Does the use of tools like Voyant lead to better history? To answer that, it should probably be established pretty quickly that having a tool available to you is unlikely to make history any worse. The only way having access to an optional tool might lead to a decrease in quality is if the tool is ineffective / misunderstood, and widely used for whatever reason. With this in mind, tools such as Voyant are at worst useless, and most complaints that they have made things worse aren’t particularly strong arguments.
So is Voyant actually beneficial? My initial reaction is yes, but only in specific contexts. Perhaps I just haven’t used it enough, but the information derived from this service seems too basic to draw any particularly noteworthy conclusions on its own. While finding word frequencies and the words that often appear nearby can shed some level of insight into the author’s priorities, it still generally falls short of a deep reading of the work. Essentially, this service isn’t capable of replacing deep reading in almost all situations. It can, however, provide some clues before starting the deep dive. Scan in the work, look at the data, find some correlations, come up with some theories, then start reading for yourself. This way Voyant’s relatively light breakdown can be turned into a prep exercise to help get more out of the reading. As mentioned in lecture, these digital tools should start as a beginning, not an end, to research.
Good luck sorting through this in less than a month
However, let’s say deep reading isn’t really an option. What if you want to look at a huge collection of works, and try to discern trends, or pick out a work that had previously been left ignored. Older historical methods rely off of a relatively small number of key works, leaving a great deal of room for discovery, if only you could sort through a massive amount of mostly useless information. This is what computers can do well. Taking a massive data set, and sorting it into something that is hopefully useful. Computers promise to greatly expand the availability of previously obscure sources, greatly reducing the time spent looking for resources, and greatly increasing the time spent actually using them. In this ideal situation, research is not only faster, but better founded upon the available evidence.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel Voyant will be the tool to completely fulfill this promise. The biggest issue is in the sources that Voyant can actually use. Anything you want analyzed needs to be convertible to a plain text file. This means that somebody has to manually transcribe a work in order to get usable input for this service. Transcribing anything long enough to need a computer to analyze is an incredible amount of work, defeating the purpose of making this research easier, and likely means it was popular enough to begin with that it’s not a “hidden gem”. This isn’t an issue if you want to analyze the writings of Shakespeare, but using digital tools to dissect a well known corpus of works is unlikely to be truly groundbreaking.
When an AI can read this old Irish script accurately, we might have something truly special on our hands
The solution to this probably is already in development, and is seen fairly frequently in online archives. Getting computers to transcribe the text for you is the obvious solution for making obscure works readily available to analyze. The tech isn’t quite there yet, with enough errors and difficulty transcribing older sources that it won’t quite give the results we need, but within perhaps a decade, we could see AI capable of transcribing huge collections of works, and then breaking it down into something a human can make good use out of. Tools like Voyant seem highly situational today, but their successors could radically expand the sources that historians have available to them, hopefully leading to better history.