Digital Humanities: an Enduring Legacy

Carol Pan

Depending on how aware one is regarding the early perils of debugging, it's not difficult to understand exactly how valuable even a single hour on a computer was for researchers at the time of the MIT Computation Center Archives. At a time when computers were the answer to integrals humanly impossible to compute, even an hour was worth over a thousand dollars in 1956 (that's around $12,000 today!). The great expense of using a computer was further compounded by scarcity of time. Thus, the continued investment of computers in social and human studies, from the 1930s until today, spoke volumes about the values of people of the time.

Because of limited computational resources, projects needed to be thoughtfully done and formally conceived before scholars even had access to the machines. Beyond that, however, mathematical inquiries and social investigations were weighted the same, as leaders in the field of computation understood the inherent worth behind both. In 1957 in particular, Director Philip M. Morse kept up an extended correspondence with the Social Science Research Council expressing his interest in the usage of the "high speed digital computor[sic] for social science research" (Pendleton, source). Morse himself had noted that the "social sciences are an extremely promising field for machine utilization." (source)

Today, the idea of Digital Humanities is sometimes thought of as something new. But in actuality, what we see is not a deviation from the "typical" uses of computers in the hard sciences, but a return to the traditional uses of computers, all the way back in the 1950s. The investment of technology in humanism had seemed just as significant then as it does now, at an age when the promise of artificial intelligence is at the forefront of human technological advancement.