By Michael Donnay

Science fiction writers love to imagine a future where people have radically different relationships to their books. In some fictional worlds, an implanted chip in your brain provides access to a wealth of information while in others books are closely controlled. These stories allow us to imagine different possibilities, but science fiction writers are not the only people thinking about the future of text. Researchers in the digital humanities have also been examining possible futures that both embrace and question changes in information technology over the past few decades. Alongside their colleagues in the social and computational sciences, humanities scholars are thinking about what research and publishing will look like in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the biggest shift in the object of humanities research has been the widespread advent of social media. Twitter and Instagram posts have now taken their place among letters, newspapers, and other physical documents in the range of sources that researchers need to be comfortable with. In her piece on approaches to social media, Naomi Wells highlights some of the challenges that social media presents. The ability for users to transition between text and visual forms – and the unique blending of the two that platforms like TikTok allow – will require researchers to be comfortable working across media. Wells argues that the critical and interpretive work of the humanities is essential to our understanding of contemporary culture online.

Researchers are also addressing how technological shifts will influence the ways in which humanities research is published. While scholarly journals have largely embraced digital publishing, the future form of academic books remains unsettled. Jane Winters explores why this is and lays out some possible paths that the academic book might take – ranging from interactive texts that allow readers to execute code alongside reading to minimalist, stripped-back versions that look more like books of the past than a techno-positive future. These digital books will present new challenges for preservation as well, a topic that Anna-Maria Sichani explores in her piece. Digital research requires long-term maintenance and management, similar to but also widely different from the management required for physical books.

Scholars across the digital humanities are studying these futures but they are also making them real. Whether developing new digital publishing platforms or reimagining peer review online, the digital humanities field is pushing the boundaries of text while thinking critically about the implications for research, society, and the environment.  

Michael Donnay is the Digital Projects Officer for the Digital Humanities Research Hub (School of Advanced Study, University of London). He provides project and research support to a team of academic and technical staff working across history, classics, literature, and media studies. His research interests include natural language processing, social network analysis, digital history, and structured humanities data.