I don’t mean to peg myself too much as a New York Times reader, but the Times has yet another article that relates to the Civil War, although it is not part of their Disunion series. Rather, it’s an article on the humanities in general and how certain individuals within academia are attempting to use more quantitative methods in the study of history and other liberal arts.
“This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.”
Look at the bibliography of any major work on the Civil War, for instance, and you will likely be impressed by the extent of the resources used (unless you’re looking at Shelby Foote’s 3 volume look at the war between the states, which infamously did not cite sources or even list a bibliography). So excluding old Shelby, an historian may read or skim a vast array of resources. Still, scholars are generally human, and there is only so much material a man can read.
Digital technology allows us to enter vast amounts of historical information into computers – letters, newspapers, books, census data, stock market data, in the case of the civil war, the greenback market, geographic information, audio and video more recently, etc. – which can then be analyzed in many different ways.
Digging for Data is a project sponsored by several research agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awards grants to scholars who will use data and digital technology to look at historical issues. One such recipient is looking at railroad construction and how it influenced strategy.
Anyway, all of this is nice, and who doesn’t love a cool Google map? But we must ask how useful any of this is. We may also ask if analyzing documents and information and quantifying various qualitative artifacts may start to move us in the direction of reducing human experience to biological/chemical/physical laws. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, all of our explanations for human activity may be nonsense. Someday we may know that humans don’t really make decisions or that the Civil War happened for XYZ reasons but rather because of various quantum laws or because e=mc^2.