Digital humanities and Technology

          I have been assigned to interview a digital humanist for my digital humanities class at Boise State University. I started by searching twitter pages and sending out a few emails to find a professional. After this dedicated research, William Turkel agreed to answer a few questions for me on the subject. Turkel is a computational historian, a big historian, does physical computing, desktop fabrication, and of course is a digital historian. In addition, he teaches at Western University in Canada. From reading up about Turkel he seemed more then qualified as a digital humanist.

Still, if you’re like me your not sure what many of his qualifications mean. For starters computational history is using abstract machines to decipher information; for example, deciphering various forms of languages in different dialects. Then there is a big historian, one who looks at history on a large scale starting with the beginning of time up to the current day. Next, Physical computing is machines that take analog information and digitizes it for computers. Physical computing is great for digitizing written information. Along with this Turkel does desktop fabrication, which falls into the field of 3D printing. Desktop fabrication is the designing of3D printing modules. Most of these fields can translate into one another allowing for overlap in ones profession.

As we can already tell William Turkel is a professional when it comes to computers. Currently, he is working on a self-replicating device, aka 3D printer using technology from the industrial revolution. Additionally, he is studying the 20th century analog computers. He and his colleges are reverse engineering the vacuum tube base computers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s using transistors from a new decade. When Turkel isn’t building devices he’s teaching Max 6 programming to undergrad students at Western’s new digital humanities program and to grad students in his interactive exhibit design courses.

Now that you know a little bit about Turkel we can move onto my interview. I started by asking Turkel what began his interest in digital humanities, a pretty basic question. He responded, “I have been programming since I was a child. When the sources that humanists use started to be digitized in large numbers like texts, images, moving pictures, audio, and so on, then it became obvious that humanists could use programming to develop new research methods. The Web 2.0 shift, from a web of pages to a web of people, created many more opportunities.” Following this Turkel defined a digital humanist as “If someone has an interest in the traditional questions of the humanities basically, what does it mean to be human, and if they use computational methods or tools to approach those questions, then they are a digital humanist.” His definition was straight forward, which I personally liked. My version of his definition is, if someone uses technology to understand or better human kind they can be classified as a digital humanist.

Earlier I described some of William’s current projects, but when I asked about current humanist projects he explained his work is focused on “creating tools to work with non-textual digital sources, primarily images and audio.” Following this I asked what skills should a new digital humanist have? He explained how it is less about having the skills and more about the willingness to learn and continue learning new technical skills. He said “ You should get use to typing computer error messages into Google”

As our discussion continued I inquired about writing code as well as his feelings towards EBooks vs. traditional paperback. Foremost, Turkel writes code everyday. He feels all students should be learning this skill, but he understands that’s not a reality. He feels writing code and programming is “creative, powerful, and a lot of fun.” Still, your average student is not literate on writing code. Personally, I feel Universities should put a stronger enfaces on writing code. The way our current society is going, writing code will be a helpful skill. On the subject of EBooks vs. paperback he feels the two work well but call for different circumstances. He uses EBooks all the time but enjoys sitting in a chair and reading a regular book. From there, I asked about libraries and if he feels they are adapting to a more technological world. He said, “I think that libraries are doing a pretty good job of adapting to the contemporary world, especially given the budget limitations they usually face. Some of their patrons, not so much.”

In my final interview question I asked how he saw the future of digital humanities? He said that’s up to me! Personally, I am not sure how I fit into the world of digital humanities. With the current class I am taking, digital humanities 381, I know I will impact the community somewhat with our current project. We currently have been tasked to create a historical website in an effort to help preserve the Central Rim community here in Boise. The Central Rim is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Boise with a long history. Well-known figures like the Albertson family have lived in the Central Rim. I am excited to see what my class and I can accomplish. Personally, I think I will impact the humanities by connecting people to one another in differing fields. Additionally, I hope by posting my personal experiences through future blogs I will associate my feeling with other’s who are struggling in similar ways.

Finally, after the interview finished I followed up one last time. I was curious how his current job relates back to what he wanted to do in life. From talking to him, I gathered he truly enjoyed what he did. I asked if his current job was a childhood dream. On top of this I mentioned that not many people get paid to take apart old computers and rebuild them. He said, “I do really enjoy my work. When I was a kid I liked codes, spy gadgets and of course the Star Trek tricorder. I started learning about programming and electronics based on those interests. So I guess that was partly responsible for me getting into the digital humanities.” Finally, I would like to thank William Turkel for taking the time to talk with me. I enjoyed grasping a deeper understanding of what the digital humanities mean.
By, Alexander Martinez