Despite my earlier negativity, there was some digital at the AAS conference in Honolulu after all. Interspersed with the classic close reading of historical texts filed away in various archives, I saw a few hints at how digital objects and, less commonly digital tools, are informing traditional scholarship in Asian Studies.
For instance, an exploration of the phenomenon of hastily built structures in developing urban environments not only dealt with the narratives of used-brick collection and storage (and the interesting nature of bricks as construction material and demolition target–they’re more amenable to manual labor than steel and concrete and thus naturally attract local scale organization) as well as editorial cartoons dealing with relocation agencies and their negotiated relationship with those hastily building structures in order to negotiate higher relocation rates, but also the representation of the experience in the video game Nailhouse vs. the Eviction Gang (sadly, all the links I found to the game are dead).
And in the old forms in new media department, modern gazetteers resembling difangzhi are being created by community members on craigslist-style websites. The creators’ screennames hearken back to traditional Chinese intellectuals and their own invented monikers. One of the dearest concerns to the audience of this panel was how historians would access this media, and whether they should be archiving entire websites and, if so, how one goes about such things.
But the best example of the digital humanities at AAS came from Harvard’s Peter Bol, who helmed both the China Historical GIS and the China Biographical Database project. Bol presented on the possibilities of integrating text analysis, network analysis and spatial analysis in the representation of and scholarship related to the use of these digital methods. While acknowledging that, as an intellectual historian, he knew these resources were necessarily constructs and not free of evidenciary problems, his call to integrate the use of large-scale datasets into the study of historical change was clear and convincing. He also expressed concern that the modern university library isn’t doing enough to support faculty in this endeavor, which shifted the responsibility for creating and maintaining archives to scholars who should be focused on producing original scholarship based on the analysis and manipulation of such archives. Fortunately, Stanford University Library has significant resources (people, money, machines and software) devoted to just this kind of work.