Interview: Professor Fred Truyen in Conversation with Artes Research Intern Alisa Grishin

In March of 2023, Artes Research Intern Alisa Grishin interviewed Professor Fred Truyen of the Faculty of Arts. As a professor in the Digital Humanities and Cultural Studies programs, Prof. Truyen has also been involved in numerous projects related to digitization, archives, databases, and other manifestations of DH. In this interview, he was asked about best practices for organizations, industry structures and barriers, as well as some general reflections on the development of the humanities.

Based on your background in ICT, how do you think there could be a better relationship between more traditionalist approaches to the humanities with newer developments, such as Open AI? Why do you think certain barriers still exist?

I think with Open AI we have come to a pivotal moment. There has been a long tradition of linguistics research, engineering research, and mathematical context to come to this point. We are starting to realize that we will be operating in a more intelligent environment and it’s not our kind of intelligence – our digital environment is a more responsive, anthropocentric environment and it allows us to build up our world and our world views in our own image. I think it’s a pivotal moment and forces us to rethink many of the approaches that we do daily which will be much more mediated and information-based. But for me, it’s always a rediscovery of fundamental humanistic skills. You know that I studied philosophy, and I remember that at a certain moment, there was this idea that ‘oh philosophy is just talk and now with social sciences we will do all these things empirically and that is true, you can do a lot in social sciences and they have made a quantum leap in progress and insights which also transpires in the kind of new innovations that in these disciplines have emerged. We statistically can see that these are very innovative domains. But in my view, the fundamental paradoxes of humanity, which have been captured in the basic philosophy context, have never been superseded by any kind of science whatsoever. So they have never been solved. And perhaps we shouldn’t have the ambition to solve. The great things of the past have taught us to appreciate the limited position of humanity in the world. Our essentially very limited understanding of what we are doing here, why, and where it comes from – even if there is substantial progress in personology, neuroscience, that doesn’t solve the core paradoxes. That’s why I think that critical thinking in the humanities will always stay with us. We will always have recourse to expressions like art, music, to partly cope with this failing and understanding that it is just part of our destiny. There will never be total clarity.

And from a more practical perspective, what do you think the potential role of hackathons, such as BiblioTech, could have in improving the relationship between more scientific disciplines and the humanities?

I think a hackathon is a fantastic example of interdisciplinarity. You have an element of serendipity, you bring people together at random, mix profiles, you have an open theme, you try and see what can come out of it. By trying to make something very practical, not only are you exchanging ideas, but you’re finding things that work. And in that sense, it’s always interesting when there are interdisciplinary themes. That is the charm of something like digital humanities. You work with people with very different backgrounds to find solutions that you want to explore and implement. I also think that libraries are an excellent place to do so. I have an extremely warm heart for libraries, museums, and archives. The library was meant as a place to safeguard and consolidate knowledge. You want to safeguard intellectual production, primarily books, and make this accessible. This absolutely honorable mission is still behind libraries today. They were very early to understand that this would transcend the book, would include every new meaning of knowledge expression, and that they had to go digital, and go into multimedial formats. And so many libraries were always at the forefront of organizing these kinds of hackathons and their mission is also closely related to things like what Wikipedia is trying to do. It’s a natural environment. So many people might think that the heritage sector is a kind of mummified sector of people doing the same thing all over again *laughs*. It’s absolutely the contrary. I’ve never experienced such a dynamic environment with people constantly rethinking their roles, even when these roles have very formal missions like archives, which are partly very legal missions. They have certain duties that they just can’t set aside. They have an extreme ambition to rethink the way in which it evolves. To come up with new ideas about what they should archive, how, who should decide what is an archive, what condition can be granted, all kinds of questions. They get a new environment for technology but it’s still the same question.

You also started going into my third question: “how do you see the intersection between Cultural Heritage (CH) and Digital Humanities (DH) in your line of work?” Archives and heritage can be seen as quite traditional approaches to managing our history. Can you elaborate on the importance of incorporating DH in these sectors?

