Why Digital Arts and Humanities?

University of Lethbridge-led team scans the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon Ruthwell cross in 3-D

A local high school asks you to speak to a graduating class about careers in the new digital economy. What subjects would you urge them to study?

Computer Science? Engineering? Philosophy? Celtic Studies? Art?

How about all of the above?

The digital economy is not just about transistors and protocols and packets. It is also about new forms of content, new types of organisations and communities, new ways of working and communicating with each other.

About the way technology is used, as well as the way it is built.

University of Alberta Humanities Computing graduate student Shannon Lucky discusses her research at the 2011 annual HUCO colloquium

And this is what makes it so exciting. The new digital economy is revolutionary precisely because it involves the intersection of technology with the types of problems humanists, social scientists, and artists have always studied: organisation and communication, finding the balance between the group and the individual, discovering and certifying knowledge and expertise, and producing, disseminating, and sharing cultural work.

Time Magazine's 1983 "Machine of the Year": The PC.

In other words, the basic building blocks of the Internet have been in place for more than 20 years. The new thing is how this technology is being used. Time Magazine named “The PC” as its “Machine of the Year” way back in 1983. In 2006, its person of the year was “You,” the person who contributes to Facebook and YouTube, who mashes games, shares apps, and helped turn the Wikipedia into history’s largest reference work in less than a decade.

Time Magazine's 2006 "Person of the Year": You.

A surprising number of these developments have their origins in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts. Just ask Larry Sanger, the cofounder of the Wikipedia, who earned his PhD in Philosophy. Or Michael Everson, who did doctoral research in Celtic Studies before becoming a lead developer of Unicode, the technology that allows us to communicate on the web in most of the world’s alphabets. Or David Megginson and C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, who earned their PhDs in Anglo-Saxon and Comparative Literature respectively before going on to design important aspects of XML and related technologies, the backbone of Web 2.0 applications. The “killer apps” of the new digital economy are ways we communicate, play, share, and express ourselves online and on the move: the things that put the human back into technology.

Sample reading tools developed at the University of Alberta and other Canadian universities

This is not only game changing, it is also very good business – and a business in which Canadians in general and Albertans in particular are well positioned to succeed. In 2010, for example, Canada became the third-ranked computer games producer after the United States and Japan. One of the major game companies based in Canada, Bioware, got started in Edmonton. Annual revenues in Canada are now are climbing past $2 billion, exceeding those of the United Kingdom. Canada is now a major player in the global interactive media. Canadian successes in other aspects of Information and Communication Technology are well known and widely celebrated.

Researchers from Alberta Universities play leading roles in most of the discipline’s major national and international organisations including the Society for Digital Humanities, Text Encoding Initiative, Association of Digital Humanities Organisations, Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Association for Computing in the Humanities, and Digital Medievalist. In the past year, the Universities have begun to take advantage of the Western Deans’ Agreement to share graduate instruction in the Digital Humanities.

What we need now is to build on this research strength to develop a coherent provincial research and educational strategy: the Alberta Digital Arts and Humanities (ABDAH) Initiative. This initiative will develop a coordinated approach to ensuring that Alberta is prepared for success in this changing, multi-sector field. We need to prepare a generation of Albertans that can use technology to preserve Albertan culture, bring the best of Albertan energy and innovation to the world, and to ensure that the best of the rest of the world works with us. We need to thrive in an international business and cultural world, and leverage the value inherent in our diverse, multicultural communities.

The ePortfolio is a dynamic online tool that can help students reflect on their learning and share evidence of their intellectual and professional growth

We also need to ensure that the province is ready for the new millenial generation. Today’s students in Alberta’s universities are digital natives. They are used to participating in the creation of knowledge, not simply its absorption. The are used to communicating and sharing resources over vast distances and across cultures. To teach this generation, we need to develop an educational environment that is as comfortable with distribution and collaboration as our students are. We need to imagine a network that is engaged with the wider community from the very beginning and is able to help Albertans keep up with and develop world leading capabilities in the skills required by the new digital economy. And we need to build something that transcends narrow departmental, disciplinary, and institutional boundaries: working with our students the way they, and their future employers, work with each other–as informed digital citizens who are comfortable with collaboration and shared knowledge and expertise.

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