I have a confession: I’m not good at reading the directions. That’s not always a bad thing, because sometimes I learn more, and better, about how to use a tool by teaching myself than by following the instruction manual to the letter. However, this week was different. Using Voyant, an online tool for digital text analysis, without a concept of distant reading, text analysis, visualization, and their implications for studying history only resulted in me not getting the point. At all.
Voyant has a very basic setup, and was clearly built by someone with a very different brain cell structure than mine. There is no obvious tutorial, but only a “find out more” link to a fairly technical user manual. It’s not really a tool for a casual user; you have to be willing to sit down and read through the methodological theory and case studies for using Voyant before you really get the point. At least if you’re me. However, after I read through the user manual (actually, it’s a book), and after reading Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees, what I got was this: Heremeneuti.ca, the overall project that Voyant is a part of, is about applying computing to humanities research, allowing scholars to use the kind of tools previously thought to be the mien of NASA scientists and macroeconomists to research and think about fields like history and literature.
The whole field of digital humanities sometimes reminds me of those perspective-bending images where at first you see one thing, but then, if you look closer, it appears to be something completely different. The rabbit-duck illusion specifically comes to mind when thinking about distant reading, digital humanities, and the possibilities of using big, powerful technology to research history. I think many mainstream academic historians are accustomed to looking for the metaphorical ducks when doing research that the only tools they use are breadcrumbs and the only place they look are ponds. So often, historians miss the big fat rabbit sitting in the middle of their garden, because all they’re looking for is ducks.
This analogy is getting away from me, but what I’m trying to say is what most digital humanists have been (once again, metaphorically) shouting at the top of their lungs: “We built this for you! You can use it! It does really cool stuff if you’ll just read the manual!” And it’s true, Voyant does really cool, really valuable stuff. For example, I looked up the lynching data that the Equal Justice Initiative recently released, and found that the EJI had not only their data, but links to several different websites that reported on their findings. To test Voyant out, I entered the URLs for the lynching report as well as several news stories from a variety of different media outlets, mainly liberal and conservative and U.S.-based and foreign (though all English language). Voyant returned a fascinating analysis of the words used by the news stories as compared to the original report, tracking and comparing frequency of language usage. Though my little project didn’t constitute a hugely comprehensive analysis on how the news media reports on a really atrocious piece of American history, it did demonstrate how useful a tool like Voyant is to humanities scholars.
I have to say, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities open to historians who aren’t afraid to explore digital resources and look for rabbits where their colleagues are seeing ducks. Tools like Voyant offer a paradigm shift that’s badly needed if historians want to stay (become?) relevant to this brave new world where previously unimaginable loads of data are available to almost anyone with an Internet connection and enough spare time. Truth is, we need historians to get on board, as they have the training and skills to really do something beautiful using digital technologies. So come on, historians: let’s hunt some rabbits.