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On Tuesday June 4, 2013 the History and Archives group will be presenting the paper "Digital Activism and the Digital Humanities" at Congress in Victoria, Canada



At the close of every year TIME magazine awards a person or group of persons the honourific ‘Person of the Year’. In 2011 this title was awarded to The Protestor. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement activists worked to gather support, to connect to each other, and to bring about change. In addition to massive mobilizations The Protestor had an arsenal of digital technologies at their disposal and terms such as Twitter Revolution, Revolution 2.0 and #__________ became ubiquitous.

Shortly before the unrest of 2011 a collective of digital humanities scholars and practitioners in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia came together to found 4Humanities. In response to alarming funding cuts to many universities and education programs these advocates believe it is their responsibility to act in defense of the humanities; “The humanities are in trouble today, and digital methods have an important role to play in effectively showing the public why the humanities need to be part of any vision of a future society.”[1]

This paper will discuss the potential for digital activism in humanities advocacy from within the walls of academia:

• First we will define the term digital activism discuss its history and some tactics.

• Next we will describe the international 4Humanities Initiative, its goals and activities.

• Finally we will outline one activity undertaken at the University of Alberta to assist in this grassroots endeavour - the creation of an Advocacy Guide for digital humanists.

The Advocacy Guide is composed of five sections:

1. What’s at Stake - describes the funding and support issues prevalent in the Humanities.

2. Brief History of the Humanities - describes the historical ‘splitting’ of the Arts of Sciences.

3. Arguments FOR and AGAINST - covers the arguments both in support of the Humanities as well as those with a negative view.

4. Preparing for Advocacy - describes the important factors to consider when developing an advocacy campaign for the Humanities.

5. Tactics - discusses appropriate digital advocacy tactics drawn from the literature on digital activism.

Alan Liu writes that:

"Truly to contribute, I believe, the digital humanities will need to show that it can also take a leadership role. The obvious leadership role at present is service for the cause of the humanities. Now that the humanities are being systematically or catastrophically defunded by nations, states, and universities, the digital humanities can best serve the humanities by helping it communicate in the new arena of networked and social public knowledge, helping it showcase its unique value, and helping it partner across disciplines with the STEM sciences in “grand challenge” projects deemed valuable by the public and its leaders." [2]

The digital humanities have an advantage and even a responsibility to make use of the improved analytical and communicative methods afforded to us today. This paper will show some of the ways we can.


In 2011 TIME magazine awarded the honourific 'Person of the Year' to The Protestor. “No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn't just voice their complaints; they changed the world.” Indeed from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement activists worked to gather support, to connect to each other, and to bring about change. In addition to massive mobilizations The Protestor had an arsenal of digital technologies at their disposal and terms such as Twitter Revolution, Revolution 2.0 and hashtag 'insert slogan here' became ubiquitous.

The role of digital technologies in activist causes is both widely championed and contested but our purpose here isn't to focus on this debate. Rather our point in this paper is to show how we, as digital humanists, can use these technologies in defense of the humanities. In this paper we will:

  • Define digital activism;
  • Outline the current 'Crisis of the Humanities' and the need for our community to act in defense of the humanities; and
  • Introduce the 4Humanities initiative, "a platform and resource for advocacy of the humanities, drawing on the technologies, new-media expertise, and ideas of the international digital humanities community."

Introduction to Digital Activism

Digital activism is one of many possible appellations referring to the the use of digital technology towards the advancement of political and social goals. Others include but are not limited to: cyberactivism, internet activism, networked activism, liberation technologies, or electronic civil disobedience. Following in the steps of Mary Joyce in Digital Activism Decoded: the New Mechanics of Change the term digital activism is chosen because of its exhaustiveness and exclusivity: “Exhaustive in that it encompasses all social and political campaigning practices that use digital network infrastructure; exclusive in that it excludes practices that are not examples of this type of practice.” For example, electronic civil disobedience is not exclusive as it could refer to any use of electronics and such activities have long been in practice. The cassette tape was integral to the 1979 Iranian Revolution by allowing the Ayatollah Khomeini to distribute his taped speeches in opposition to the American backed Shah (Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, "The Digital Disruption", Foreign affairs, November/December 2010). On the other hand the terms cyber- and internet activism are not exhaustive. They omit Short Message Service (SMS) one of the most commonly used features on mobile phones. In 2001 when corrupt Philippine President Joseph Estrada was on trial and it appeared that Congress was going to dismiss evidence against him and allow him to remain in power, thousands of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila armed with cell phones. Coordination by text messaging allowed for rapid mobilization and ultimately helped to force Estrada out of office (Clay Shirkey, "The Political Power of Social Media". Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011). The term digital activism encompasses all actions that make use of the digital network.By using 0s and 1s to store and process information, and to exchange this information using the standardized language ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Exchange), computers around the world are able to communicate with each other. This universality of binary code, 0s and 1s, is the strength of the digital network.

