Jason M Kelly, “An Ecology for Digital Scholarship”

This is the text of a talk — “An Ecology for Digital Scholarship” — that was given by Jason M. Kelly at the Digital History Seminar on 6 December 2012. The author has kindly allowed us to post the text here.

We’re in the middle of one once again.  Another historical turn.  The digital turn.  Turns are always exciting.  They always promise to change the profession forever.  The cliometric turn, the social turn, the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the imperial turn.  I’m sure we all have fond memories of our favorite turns in the recent past.

I would suggest, however, that this turn — the digital turn — is different in the sense that it is not simply an intellectual. methodological, or theoretical disruption — although, of course, it is all of these.  And, like the others, it has its reactionaries and utopians, old regimes and revolutionaries.

What makes this turn different though is the fact that this turn has been accompanied by a technological turn as well.  This has led to fundamental changes in the ways we investigate, create, distribute, and share information.  And, as importantly, this technological shift has converged with profound changes in the history of our profession — one that has forced us both to question and to defend our roles in the worlds of academia, society, and the state.  We live in a time of tightening budgets, of the democratization of information, of the commodification of education.  These amplify the effects and significance of the digital turn.

Today, I am going to make a simple argument: most humanists (and historians in particular) have not adequately theorized this digital landscape in relation to changing academic and non-academic contexts. I’m not saying that digital scholarship does not have theoretical frameworks.  Far from it.  Franco Morretti’s Maps, Graphs, Trees and Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines are just two excellent examples of methodological conceptualizations that are both challenging and accessible.

Rather what I want to suggest is that the “digital turn” poses two problems that transcend the boundaries of more traditional turns.  The first is professional.  It challenges us to rethink our profession — from our concepts of proper methodology and techniques to notions of authority and expertise to the structure of our discipline.  The second is social.  How do we relate our work to the larger forces in which our institutions rest — with commercial institutions, community organizations, governments, the local and global publics.

It seems to me that the new academic and technological environment in which we do our work requires a radical rethinking of our profession and our place within it.  The “digital turn” offers us an opportunity — I would suggest that it demands a critical soul searching — to reconstitute our discipline — not because the digital will solve the challenges that we face, but because it exposes the internal contradictions of our work.

Technology works in two ways.  As it develops, it can drive new forms of scholarship that better answer our basic needs as intellectual workers.  As it is adopted, however, it can reinforce assumptions and traditions that limit our intellectual scope.  It stops being a tool for scholarship and begins to limit the field of intellectual inquiry.

In general, I think that we historians have not been very good at applying our scholarly apparatuses to the issue of technology — mainly because we are embedded in modes of practice that limit critical analysis.  We have, in many ways, “naturalized” our technologies as fundamental and consistent parts of what we do and what our discipline is about and have stopped questioning what they can do for us and the purposes that they serve.

What I am sketching out today is a first attempt to grapple with these issues.  I want to point out a few examples of how digital history exposes some fallacies in our assumptions.  I also want to suggest that what we might do is to re-theorize our discipline using the metaphor of ecology.  Ecologies show connections, interactions, feedbacks, and emerging behaviors between seemingly disparate agents and systems.  Understanding where we are positioned in a larger environment will assist us in working out what our discipline might become over the next century.

To get our conversation started, I think that it’s a good idea to consider the state of digital history and its trajectory over the past 20 years or so.


To what extent are we (and by we, I mean the range of historical scholars — from those who are deeply embedded in digital humanities to those who have little engagement with digital scholarship) being swept along, and to what extent are we shaping these changes?

There are a range of responses to digital technologies in academic history: Luddism, technophobia, reactionary sentiment, bemused curiosity, critical engagement,

utopian embrace, and more.


So, what exactly drives these perspectives?   The answers are complex, ranging from professional traditions, to epistemological ideologies, to concerns over status, authority, and expertise, and simply to attitudes towards change.

