DH as disruptive innovation // outgrowing old definitions

One “defining DH” theme I heard in yesterday’s discussion was the challenge of finding balance in a definition of Digital Humanities — one that both leaves the door open to the new voices/perspectives/innovations that are essential to DH’s identity as a disruptive field and is exacting enough to actually define a meaningful scope and field of work. To some extent, this challenge reflects the growing pains of a brand new field that has outgrown the parameters of its original definitions; DH has reached a sort of adolescence that allows for the helpful narrowing scope of projects like the Digital Black Atlantic, whose mission and raison d’être do not reflect the same for DH as a whole. DH may have started with some illusion of a common thread based simply on a digital component, but by now the field seems too large for “the field” to be a universally meaningful grouping of scholars, projects, and aspirations.

But “growing pains” do not describe the full extent of the difficulty in defining DH. DH is not just a brand new field, but, to borrow a phrase from my [scant] economics knowledge, a disruptive innovation. From Wikipedia, “an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances.” Much of yesterday’s discussion focused on the phenomenon and process of DH carving out a space for itself: justifying its own existence, determining to whom and for whom it produces knowledge and content, and grappling with the ethics of being an intensely public and publicly-relevant source. It is disruption, more than newness, that makes DH difficult to pin down. 

In (again) attempting a definition of DH, and now reflecting on yesterday’s conversation, I’m finding the idea of an “existing market and value network” helpful. It speaks to not only the physical aspects and processes of traditional scholarship (physical archive and research spaces/resources, anonymous and lengthy peer review, dominance of the Global North) but the way that scholarly values are continually reproduced and reified through the interactions of scholars (anonymous peer review structures, a “stately pace” for knowledge production, emphasis on seniority even in the face of digital worlds being created by teenagers). DH directly challenges the “existing market” structures through several of the sources we read and viewed last week: digital archive access (ECDA), changes in peer review processes (DDH intro 2012, Digital Black Atlantic intro), the ability to initiate a new canon (Digital Black Atlantic intro), and projects, sometimes techno-minimalist, that can be started and worked on outside of the historic sites of academic production (Create Caribbean). It also challenges the “value network” by promoting collaboration over ownership (DDH review, to some extent, and others I think I’m missing), applicability over theory (Separados), public relevance/activism over neutrality/objectivity (Separados), and speed/connection over slower academic processes (scholarly debates on Twitter, whether traditional academics approve or not). 

So I probably couldn’t get that all out in an elevator pitch next time someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, but if we’re going more than 3 floors together, I’ll probably bring up the word disruptive.