The Importance of Postcolonial Digital Humanities

Note: This post was written by a student in the course and reposted here. Source: The Importance of Postcolonial Digital Humanities

I was first truly introduced to the divide between STEM and the humanities as an undergraduate student in computer science, where liberal arts degrees were made fun of as being relatively useless. As I have learned more about humanities and digital humanities (DH), however, I have encountered an opposing view best described by the idea that technology is taking the “human” out of the humanities.


In New Digital Worlds, Roopika Risam (2018) describes this “dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences” as a product of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” narrative (p. 115). This narrative paints STEM and the humanities as two completely separate areas set in opposition to each other. Arguments like “science is our future, literary culture is our past” (p. 118) inevitably set those studying literary culture or other humanities subjects into a defensive position against those studying science. Considering these deeply troubling attitudes and divides, it should come as no surprise that digital humanities (DH) is often critiqued with the refrain that it is destroying the humanities. After all, if technology and the humanities are in opposition, and DH involves technology, how can DH possibly do the humanities justice?

XKCD comic 1840: The modern bookworm is too busy reading about the world to look at it. 1880: No one talks anymore - we take our daily newspapers in silence. 1910: The magazine is destroying conversation. We even read as we walk! 1960: Television has put an end to family discussion. 1980: Thanks to the Sony Walkman, anti-social isolation is now the norm. 2015: We've become too absorbed in our phones to notice the-
New technology always faces criticism. Isolation by xkcd. Title text: 2060: The gregarious superintelligent AI, happily talking its way out of a box, is fast becoming a relic of the past. Today’s quantum hyper-beings are too busy with their internal multiverse sims to even notice that they’re in boxes at all!

Many criticisms have at least some element of truth behind them, and criticisms about the digital aspect of DH are no exception. For example, in “Can Information Be Unfettered?” Amy Earhart (2012) indicates that grant funding seems to prioritize technological innovation over cultural innovation (p. 314). Thus, a project using some fancy new computational analysis method on the already heavily analyzed works of, say, Shakespeare, would be seen as more worthy of funding than a project focused on the ordinary digitization of extraordinary works largely excluded from current scholarship. Another potential problematic aspect of DH is the way that data can be used to dehumanize its subjects, something the CCP brings up in emphasizing that, while “the subjects of databases are often reduced to abstract data points,” those subjects are people and should be discussed as such.

Both the concerns about an overemphasis on technology and the dehumanization of people are indeed legitimate concerns regarding DH, but the idea that the digital is destroying the humanities is more than just simplistic: It ignores the problems already inherent in the (non-digital) humanities. Long before DH or “computational humanities” were conceived of, the “human” was still being removed from the humanities. When Risam (2018) discusses how the “hallmarks of colonialism in the cultural record… are being ported over into the digital cultural record,” she is not suggesting that the digital is causing some new problem, but that existing problems in the humanities have created a colonial cultural record (p. 5). When Kim Gallon (2016) discusses how Black DH can recover “alternate constructions of humanity” (p. 44), she is referring to the existing problem that the humanities have been “racialized through the privileging of Western cultural traditions” (p. 47).

What this means is that DH is not the reason for problems in the humanities. It is not destroying the humanities, nor, (despite some grandiose claims) is it saving them. DH cannot fix problems embedded in scholarship for centuries, but perhaps postcolonial DH can begin to address these problems. Postcolonial DH involves considering not just what narratives have traditionally been included or excluded, but also how they way we conduct research and scholarship can continue to enforce dangerous divides, exclusion, and dehumanization. When critics talk about putting the “human” back in the humanities, postcolonial DH reveals a way forward.

The CCP is one of the best examples I have seen of how to emphasize people’s humanity and recenter their personal narratives. This is partly addressed directly in statements like: “We seek to name Black people and communities as an affirmation of the Black humanity inherent in Black data” from the CCP Principles page. More importantly, such statements come to life in considering the various project exhibits. These exhibits are filled with names and stories, describing the lives of the people connected to the conventions, not as those lives relate to the conventions, but as those lives relate to the people who lived them. The people, then, and not the conventions, are made the center of the exhibits. This is how postcolonial digital humanities can elevate personhood and humanity. The conflict between sciences and humanities is only a distraction and hindrance to this essential work.



Earhart, A. E. (2012). Can information be unfettered? Race and the new digital humanities canon. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in the digital humanities (pp. 309-332). University of Minnesota Press.

Gallon, Kim. (2016). Making a case for the black digital humanities. In M. K. Gold & L. F. Klein (Eds.), Debates in the digital humanities 2016 (pp. 42-49). University of Minnesota Press.

Risam, R. (2018). New digital worlds: Postcolonial digital humanities in theory, praxis, and pedagogy. Northwestern University Press.