Yeah, there’s a clear interest of CH in the DH profiles. They evidently need people with sufficient humanities background to actually understand to the full mission, the collections, the preservation that’s used, etc. You cannot just train that overnight. Most of these professionals in the sectors have a quite solid background in the humanities. The same goes for implementing digital solutions. You cannot just invent an engineer in one year *laughs*. So we need to bridge very, very distant disciplines that require deep training and the DH profile is an interface profile. In my sector, the heritage sector, we see this rather in more junior positions and we hope that they will be the next generation middle management. There is a very high demand and that is situated more at the junior-master level that heritage institutions are now taking on board. And they come from a variety of domain expertise, but with sufficient understanding and vision of digital technologies and digital reasoning. We see a trickle-down effect. If you see the digital humanities, you see techniques have been doubled up with computational linguistics, then corpus linguistics, then broader language strategies. Now we are taking hold of history because also historians work on texts. And so there is a whole battery of tools that you can just take on board from linguistics and you can apply to historical research. Technologies have also been doubled up with social science; I think of everything that has to do with social network analysis and all the tools there. We see from certain disciplines, a trickle-down of technologies to broader humanities fields. To me, don’t be afraid, it will never change the core of the humanities. That has a perennial value and will be part of society in 100 years. It’s not so that we are going to end up with statisticians and engineers and robots, *laughs*. It’ll be a very important part, but not the only part *laughs*.

And in a broader sense, what do you wish the public and the academic world and beyond knew about DH?

Well, I think they should know that humanities easily translates into the concepts and problems that it is part of critical thinking about the challenges that we face today. So you need this humanities background and the humanities disciplines have the capacity to adapt to the requirements of today’s science. Python is a part of scientific language and just like English, has become a lingua franca for scientific research. They are part of the way of scientific work and scientific thinking and so a digital humanities student has sufficient background to express themselves in that language and to assess and to discuss with developers how this can be implemented without being a software engineer, because that’s not the intention. When I started with ICT at the university, many of my colleagues who were responsible for ICT in the humanities faculties came from the humanities and were partly self-learners. So I hope that in many sectors people understand that digital humanities students have this capacity to bridge expertise and to make a coherent analysis of the different aspects involved, but still with a problem-oriented perspective behind it.

What do you think makes the humanities so adaptable? Is it the fact that it’s so abstract and focused on critical reasoning and perhaps isn’t as confined to theories?

I think it has to do with that. It’s like learning a second language and to learn a second language it’s always beneficial if you master your own language. Then you have a head start when you want to learn another language, and it’s the same here. We do want students with a solid humanities background and so they need to have proper training and that’s why we are not offering it [the Master of Digital Humanities] as an initial master at this moment. We had an excellent doctoral defense half a year ago from a student from architectural engineering who does these excavations in Turkey with a very interdisciplinary team of biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. So it’s a very interesting binary. And she focused on this, on the negotiations between these different teams. How can they experience the excavation side as a common object of study? How? How does it work? Because they use different time scales, they use different terminologies. They have thoroughly different basic concepts, often using similar words. But meaning quite different things. For me, that is digital humanities. Trying to understand how small differences in concepts can lead up to difficulties in implementations. This can force revisions of procedures; it’s a kind of humanities engineering. It’s not true engineering, but it’s humanities engineering. This is really at the core of what a digital humanist should be doing; helping in this translation of data into information and how it emerges.

And then going off of that, what would you say to a student coming from a traditional humanities background who’s interested in DH, but maybe a little hesitant because they don’t have the exact training?

