ideas, or equipment,” and that is pretty much what digital means in the examples mentioned, and in digital age.

This may also explain the unspecific meaning of digital in the term digital humanities, of which Moretti has said in an interview [Hackler2016]:

“Digital humanities” is simply a formula that has come to identify a large field. I use it only because everybody uses it and everybody will use it. But, frankly, I don’t like it. I think it means nothing, whereas “quantitative” and “computational” mean something.

If digital simply means modern, seemingly absurd definitions of digital humanities suddenly become comprehensible; for example:

The world of digital humanities has been wrestling with its past to acknowledge its role in being built on and reinforcing structures of bias and inequality. The field (I’ll say field as a shorthand, but that’s its own conversation) absolutely must do this work within itself if we ever want to fulfill what I consider the real opportunity and purpose of DH, which is to use the digital to work against structures of oppression writ large, especially in cultural heritage contexts.
Kristen Mapes: Beyond the Femfog: Feminist Medieval Digital Humanities

Even when interpreting digital in the most unspecific way offered by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “involving or relating to the use of computer technology,” it remains a mystery to me, how the use of computers has anything to do with the “fight against structures of oppression”—unless you want to argue that we’re witnessing the rebirth of the 1960s counterculter’s idea of the computer as a “tool of liberation” [Markoff2006], which I find rather unlikely. However, when we understand digital as a synonym of modern, we obtain an interpretation that is at least internally consistent. The same applies to those voices who warn of the digital humanities as a “neoliberal takeover”; for exmple, Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia explicitly deny that the digital humanities use “digital or quantitative methodologies,” which seems contradictory, but again may make sense if we take digital to mean modern:

What Digital Humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities. It is, instead, about the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge. This is why Digital Humanities is pushed far more strongly by university administrators than it is by scholars and students, who increasingly find themselves pressured to redirect their work toward Digital Humanities.

In both excerpts we could thus replace digital with modern and merely lose the connotation with the digital age—which precisely underlines its periodizing function. The usage of digital that we can observe in these and many other texts in the “digital humanities” clearly has no relation whatsoever to the technical meaning of the term digital—or about as much as machine esthetics has to machines or the Streamline Moderne has to aerodynamics.

I presume that we will soon see dictionaries adding the definition “belonging to the digital age” (or rather: the “Digital Age”) to the entry digital.


Cite this blog post
Michael Piotrowski (2018, March 27). The Digital Age (English remix). NLP for Historical Texts. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from

Author: Michael Piotrowski

Computational linguist, computer scientist, professor of digital humanities at the University of Lausanne.

2 thoughts on “The Digital Age (English remix)”

  1. When talking about the purpose of “digital humanities”, I have the suspicion that there are two strands of thinking, which are contrasted in your writing as conflictual within 1 community, though it might actually refer to 2 communities using the same terminology. Put rather crudely, when scholars talk about “digital humanities” and they refer to infrastructures (you are already aware of my fascination about that relation :)), I have the feeling that (continental) Europeans mean technical infrastructures such as tools, datamodels, computing power, while North Americans mean social infrastructures such as research assistants, librarians, alt-ac, but also the attention towards power relations as in your quote. The English are a bit inbetween both worlds so you’ll find both strands of thinking among English scholars.
    Digital humanities in the North American, or anglophone sense, is then rather taken as a countermovement within traditional academia; since DH is already separated by method, might as well upend other traditions in academia.
    I’ve not yet been able to really put my finger on this separation of meanings and global areas, hence why I haven’t written much about it yet, but I thought it could be of interest to the above blogpost.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! Yes, one could certainly debate whether “digital humanities” refers to one community arguing about the meaning of the term, or two (or rather n communities competing for ownership of the term… Either way, I would argue that the root of the problem is that digital is no longer necessarily associated with the technical meaning of the word, which clearly does not refer to “social infrastructure.”

      I agree that the view of DH as “countermovement” (in a positive or negative sense) is definitely more widespread in the US.

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