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uni'wissen 01-2016_ENG

Robert Busa was a man of God by profession, but science remembers him as one of the forefathers of the Internet. At the end of the 1940s, the Jesuit priest began compiling an index of the work of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas. The task was to collate 10,000,000 words in such a way that philologists could analyze, dissect, and combine them in endless variations. Busa soon realized that his bold idea exceeded the practical abilities of a theologian. The researcher had an unusual idea: What if he could collect the philosopher’s tractates, commentaries, and hymns on a computer? He consulted Thomas Watson, the man who had founded the technology corpo- ration IBM. With the businessmen’s help, Busa managed to complete the gargantuan task within the space of a mere seven years, although it had originally been planned for 40. The priest was the first person to combine computer science with the written word. He is regarded as the originator of the discipline known as digital humanities, which sparked off a revolution in research – at least as far as theory is concerned. In practice, on the other hand, digital humanities only gradually gained traction: Although computer linguistics has been around for almost 30 years and classical philology has made use of digitalized sources for decades, it was not until around ten years ago that digital humanities became a real trend in the humani- ties, say Dr. Stylianos Chronopoulos, Dr. Felix K. Maier, and Dr. Anna Novokhatko from the University of Freiburg. They are the joint heads of the project “The Digital Turn in Ancient Civili- zation Studies: Perception – Documentation – Reflection,” funded by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The project studies how research changes when elementary technical innovations make it possible to conduct analyses that were previously unthinkable. No Robot Takeover The new digital tools open up endless possi- bilities. Take the epistolary novel, for example: It is now possible to search in a matter of hours for all instances of the word “friendship” in 5000 novels – no matter what language they are written in. Moreover, it only takes a few days for a comput- er to search through all published editions of the books and show which words or even sentences were changed by the editors from edition to edition. However, Novokhatko stresses that it’s not just about speed but about an entirely new level of work: “I can use the search systems to view commentary on things like historical, grammatical, and stylistic aspects of a text, all at the click of a button. I used to need ten thick books on my desk to do this – and several weeks time.” Although Chronopoulos, Maier, and Novokhatko – all three of them specialists in ancient civilization studies – have already long worked with digital media in their own research, they are taking a key step backward in the project: “There is still a lack of fundamental theoretical reflection on the topic,” says Chronopoulos. “Articles on digital humanities appear from time to time in Germany, the USA, or England, but there is no communication between various disciplines,” Maier adds. One factor in this lack of communication is age. “It’s a generational question. Around 95 percent of scholars over 40 work with traditional methods. The younger researchers are simply more willing to try out new things.” Hence, the “conservatives” and the “innovators” need to finally engage in a dialogue with each other. The trio is giving them ample opportunity to do so: They are inviting scholars from around the world to workshops in Freiburg over the next three years. The first con- ferences have already taken place. “We want to observe ourselves and our work as researchers,” stresses Chronopoulos. The questions they are asking themselves include the following: What rules do researchers need to observe in creating digital editions of texts, and what should they include in such editions? How does the role of researchers change when they “There’s nothing more human than a computer.” 37uni wissen 01 2016 37uni wissen 012016