Be confident. Be confident in your own skills with your training in the humanities, you are well prepared to take this step. So be confident and be bold. It’s our philosophy that we want to empower students. Because the frustration could be that you have this rich historical literacy or art background and you are faced with the challenges of today and the dominating role of technology. You are forced into a consumer role and that can be very frustrating. You feel powerless because you don’t speak the language of technology exactly. And to this we say yes, you can learn this language, you learned languages before. You can make this step and you can become a proactive user. You can work in teams that change technologies. To give an example, in heritage, there is the challenge to adopt the contents that we digitize and put them out in the open. Many of these archives are written in languages that are not adapted to today’s times. And if you think about the colonization context, you understand the depth of the problem. Many of these descriptions are racist and we shouldn’t be shy about addressing this. Now the challenge is how can we meet the demand of Open Access? How can we give the same collections to these people in a non-hurtful, contributive way? Well, manually, we can’t do this. It’s all technology, it’s all databases, it’s information systems, it’s artificial intelligence. But who is leading the teams? Historians, anthropologists, sociologists and lawyers. These [entities] are leading the way in developing the ontological approaches. What kind of software do we need? How can we give co-governance? How can we enable communities to actually participate in the development of the technologies that they will be using?

How can museums and other cultural organizations better incorporate DH into their work and mission? Have you noticed a significant increase in cultural institutions using DH methods? Do you have any predictions or any ideas on the direction of that? 

The sector actually is embracing this. It’s the role of the European Commission to stimulate innovation in these domains. What we lack a bit in Europe is “platformization.” The big platforms are of course not in Europe and that’s a sore point that needs to be addressed still. But the sector is embracing the development of databases, imaging techniques to scan the objects, digital tools for crowdsourcing for engaging audiences, 3D technology, and augmented reality applications. So the sector is embracing that and mid-size to large heritage institutions all have a very decent digital part of their working and they often still lack an embracing digital strategy. That is what we are working with now. 

AI is also in many of the current projects that are being funded today. I’m currently involved in a project called AI4Europeana. So the name says it all, yeah, but there were AI projects in the past already. And the reason is simple. The reality of AI is very, very neutral. And so in research projects, we are also thinking about how we can diminish a bit of “black box” over AI. How can we give people more confidence in trusting what the algorithm is doing? I see that when you look at AI programs in the heritage sector. It is often related to rebuilding trust relationships and using digital environments for that by looking at how we can reestablish transparency.

So that’s our role from the humanities: to challenge the bias, too. I’m now involved in a project which is called DE-BIAS for exactly that reason, as we are trying to see in the heritage sector where the bias is in the data that we accumulate and that we are now publishing through digital means.

Are there then some challenges in DH in terms of sustainability and preservation of digital materials? How do you prolong the benefits of these approaches?

The heritage institutions that are now safeguarding and preserving will gradually contain more and more digital artifacts. So there is already a movement underway to think about how we can acquire digital assets and how we can safeguard digital production. 

The core rules of a library, a museum, and an archive in relation to digital artifacts will include the preservation of digital artifacts. Preserving old versions of software; preserving cd-roms, you name it. And it’s increasingly challenging. We already saw this with, let’s say, the recorders of the 80s; these are now objects that are for preservation in an audio-visual archive. These are quite challenging things and a lot of technological thinking is needed to address proper preservation methodologies for that. You have analog film tape but you also have videotape, and videotape is also already the next step in the preservation problem. And then we go to the true digital formats and that is a whole history on its own, too. And so historians of the future will, instead of treating manuscripts, early books, early prints, etc., they will be treating tapes. And I’m not even sure that you can open some older files in the current version of Windows. So these are all challenges that lie ahead. And there are conferences about that and digital preservation and so there are a lot of disciplines emerging in that sector. But yeah, I guess the work is just never done. It’s just a matter of adapting to whatever is next in line for preservation. 

Shifting gears a little bit to briefly focus on cultural policy, are there any improvements that can be made to European cultural policies as to encourage DH? Or has Europe, at the policy level, been relatively receptive to digital approaches due to an interest in innovation?