Examples of digital activism include organizing campaigns through email, SMS, or social media, spreading information via list-serves, blogs, micro-blogs and websites, uploading and posting targeted multimedia content to a website or web platform, participating in an on-line e-petition campaign, or even hosting webinars to teach less tech-savvy activists how achieve their goals using digital technology. Hacktivism is another way participants can engage in digital activism. One of the most well known international hacktivist groups is Anonymous whose activities range from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and website defacement to publicizing personal information about accused persons.

In Defense of the Humanities

===The History of the Humanities===

According to Dr. Mike Lippman, University of Arizona, Department of Classics, the Humanities originate in 5th century BC, Greece, where we find the first concentrated development of tragedy or drama, comedy, philosophy, and history, all the major disciplines included in the Humanities today.

The online dictionary defines the Humanities as one part of what is commonly referred to as the Liberal Arts. Also included under the umbrella of Liberal Arts are the natural sciences, arts, and social sciences. The Liberal Arts include those topics that are not professional or technical subjects. The term 'liberal arts' originates from the mid-eighteenth century, translated from the Latin artēs līberālēs, meaning 'works befitting a freeman'.

Referring to the core skills employed in the civic life and public debate of classical antiquity, the later termed 'liberal arts' were skills that were thought to foster virtue, knowledge, and articulation. Such skills included grammar, rhetoric, and logic, known in medieval times as the Trivium, three of the foundations that would form the basis for the Humanities. During the era of the medieval church, the Trivium was expanded to include the natural sciences, incorporating arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. This new synthesis of the disciplines was referred to as the Quadrivium. The term Humanities comes from the Latin humanus, meaning human, cultured and refined, and originates with the Renaissance ‘humanists’ who redefined the traditional subjects of the Trivium as the Studia Humanitatis, removing logic and then adding to their newly defined corpus such disciplines as Greek studies, (to complement the Latin grammar), history, poetry, and ethics. As such, the Humanities were born.

===Two Cultures? - The Historical Splitting of the Arts and Sciences===

The Yale Report of 1828 rallied against a gradual depart in universities from the classical liberal arts education of the core subjects contained in the trivium and quadrivium towards the ever encroaching elective based curriculum. The report was significant in two ways, first, that it was seen by many as a decades long setback in the advancement of education options, and second, that is stands as a historical landmark in the conversation surrounding the dissolution of the classical liberal arts education.

One of the original and often quoted discourses pertaining to the split in education is Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. Newman wrote and lectured extensively in the 1850’s on the nature of the university, focusing on the value of the liberal education. His belief was that knowledge was universal and that truth was anything but relative. Newman claimed that truth was specific and attainable through reason and intellect. He is often cited as the original proponent of a generalist education as opposed to a vocational education.

C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture and subsequent book entitled Two Cultures stands as the quintessential expression of the split between the Humanities and the Sciences, and is often quoted as the first modern critique of the split between the disciplines, positing the divide as a regrettable loss to humanity and knowledge. Snow’s work became a major catalyst towards the ‘Science Wars’ of the 1990’s, an epistemological debate between postmodernist thinking and science that polarized knowledge into objectivist and subjectivist corners, extolling the values of one epistemological view over the other. The debate has resurfaced in recent years as a struggle to unite the so-called 'two cultures', though differing views on the value of such an endeavour surface in both the academy and society in general.

===Digital Humanities and the Cuts===
The Humanist Listserve is likely well known to many in this room today. In operation since 1987 it is described as "an international online seminar devoted to all aspects of the digital humanities." On October 23rd, 2010 Andrew Prescott, Director of Research at the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute at the University of Glasgow posted a message to the discussion group with the subject heading 'Digital Humanities and the Cuts'. He begins his communique:

"Dear Willard,
I am surprised that we have not so far had any discussions on Humanist of the devastating effect that the current financial crisis will have on the study of the arts and humanities internationally."
Prescott goes on to describe the situation in Britain where dramatic cuts to higher education were resulting in the slashing of state funding for the teaching of arts, humanities and social sciences. Without a measurable economic value the humanities were under attack; not only universities but service providers such as the national museums and libraries as well. He suggests a silver lining may be the survival of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as in spite of the cuts, funding for scientific research was to be protected. This council, he states, would likely prioritize the digital humanities which could act as a go-between for arts and humanities faculty and their scientific colleagues. He then calls this hopeful prospect into question:

"But what will be the value of this if the wider study of arts and humanities has been devastated?... Digital humanities cannot thrive if the study of humanities more widely is under attack."

Also citing the recent closure of the Italian, French, Russian, Classics and Theatre Programmes at SUNY Albany in the USA Prescott than posits two possible responses to this international crisis:
(1) demonstrate a financial value of the humanities; or
(2) follow the argument of Stanley Fish writing in the New York Times "drop the deferential pose"
As fish writes:

"Leave off being a petitioner and ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university is, and if you don't. don't you think you should, since you're making its funding decisions? Do you want a university "an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries" or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don't want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you're abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?"