Traditionalism, in particular, can be quite high among scholars of history who fall into Marshall McLuhan’s category of “literati” who are “least prepared to alter their old value structures.”

Marshall McLuhan quote: “Theirs is the customary human reaction when confronted with innovation: to flounder about attempting to adapt old responses to new situations or to simply condemn or ignore the harbingers of change . . . . The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.”  “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan”, Playboy Magazine, March 1969

Traditionalism can come in a variety of forms, but in the end, it simply seeks to maintain the status quo.

The traditionalism of historians is often couched in a critical framework, but, more often than not, it’s an under-analyzed reaction that takes aim at a digital utopian straw man and privileges an imaginary golden age of academia.  Neither of these positions holds up to much scrutiny.  And, in any case, to use McLuhan’s phrase, “the revolution has already taken place.”  So, it is incumbent upon us — if we wish to have a voice in the development of new digital frameworks — to be articulate about what it should look like.  And, the first thing we have to do as a profession is to shed the intellectually unsophisticated posture of traditionalism.

The first step our profession needs to take in shaping new digital frameworks — borrowing its best tools and shaping better ones — is to become a bit more self-reflective about what it is that we do.

I find that most historians are relatively unprepared to critically apply their methodologies and perspectives to their own profession and its practices.  The irony often strikes me, for example, that scholars in physics are often more in touch with their experience as subjects embedded in a historical process of scholarship than historians themselves.  Ask, physicists about the history of physics, and they will not only be able to give you a short lecture about the history of their discipline, but they will be able to give you an explanation about where they fit into the history of their discipline.  They will recognize their place in the process of scholarly analysis, and they will be quick to suggest that their technologies, methodologies, and concepts will soon be outdated and need to be replaced.  In fact, quite often they are excited about the possibility.

On the other hand, historians — for all their interest in historiography — quickly lose perspective on the history of their field when discussing their own technologies, methods, concepts, and practices.

Think about it for a moment.  Historians have been writing the history of the book for at least 30 years.  The historiography is clear about what a book is; it is a technology for conveying information.  However, this is not how we speak about the book.  Talk to historians, and they don’t look at their manuscripts, books, and journals as technologies.  They talk about them as fetishes.  They discuss the feel, the smell, the sound of their paper archives.  They invoke the access to libraries and the related rituals (even if it’s just dropping their off their coats into miniature lockers and stashing their notebooks into a clear plastic bag at the British library) as a shared experience — they’re initiates in a communal process of information exchange.  In all of this, it is too easy to forget that what they hold in their hand is simply a technology for moving and exchanging information.

And, it is often a very good technology.  Take, a well-made book — the book properly bound that lays perfectly flat — the book whose margins allow sufficient space for interaction and engagement with the text.  It can be held and flipped and dropped and thumbed and marked and ripped — and still the information can remain uncorrupted for hundreds of years.


When compared to digital technologies for conveying information, the book is truly impressive.

In order to adequately come to terms with the “digital turn,” we must first de-fetishize our practices and technologies.  Let’s take the academic journal as another example.  The first scholarly journals were published in association with the establishment of professional academies and societies beginning in the late seventeenth century.  By the nineteenth century, historians had their first journal. Historische Zeitschrift, founded in 1859 for example, was to “represent the true method of historical research and to point out the deviations therefrom.”  In form, those first journals are similar to those that we still publish today.

The purposes of the academic journal are two-fold: 1) to disseminate academic research as efficiently and broadly as possible; 2) to guarantee high academic standards (achieved through the process of peer review).  But, of course, there is no reason why achieving these goals is incumbent upon the format of the journal.  In fact, the format imposes a series of limits on authors:

  • well-respected academic history journals are often quite inefficient, relying on long lag times from submission to publication
  • subscription costs actually limit the dissemination of scholarship to large audiences
  • the technology of print imposes limitations on our format, and most journal articles conform to 20 to 35 page limits.

