Recent discussions in digital humanities have drawn attention to “failure”. Projects can fail to deliver a tool or fail to innovate practices. But what practices are emphasised by speaking of “failure”, and for whom is a certain result a failure? In this post, I argue that recent discussions of failure seem to take DH as software development rather than research, shaping the discussion of what DH should achieve and whether other results are thereby failures.
According to Jasmine Kirby, we do not talk enough about failure in digital humanities. In her recent article, exploring the history of the Sophie 2.0 project from the Institute for the Future of the Book, she discusses how this project ultimately failed.Kirby, J. S. (2019). How NOT to create a digital media scholarship platform: the history of the Sophie 2.0 project. IASSIST Quarterly, 42(4), https://doi.org/10.29173/iq926 She shows that while the project members point to “too much ambition and lack of funding” (with >$1M in funding nonetheless), more realistic reasons were the lack of a coherent idea who the target user group was, how to reach and serve users, and basic skills in software development. I definitely recommend the article. However, the conclusions got me thinking, leading to this blogpost, because Kirby in my view associates DH too much with software development, and too little with research.
DH as software development
I got especially curious by the conclusion of the chapter, where Kirby argues that
Unfortunately, they did not create a product that worked in its present time. It is not the job of librarians and digital humanists to use software we hope will work because it aligns with values we find important, it is our job to recommend and contribute to digital tools that won’t eat our users’ homework.
Without arguing the definition of what precisely DH is and what “our job” is, my problem with this quote is that it conflates research with software development. The increased attention towards failure similarly can be traced to Silicon Valley with it’s mantra of “fail fast”, but failing and iterating is not the same as research.Hall, E. (2013) How the ‘Failure’ Culture is Killing Innovation. Wired https://www.wired.com/2013/09/why-do-research-when-you-can-fail-fast-pivot-and-act-out-other-popular-startup-cliches/
DH as research
This also reminded me of several case studies in my research, which failed to develop the tool they set out to create. Yet consider the following quote from the PI of the project
Ultimately a production-version does not have to come out of [the project], that is not the thing. This is more a technology project in which the know-how that is developed, also by the companies that continue to work towards a productive system. That they can use parts in a new productHistory Professor (personal interview, translated from Dutch)
When a DH project as research does not produce a workable tool, is that a failure or is it a finding that intellectually explores the limitations of the initial ideas, produces more knowledge about the research problem, and know-how for further investigations? “Failure” implies something that could or should have been prevented, a mistake, something that should have been otherwise. But if DH is research or even experimentation, then the tool itself is not even that interesting. The lack of a usable tool in itself is insufficient to constitute “failure”. Consider also this recent tweet from Lorna Hughes:
This is not to deny that DH projects can fail, research can be conducted in the wrong way, so there can be a failure of process. Especially with respect to basic software development strategies many projects do fail, as shown by Kirby, since these issues hardly produce new knowledge (although that is a caveat of interdisciplinary work, that knowledge common to another area is new to one’s own). But if a project generates knowledge but not a tool, that in itself is not a failure, it is research producing findings.
What is failure?
I applaud the increasing attention towards learning from mistakes and unsuccessful pursuits. Especially Quinn Dombrowski has produced very interesting discussions in this area.Dombrowski, Q. (2014). What Ever Happened to Project Bamboo? Literary and Linguistic Computing, fqu026-. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqu026
Dombrowski, Q. (2019) Towards a Taxonomy of Failure. http://quinndombrowski.com/blog/2019/01/30/towards-taxonomy-failure However, to fully understand failure in digital humanities, this includes a discussion of the purpose of digital humanities. In this post I have contrasted DH as software development or research, and it is probably a bit of both.Galey, A., & Ruecker, S. (2010). How a prototype argues. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 25(4), 405–424. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqq021 Yet this interdisciplinary mingling of practices especially necessitates reflections on what DH projects should produce. While scholars might promise a tool to a funder, this does not necessarily mean their primary objective is the development of a tool, as I have shown in my research. Whether a project has failed is very much dependent on who you ask and when. In conclusion, the central questions are what counts as failure, and to whom? And by elevating failure as a means of learning, what practices are we emphasising within digital humanities?
|↑1||Kirby, J. S. (2019). How NOT to create a digital media scholarship platform: the history of the Sophie 2.0 project. IASSIST Quarterly, 42(4), https://doi.org/10.29173/iq926|
|↑2||Hall, E. (2013) How the ‘Failure’ Culture is Killing Innovation. Wired https://www.wired.com/2013/09/why-do-research-when-you-can-fail-fast-pivot-and-act-out-other-popular-startup-cliches/|
|↑3||Dombrowski, Q. (2014). What Ever Happened to Project Bamboo? Literary and Linguistic Computing, fqu026-. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqu026|
Dombrowski, Q. (2019) Towards a Taxonomy of Failure. http://quinndombrowski.com/blog/2019/01/30/towards-taxonomy-failure
|↑4||Galey, A., & Ruecker, S. (2010). How a prototype argues. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 25(4), 405–424. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqq021|