Prescott finishes his piece with a call to arms for digital humanists - researchers holding a diversity of skill sets and perhaps at an advantage to support such an endeavour. And the responses came quickly and passionately. Researchers from the US, UK and Italy wrote about the peril of their own funding experiences. Some wrote to assert the value of humanities study and the resulting skills not "easily quantifiable" (James Rovira, October 29, 2010). Some took the opportunity to vent their frustrations and worries; one respondent wrote: "academia as a whole is pretty thoroughly sold out to the bean counters" another "I fear the worst case scenario will be the most likely one: Most people will go to university to do a vocational degree in the vain hope this is how they get a job, whilst the Humanities and Social Sciences wither on the vine until they become something only rich, privileged people do." Some offered suggestions such as taking on the expertise of marketing departments.

(insert slide of suggested advertisement):

"Modern Science brought us:

Mustard Gas - death toll
Zylon-B - death toll
Atomic Weapons - death toll
Weapons Production - death toll (possibly with an image of an AK-47)

Cut to 3 part screen, teaching of the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible
Teaching people not to kill - Priceless

Support the humanities."

Mostly respondents agreed with the call to arms. On Monday October 25th Alan Liu of University of California Santa Barbara wrote the first post alluding to what would become an international, interdisciplinary grass roots organization of digital humanists working in defense of the humanities. This post first outlined the reasons to act: 

1. If the humanities are in trouble,
2. If the digital humanities now have a special potential and responsibility to represent the humanities

  a. because the digital humanities are affecting an ever larger arc of the humanities, 
b. because the (modest) ability of the digital humanities to gain funding shows that they have the potential to seem relevant to administrators, government agencies, and possibly even legislators who otherwise have already dismissed the humanities as yesterday's news,
c. because the digital humanities contribute to the advancement and deployment of technologies that link the humanities with other disciplines (including some STEM fields that need the participation of humanists to pursue interdisciplinary grants) [i.e., the digital humanities have true interdisciplinary potential],
d. and because the digital humanities have the means to communicate quickly and directly to the public in ways that short-circuit the traditional, ponderous levers of university and governmental action,

He then listed opportunities for action:
3. The the natural course of action for interested members of the Humanist list at this extraordinary time is to start a site that, without necessarily engaging in direct political advocacy,... [does] the following:

  a. Advocates for the public value of humanities discoveries and projects... We could also likely recruit advocacy statements for the humanities, 
b. Provides tools, templates, media expertise, social-network methods, examples, etc., for the local or national networks of humanities educators to make their case before the public.

From this rather exploratory posting behind the scenes scholars from the U.S., Canada, and U.K. collaborated and rose to the call originally presented by Prescott - on Friday November 19, 2010 the launch of the 4Humanities initiative, advocating the humanities, powered by digital humanists, was announced.

The 4Humanities Initiative

4Humanities is a collaboration of scholars in the field of digital humanities, the goal of which is towards an advocacy of the future of humanities in a society where the importance of the humanities is increasingly neglected. Recognizing the advantageous position of digital technologies in the humanities, 4Humanities capitalizes on the opportunity to further the cause for humanities through popular and widely distributed information streams. The initiative focuses on the use of Digital Humanities technologies and experience, comprising an international-wide collective. Using multi-media and scholarly experience, 4Humanities advocates on numerous levels, both through the 4Humanities online platform and through the collection of networked initiatives of similar design such as blogs, newsletters, audio-visual formats, and more. Resources utilized include digital technologies founded in best-practices.

Due to the failing support of government and private funding for the traditional humanities as well as a general societal attitude of apathy towards the humanities, those concerned with the survival and understanding of its value to society have recognized a need for active intervention. As the humanities plays an important role in all sectors of society, including those portions of society that would see its demise, those concerned have began to collaborate in an effort to spread an understanding of its importance, whether for business initiatives, scientific endeavors, or just a basic understanding of human nature as represented through culture and history. 4Humanities understands that society will be better equipped with a humanities background, and likewise, worse off without it.

The 4Humanities initiative employs multiple mediums in order to reach the widest possible audience, using every means, from newspaper to social media. As stated in their Mission, found on the website, 4Humanities:

“is both a platform and a resource for humanities advocacy. As a platform 4Humanities stages the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public. We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network. We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.”

4Humanities is an ongoing and evolving project, originally founded in 2010 by scholars from Canada, the United States, Australia, and the U.K. With increasing interest in the initiative and an ever-growing partnership of digital humanities communities from around the world, 4Humanities is establishing itself as a critical and authoritative center in digital activism for the value of traditional humanities. Already partnered with groups such as the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, centerNet, HASTAC, and SDH/SEMI, 4Humanities is quickly rising to prominence on a global scale.

For More information about 4Humanities, contact any of the 4Humanities coordinators: Christine Henseler, Alan Liu, Geoffrey Rockwell, Stéfan Sinclair, Melissa Terras. Contact:

Back to 4Humanities

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