Even as we move towards producing our work for digital environments, we are translating the technological limitations of print into our digital environment.  In fact, the limits of the early modern technology of print is subtly shaping how we create and use digital technologies.  We are composing for print.  Most articles are little more than digital versions of print articles.  20-35 pages, few images, linear narrative, no interactive features, static final product that ceases development.

We have processes in place that guarantee academic digital publishing mirrors print technology.  The peer review process, for example, guarantees conformity to standards of practice that have become ossified into norms.  They lead to long lag times for publication, and more importantly, the process virtually guarantees that it is impossible to have any kind of dialogue in a timely fashion.

The cost of printing is relatively high and to recoup costs, most journals turn over a significant portion of their operations to a publishing house, which has an interest not only in covering manufacturing expenses but increasing profit.  Consequently, universities and scholars pay multiple times for research: first, to support the project itself, then to cover the salaries of editors and peer reviewers who are rarely compensated by the publisher, and then to purchase the results of their labor from publishers.

While these methods may have been necessary due to the technological limitations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they are notably unsuited to 21st century technologies and academic needs.  These structures, both intellectual and institutional, force us to think and do in specific ways.  In effect, we are working for the technology every bit as much as it is working for us.

Scholars of cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, and archaeology have long insisted on this point.  The tools that we create are embedded in our ways of thinking.  Sometimes this is referred to as the “extended mind.”  From at least the moment that human ancestors first sharpened a stick, they have been cyborgs — in effect, biological entities whose minds are integrated with their technologies in a feedback scenario (co-evolution).  Our brains are integrated into our tools.  We develop with them — both evolutionarily and developmentally.

While human biological processes operate on much longer time scales, cultural systems are also shaped and shaped by our interactions with our technologies.  I would suggest that our academic culture is an excellent example of this process at work. Interestingly, though, we historians have been reluctant to admit it.  Our academic culture — certainly our culture of knowledge exchange — is not necessarily the result of conscious processes, and for as “natural” and reasonable as our approach seems to us, the professional standards that we are applying to our scholarship is simply a co-evolutionary cultural process between our technologies and professional institutions.

There is a larger socio-political issue at play as well.  The information technologies and professional processes that we developed in the modern age were made for an elite which used them to maintain their institutions, prestige, authority, and power.  We who have university positions are the beneficiaries.  And, not surprisingly, we have been professionalized into reproducing our status.

Technologies play a part in all of this, and I would suggest that for all the talk of the democratization of knowledge that open access brings, we should be careful about not critically examining whether we are simply repeating print processes in digital form.

For example, why do we wish to have double blind peer review as the primary mode for acknowledging scholarly work?  Is it because we truly think that this is the best way to develop ideas? Is it because the private input of 2 to 6 anonymous readers is the best way to improve scholarly work?  Or, is it because it serves our personal and institutional interests by assigning us status?  Is it because it preserves and reinforces our cultural capital and protects our professional ambitions?  Are we serving Clio or Mammon, and to what extent is this intentional or a product of our profession’s history?

So far, today, I’ve been busy critiquing the historical mainstream.  But, of course, there are many people — people in this room — who are working to counteract these tendencies.   However, as a discipline, we’ve been slow to have a comprehensive debate about the future of historical scholarship in a digital age.  Even having recommendations by our professional societies is not the same as taking on a large scale, critical assessment of our discipline, our institutions, our technologies, and our place within a wider socio-political framework.

What if we dismissed our assumptions about the nature of our discipline and professional practices and designed a new scholarly ecosystem that better answered our 21st-century needs?

I want to end this talk by giving you an example of what one of these ecological niches might look like and what kinds of knock-on effects it would likely have.

[Note: the talk ended with a discussion of historyworkingpapers.org and BILD.  The conclusion will be available as a video at History Spot: https://historyspot.org.uk/history-type/digital-history.  The Twitter stream is archived at http://thebroadside.org/tw-archives/dhist.php]

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