Yeah, certainly reference to Europe, it also has to do with the specific mandate that the European Commission has and the balance that it needs to keep with the Member States, which is always a very fraught relationship. And so it was always the idea that culture is something that we export, is something that attracts people to us, is something that we have a long history in, and so we should be at the vanguard of what happens in culture. And this connects to the idea of innovation because innovation is truly at the heart of the Commission’s mission. They have always thought that there is a nice mix between innovation and culture and this means that, for example, when you look at heritage at the European level, it’s often a discussion in close connection with the creative industries. So how is Europe’s heritage part of the new creative industries and how can we valorize this? So on cultural policy, I think that it has been colored a bit by technology, by innovation at the European level.

For example, the rediscovery of craftsmanship that you see throughout Europe. You see this integrated in digital approaches. There are many quite interesting projects which are trying to marry look, quality, craftsmanship, the rediscovery of natural, agricultural processes, and seeing how digital technologies can be helpful in that context. For example, there are many YouTube channels on how to do crafts, so that there is a natural way of self-organizing knowledge transfer on very local things. The digital space mediates between the diaspora and the local. And that’s also empowerment because communities can protect their tradition and their sociality. 

Are there common internal concerns when approaching a DH project? Any legal, structural, and sustainability concerns?

From the viewpoint of the Commissioner, but not from DH. I think that their main concern is the human resource, the competency. Do we have the right profiles? Do they have interdisciplinary skills? If you need a conservator or engineer or a graphic designer, well, that’s a variety of roles that you need to integrate. That’s something totally different than when you have your classic preservation work or classic digitization work. That’s very focused. But the DH project goes broader. And then the real scare is, can we pull it off? Can we really bring the right people together and can we pay for the resources? That’s why I would think that we need a mindset shift. In the beginning, when organisations went to digital projects, they were side projects: we need a new cataloging system; we need a website; we need a kind of community forum; we need a social media manager. It was all fragmented, small-scale things that you think you would do and now we see that the digital permeates every aspect of your business. And that is a scary thing, because you realize that you need very, very different competencies than before.

What predictions did you have about DH which have not yet been realized, any technology that never took off, methods that didn’t become mainstream etcetera?

Ohh. That’s a difficult one. I think we waited very long for the breakthrough that we now see with generative AI. I think it was a much longer route and credit to my colleagues who held on! I don’t think we had misconceptions about what would happen. I think we always took into account that adoption would be slow, but again, in the 21st century, this is pivotal. And in academia for humanities, it was the monography in literature that was important: the article that you wrote by yourself as a single author. That took very long to go away. But today it has dramatically changed. The same if you look at PhD proposals. We waited for the whole last quarter of the 20th century for PhDs that would become more interdisciplinary. Now, in most disciplines, it’s just a given. 

I’m not sure that there are a lot of promises that didn’t come through. In linguistics, language technology took longer than expected. It then went through more probabilistic statistical analysis and that brought about the Googles of this world. But now we see that again.

So nothing really surprises you too much about the direction that technology is taking?

Well, what we couldn’t imagine is the power of imaging technologies and its response from the world. And now we are even talking about microdrones in your body. So these are technologies that were underestimated. And it’s used everywhere now, also in archaeology and on heritage sites. So that’s a type of technology that’s very rapidly taken hold that we’d underestimated.

And then what do you think the future of DH looks like? 

Well, there is always this debate about whether Digital Humanities will just become humanities or whether the humanities will become digital humanities. I think it’s a silly question. For example, photography came from scientific research in optics and chemistry. Chemistry advances made photography possible. So it came from science and it’s a technology that we all adopted and that we don’t even question. We don’t see it even as technology. The core of the humanities is linked to the process of human existence; it will exist forever. It’s not something that was part of modernity. We now speak about digital humanists, but the “digital” is such a broad term. Think about quantum computing, etc. That could bring us a totally new way of approaching technology. Will we still call it digital then? Or will we talk about quantum humanists? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It will be humanist.


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