Gods in Black Boxes: The Early Years of Computer Science’s Impact on the Humanities

digitalhumanitiesMike Cunningham, a colleague from the English Department who does wonderful work organizing Lewis’ Arts and Ideas program, sent me a link to a very interesting article entitled “The Rise of the Machines – NEH and the Digital Humanities: The Early Years”. In it, the author describes how computers were used to build indices for literary works that scholars used to organize their studies. A few years later, computers were used to attribute authorship of works based on style and word choice, and even to identify how strongly an author might have been influenced by another author. Predictably, the community’s response to the application of computers was varied, with proponents enthusiastically embracing what computers could do to aid their scholarship, and others warning against becoming so reliant on the new tools that their work would become nothing more than crunching numbers. Ultimately, though, faced with a huge disparity in funding between the sciences and the humanities during the Space Race era, proposals for scholarship that mingled Computer Science with the Humanities gave the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) its start.

It is interesting to learn how Computer Science shapes other disciplines, which, in turn, influence its development. As scholars from diverse fields use computers to perform their work, the limitations of existing tools and algorithms become apparent. Computer Scientists then respond by developing new tools and new algorithms to help scholars do their work better. In fact, so-called digital humanists, those who embrace this marriage of high-tech and high thought, were among the first to dream of a searchable, on-demand, global encyclopedia, a full four decades before the advent of Wikipedia.

Quite unlike our usual vision of deities – constant and frozen in perpetual perfection – these “gods in black boxes” adapt to the changing needs of the scholars who count on their intercession. That dynamic interplay enhances scholarship all around.


Ray Klump

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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