The Fuzzy and the Techie

Gertjan Filarski


‘Creativity can be the bridge between science and humanities education.’ I read this statement on The Conversation website in October 2018. In the article, the author argues in favour of adding typical humanities skills to the strong push for more students studying science: ‘I think it is … important to recognise that technology companies need workers who have skills in understanding people, society and culture. So subjects such as anthropology, business, history, psychology, marketing, and design (to name but a few) are equally key.’ It is a point also aptly made by venture capitalist Scott Hartley in his bestseller The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will rule the digital world. How can we expect to effectively employ technology to solve real-world human problems without the context that a study of human nature provides? We cannot possibly consider only technical and scientific aspects in the 3d restoration of cultural artefacts lost in the wars in Syria, Mali, Afghanistan and many other places, or the simulation of the flows of migration, the interaction between humans and Artificial Intelligence, or in teaching machines to read, write, listen, and talk.

Over the last decade, the Netherlands has played an essential role in providing such context. KNAW and NWO invested millions of euros in programs for digital research and infrastructure in the arts, social sciences, humanities and cultural heritage. The KNAW merged three large software development groups at the Huygens Institute for Dutch History and Literature, the International Institute for Social History, and the Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology and Linguistics. At the KNAW Humanities Cluster now work almost forty software engineers with diverse backgrounds in computer science, linguistics, economics, history, literature, and others. The unit forms the largest dedicated group of programmers in language & media infrastructure in Europe. Through the National Roadmap for Large-scale Infrastructure, NWO supported this effort by funding the CLARIAH-project. CLARIAH enabled us and our partners, to merge the Dutch contributions to the European CLARIN and DARIAH infrastructures. In May this year, NWO announced it would sustain that for another five years.

Through all these endeavours the KNAW and its partners in the Dutch universities and beyond, have become world leaders in bridging the gulf between techies and fuzzies. And that bridge is not our digital technology, nor is it projects, data or repositories. The many students and scholars that find their way to the Humanities Cluster are the bridges. They possess the skills that entrepreneurs like Hartley dream of: they can code and understand human culture and communities. They digitally analyse the many resources that were created by generations of historians before them. These young people are enriching our heritage, and by doing so, quickly add enormous amounts of new data and knowledge to the original archives and collections.

Over the next years, the effects of rapidly growing data, combined with artificial intelligence, speech & language technology, computer vision, robotics, and augmented & virtual reality, will cause the digital humanities to move towards a data science where algorithms assert or refute hypotheses. Given proper provenance and infrastructure, these experiments are reproducible. Creative scholars and technicians together, are going to reinvent the field, and may eventually develop a shared methodology among the two cultures of science and the humanities.

The KNAW Humanities Cluster was initiated in 2016 and after the latest reorganisation in spring 2018, some said that we were now done. But the exciting possibilities prove that we have only just begun. Let’s get creative with all the new knowledge, tools and opportunities. Let’s transform the role and relevance of the humanities in the modern world. The fuzzy and the techie working hand in hand to apply their joint knowledge to solve 21st-century problems.


Gertjan Filarski is director of Digital Infrastructure at KNAW Humanities Cluster, National Coordinator NL for DARIAH-EU and CTO of CLARIAH NL. He applies information technology, knowledge management and information retrieval in typical “alpha” fields like the social sciences & humanities, publishing, cultural heritage and the GLAM-sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums). With a background in business economics, IT entrepreneurship and medieval research, he is a specialist in implementing commercial skills in non-profit/semi-public environments and is able to create the awareness and organisational space that new technology and teams need to prosper and truly deliver.


Wednesday December 12 2018 the KNAW Humanities Cluster presented HuC LIVE!. At this event the departments DHLab and Digital Infrastructure presented their innovative research and infrastructure. The main theme of this afternoon was about bridging the gulf between science and humanities. In this series of blogs, our guest speakers talk about why they bring science and humanities together.

Find more information here.

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Partner IISG Partner Meertens Instituut Partner Huygens ING