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The Topographic Revolution in the Digital Humanities

There has been much talk lately in the New York Times and elsewhere about how the Digital Humanities are "the next big thing" in the Humanities. That discussion for the most part has centered on the activities of humanists in literary studies, history and linguistics who have used computation to support their work with two expressive objects: the letter and the number. The letter and the number of course has been used to create massive corpora and other data sets, and scholars have used computation to discover significant patterns within those data sets, to support activities ranging from authorship attribution to descriptions of demographic change over time. It is important to recognize, however, that computation is providing new expressive objects that in their sum are creating what I believe is a topographic revolution in human communication practice. The computer is making it easier to access forms of representation that are:

•Topographic – meaning they have two-, three- and four –dimensions

•Dynamic – meaning that they move

•And Autonomous – meaning that they perform behaviors independently of any direct manipulation by their author or programmer

These forms, I suggest, will have two important implications for digital humanists. To start, they will influence how scholars teach, analyze and express their content, and in this lecture we will consider how. The second implication is that it will open a new domain of research. Traditionally, digital humanists have concerned themselves with the task of pattern detection. The emergence of computationally-generated forms suggests they will need to pursue another: practical support. The digital humanities will need to make the design and assessment of expressive forms, computing applications and workflows a central part of its research mandate in the years and decades ahead.


John Bonnett is an intellectual historian and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities. His research interests include the writings of the communication theorist Harold Innis, and the emerging domains of history and computing and humanities and computing.

Bonnett has published contributions in journals ranging from War in History toHistory and Computing and Literary and Linguistic Computing. He was the principle developer of the 3D Virtual Buildings Project, an initiative that had two purposes. The first was to teach students to generate models of historic settlements using 3D modelling software. The second more fundamental purpose was to develop the critical thinking skills of students by helping them to realize a fundamental point, that historical models need to be distinguished from the objects to which they refer.

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