Serendipity in the Digital Age

I have admitted previously to being somewhat of a skeptic (or, at the very least, a doubter) on the topic of “The Digital”, since I am often finding myself rather alarmed by the rapid progression of technology within what would seem just the past 20 years or so, and regarding which I usually wonder if the benefits of convenience necessarily outweigh the potential negative effects that we perhaps do not even fully understand yet.  I am thus probably a bit of a—gasp—traditionalist, in this respect.  So on some level, the process Stephen Ramsay describes in “In Praise of Pattern” showcases just what I had feared: that much of the purpose of such Digital Humanities projects just might be for the sake of mere curiosity.  What, I was poised to ask, might be the cost of such curiosity for its own sake? (I will still ask this, but maybe with less apparent certainty/disdain, as if I already know the answer, because I honestly don’t.) (I do know, too, that I am oversimplyfying the issue and there are certainly reasons besides curiosity alone, and that curiosity may, in fact, be a blessed thing at times.) After all, Ramsay notes himself that stage directions for Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously sparse, and we also have reason to believe that sets often did not change from scene to scene, instead leaving any mention of a change of scene to the imaginations of the play’s viewers.  He thus explores the fact that in order to explore the topic he was interested in a certain level of guesswork was necessary: And so, faced with this computationally intractable buffet of confusion, I did what any good humanist scholar would do: I guessed” (182).  But for what ultimate purpose is it truly to work at “guessing” in such wise? 

These were my thoughts upon initially encountering Ramsay’s article.  What I didn’t expect, however, was to be struck by the genuine earnestness of his argument.  I found it particularly refreshing what he writes about neutrality, for instance: not that we should strive eternally for neutrality in our work—which I sometimes feel is desired but inevitably impossible—but instead that we should acknowledge openly the inherently subjective nature of something created by another individual person (in this case, software) that even so does not discount the value of one’s work: “This does not imply that the software should be neutral, as many tools and web sites in digital humanities try to be. It cannot be neutral in this regard, since there is no level at which assumption disappears. It must, rather, assert its utter lack of neutrality with candor, so that the demonstrably non-neutral act of interpretation can occur” (182).  Additionally, I was very charmed by the sense of discovery Ramsay describes and claims to experience while occupied in The Search (he even calls these moments of unearthing something new “epiphanies”—as strong a description as I ever heard!), and the very human—even endearing—manner in which he describes first feeling rather sheepish about discussing his curiosity with those outside the field of English, before ultimately finding greater worth in his own internal yearning for discovery.  The candor with which Ramsay discusses the particular scholar’s joy in the serendipitous encounter was, I found, very compelling in this piece, and, from my perspective, quite a nice argument for the worth of such research methods.