Stretching the Physical Boundaries of the Humanities

It’s not very often that someone finds an entirely new way to think about the humanities. Bill Turkel, a historian at the University of West Ontario, has managed this trick by stretching physical boundaries of the humanities. Turkel, one of the co-authors of The Programming Historian is also the founder of the Lab for Humanistic Fabrication. The Lab is the place where Turkel, his colleagues, and his graduate students experiment with ways to build „communicative devices that are transparently easy to use, provide ambient feedback, and are closely coupled with the surrounding environment.“

What does this mean in the context of the humanities? As Turkel explains, historians „have tended to emphasize opportunities for dissemination that require our audience to be passive, focused and isolated from one another and from their surroundings.“ He proposes to change this by creating new physical interfaces between the analog and digital world that will (or at least may) transform the ways we interact with the vast amongs of digitized data (text, image, sound, video) being poured into online databases every day by scholars, archives, libraries, governments, and individual citizens.

What these interfaces might look like, sound like, or feel like is anyone’s guess. But Turkel and his team have already begun to come up with some prototypes–prototypes developed in a fabrication lab — not the kind of place we typically think of humanists as working. Turkel’s work challenges us to think about how we will experience the past in the not so distant future.

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