Monday, June 3, 2013

Humanities and technology

Working in the trenches of humanities in face of the rise in the last decades of the internet and the overwhelming belief that knowledge is about information and data and number crunching, that everything about being human can be reduced to scientific investigation, I have been very concerned about where we are going as a people.

It is as if utilitarianism and efficiency and speed are all the driving forces behind anything we now consider most valuable.  Everything is short and sweet and public.  If it doesn't make us richer, faster, or easier, we don't want it.  We don't think it is worth pursuing.

We are becoming thin and instant like our devices.  We are remaking ourselves in the images of our devices.

We are scattering our attention.  Like our devices, we do two or three things at once.  We watch TV and check our email, giving neither full attention, while ignoring the other people in the room.  Screens intersect and offset us from others as we type away behind them.

At restaurants, in classrooms, in cars we are on the internet, uploading pictures to Facebook to get instant feedback about where we are or what we are doing.  Nothing seems to wait.  Gaming draws us in and keeps us coming back, psychologically preying on our desire for instant feedback and success. 

We mistake computer intelligence for the human mind.  We are held in the grips of our iPhones, iPads, our Facebooks, Twitters, and Texts, as if they were lifelines that plug our brains into other brains.  Some of us have become so addicted to technology that to unplug, even for a day, is traumatic.

I am not against technology.  I have a laptop, iPhone, iPad, a digital camera and all the rest.  And I love them.  What I worry about is what this is all doing to us so quickly.  What are our lives becoming?  How has it changed the way we think about things?  Interact with others?  Value things?

Where is our humanity in all this? What is happening to us spiritually and intellectually as we disengage and devalue the pursuit of knowledge which we have mistaken for information?  When we are convinced that we can reduce everything about us to scientific answers?

Leon Wieselttier gives us something to think about in his commencement address published by Republic HERE.  He argues that humanities and its pursuit has suddenly become countercultural.  Take a look.  It is worth the read.


Robert Mathiesen said...

I worry about this also, and about how it will affect the position of humanistic scholarship in academe in the future. As Universities become more and more corporate, and ever more geared to producing revenue for the university, non-profitable areas of scholarship are being culled. And what is not "technological" is almost by definition non-profitable.

First, there is now some scientific evidence that habitual, frequent use of such devices will "rewire" the user's brain, in addition to producing an addiction to rapid input of new information in the user.

And second, historically one of the functions of a university has been not just to create new knowledge, but also to curate and preserve old knowledge so that it will remain available against the unforeseeable needs of the distant future. In the rush toward the new, we are losing sight of the need to preserve the old: books that would only be consulted twice in a half century, if that often, are de-accessioned or placed out of a browser's reach.

Here's a relevant story. Some time ago I went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in order to look through its nearly complete run of _The Religio-Philosophical Journal_, a very rare primary source for 19th-century occultism and alternative religions. The published Union List of Serials and the National Union Catalogue of Pre-1956 Imprints told me that it held the most complete surviving run of the journal anywhere, and that even shorter runs were very few and far between. When I got there, armed with the call number, there was no place for journal on the shelf, and also no record of it in the current card catalogue. The circulation librarians could not find any trace of it for me anywhere in the library system.

Since I had time to kill, I tried to find what happened, and eventually I found a knowledgeable insider among the special collections librarians. He wasn't sure precisely what had happened to that specific journal, but he had a knowledgeable insider's conjecture. He knew that staff had been assigned to weed the library's holdings of journals. One of the stated criteria was whether any other library owned the given journal. If other libraries owned it, it was obviously important and should be kept. However, if few or no other libraries had it, it was obviously unimportant, and should be discarded.

Thus perished an irreplaceable primary source held by one of the major University research Libraries in the country. Some of the years that this library had once owned were held in no other library.

That was a harbinger; later my own University Library went on a similar weeding campaign among the foreign-language science periodicals. It was conducted in secret, with padlocked dumpsters and librarians forbidden to mention it to outsiders. A few went against the order, and some titles were saved for interested faculty. Others were simply destroyed. Again, one criterion use to judge the importance of a journal was how widely it was held elsewhere.

Ugh! I am venting, but also these things need to be talked about more.

April DeConick said...

Robert, thank you for your comment. It is so troubling and frankly I am not sure what to do about it.

John said...

Thank you, April, for raising this.

I think many people are in the same position: we don't like what the new digital technology is doing to us, but we feel immense pressure from employers and friends and family to partake. I also am concerned that our brains are changing in this new environment, and not for the better. We seem to believe that we exist apart and distinct from our environment. We don't realize that our environment changes us. We become what we interact with. The machine changes us.

One thing we can do is be aware of this. We all want to change the world, but do we realize that in doing so we also change ourselves?

And "no" is still an option. We don't have to go along with the crowd. But we do have to be willing to stand alone and some of us might even lose friends and jobs as a consequence. That probably sounds unacceptably harsh, but for me what is truly harsh is continuing destructive habits because of fear of missing out on the latest thing.

Taking time away from the digital devices is also good practice for the kind of lifestyle changes being demanded by a planet that is increasingly distressed and requiring that we change our way of life.

More than ever, the Earth needs our attention. Our children need our attention. Our parents need our attention. Our spouses need our attention. The hungry and displaced need our attention.

Our iPhones and iPads do not need our attention.

PAULYR said...

Thanks Dr. DeConick, for publishing your wariness of the impact of digital technology on human individuals and society as a whole. Thanks also for the link to Mr. Wieseltier's commencement address on this same topic, an eloquent defense of the humanities vis-a-vis "scientism." Robert Mathiesen's horror story of the disappearance of the 19th century 'Religio-Philosophical Journal' from the University of Michigan library (comment above)is apropos of this theme as well. Man versus machine is a leitmotif of science fiction, but in the real world, we are witnessing the beginning of humanity becoming machine, a work of the Devil I do declare.

Unknown said...

"the study of literature and languages, and art and music and philosophy and religion and history". Might not one say RELIGION as God talk, becoming conscious of the presence of God is the essential area of study for Humanities which illumines all of its areas of study.