The moral imperative of the digital humanities

I've been taken by the final report of the Comité des Sages (‘the reflection group on bringing Europe’s cultural heritage online’) , The New Renaissance (January 2011). It articulates a moral imperative that has long been a driving force of the digital humanities but is infrequently surfaced, perhaps for good reason given the dangers of mixing intellectual and cultural movements with claims that they coincide with the morally correct.

2.3.2 Second, digitisation is more than a technical option, it is a moral obligation. In a time when more and more cultural goods are consumed online, when screens and digital devices are becoming ubiquitous, it is crucial to bring culture online (and, in fact, a large part of it is already there). If we don’t pursue this task, we run the risk of progressively eroding and losing what has been the foundation of European countries and civilization in the last centuries. It must be clearly understood that if access is the final objective, a tall order, it can only be achieved through preservation of the work.

The report has reminded me why I started working in the digital humanities: at some level, even when debates about Wikipedia were making their way across universities and it appeared that reactionary influences would drown the discipline (such as it was) in a sea of cynicism, it was clear that the movement of the humanities into an online environment had implications that couldn’t be ignored. For me, the imperative for involvement was connected to a desire to preserve an intellectual and cultural heritage I felt was threatened, not by the movement towards the digital but by a reaction in the scholarly community against it. A decade or so later the Comité des Sages is articulating the same concern, but with a much greater degree of maturity. They point out that the task facing our generation of scholars, librarians and cultural heritage organizations has moral implications that will impact future generations. If we get the balance wrong, for instance between the need to involve commercial interests and the need to offer cultural material freely, we risk not only a massive amount of funding but an opportunity to do an enormous amount of good. I’m not so naive as to posit a direct connection between this kind of governmental politico-speak and the objectives of your ‘average’ (whatever that is) digital humanist, but I am bold enough to suggest that whether we’re comfortable with it or not, a moral imperative provides a backdrop to much of our code.