Humanities and Technology

I am going to offer a series of propositions which I believe to be true. Six of these propositions relate to the connections between the humanities and technology, and two to the links between technology and teaching the humanities. These propositions were initially crafted to fit into a ten minute presentation, and so leave lots of room for development and evidence, but brevity has its own power.

Proposition 1

It is a mistake to think of the humanities as something opposed to or even separate from technology.

Technology and the humanities are both cultural artifacts, both expressions of values, and they exist in relationship with each other. That this is true can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, not the least of which is that humanist thinking, discussion and analyses has developed in tandem with certain technologies, beginning with the stylus and papyrus down through a succession of others to the computer.

Proposition 2

For the word technology to make any useful sense it has to refer to artifacts, and artifacts are themselves texts. Like other texts, artifacts are constructed with particular purposes in mind, have values embedded in them, and, as Langdon Winner points out, politics embedded in them. The purposes and values and politics embedded in technology are subject to critical analyses and deconstruction like other texts.

The humanities are the only institutional location in our society where texts are critically analyzed and if we are not critically engaging technology, nobody is. It follows from this that the more technology seems to dominate our society the more important the role for the humanities. This is one location to affirm a clear agenda for the humanities.

If the humanities are the core of the university and are a major societal location for the promotion of critical analyses and humanism, it follows that the humanities ought to seek their place at the front of technological change, guiding it rather than reacting to it. The public needs and desires specialists independent of the technology interests to provide critical commentary on technology. If humanities departments do not themselves provide the public leadership to challenge undesirable systems, we need to train the people who can.

Proposition 3

Despite propositions 1 & 2, the humanities have had an anti-technology bias preferring to leave techno-enthusiasm to the engineers and social scientists. We have posited a clash between humanist values and technological values. This is a mistake that has only served to reify the idea that technology has a momentum of its own, that it exists independently of other value systems. Technology is instrumental. New technologies are only pawns in the struggle between value systems. They are the modern Trojan horse for age-old materialist set of values now embodied in global capitalism. Although the struggle is unbalanced, there is no reason why new technologies cannot be deployed by humanists to promote other values.

Proposition 4

We in the humanities have not figured out what the computer is for. Sure, most of us word process and use email, activities that should not be underestimated, but when we have thought about using computers we have thought way too small. Our thought processes are akin in many ways to that of the first people to put a steam engine on a wagon chassis and feel excited about having invented a horseless carriage. A paradigm shift was required before the horseless carriage became the automobile and it was the paradigm shift, not the invention, that brought a transportation revolution.

We use our computers as souped-up typewriters, we put up our diagrams and course outlines on the Internet when photocopying them would probably be more useful, and we set up on-line discussion groups which in most cases are poor substitutes for bringing people together. These are all conservative, and in some cases misguided uses of the new technologies.

The parallel with the automobile is useful in another way. The machine which was said to liberate us with out own personal transportation, appears to have provided us with a social system that is not liberating or personal. I say appears because the automobile and its system made no choices, the choices were made by corporations with an eye to shareholder profits. The computer was designed for the military and developed for business applications and these groups have provided the context for the new technologies. With some exceptions, here at UVic we can name Michael Best, Peter Golz, Language Centre, the humanities have not found an independent use for the computer.

Proposition 5

If we are not experts in technology we are experts in language. One of the longstanding skills of the humanities is to critically analyze language. Attention to language is all the more important in this age of mass communication technologies where one media consultant's pitch can reach millions of ears and eyes. We still understand the world through language and assimilate the unfamiliar through metaphors to the familiar. To some degree, the new metaphors of the computer are scrambling the logic of our language: we now speak of having wallpaper on our desktops for example. The humanities have an obvious and important role in providing a critical language through which to discuss technological change and the language that promotes new technologies. Ursula Franklin offers the following example: cold water engineers speak in terms of "ice-infested waters" where she prefers the phrase "rig-infested waters."

Proposition 6

The humanities provide society with the reservoir to decide whether new technologies are desirable. By definition the long-term impacts of "new technologies" are not known with any certainty. In many cases new technologies cannot then be fully debated in terms of their "efficiency" or even "safety" since these are extrapolated from models which fail on a frequent basis. Rather they ought to be evaluated in terms of principles, the arena of human behaviour that falls within the mandate of the humanities. Among these questions, those surrounding reproductive technology stand out as urgent examples. Our concerns about technology ought to be expressed in terms of principal rather than on efficiency since the latter hides the value judgements being made.

These six propositions lead me to two which relate to teaching in the humanities.

Proposition 7

No one should graduate with a degree in the humanities without the ability to critically analyze print, film, video, other digital communication including the Internet, as well as artifacts more generally.

Humanists, despite the anti-technology rhetoric, are in love with and festishize a particular system technology - printing and its manifestations, the book and journal. We train our students to critically analyze the printed word and to be able to produce it. Historically this has been a very useful skill and probably will always be. Still, it is a skill needed for a shrinking minority of their daily interactions with the world. We ought to expand our definition of our critical intellectual responsibilities to embrace technologies beyond the book. The alternative is to fail in our social responsibility and to lose our social support.

Proposition 8

We have to develop ways to use the new technologies in our teaching. In part this follows from proposition 7, our students need to be able to critically evaluate the new technologies. In part, this is because the new technologies have enormous potential to allow us to teach the humanities in ways that are more learner-centred, more active, more interesting, and more useful. The new technologies have the potential to allow us to teach in ways we have never been able to teach before now.

In some formats, such as on-line archives, on-line libraries with full-text books students can to do the kind of work that until now, only professors had the resources to do. In many cases, at least for the purposes of pedagogy the resources that we use to do our work, are now or are potentially available to our students -- our students can, for the first time, do the work that we love to do, the exciting work we discovered as graduate students -- the work that drew us into the profession. Multi- media texts make the use of images more common and more powerful, hyperlinks that make footnotes useful and active -- footnotes that actually will take you to the book or passage that is being cited.

These are, I think advances, but they are still conservative. The storage capacity and the speed of the computer allow us much more. For example, the technology now will permit full scale simulations. We now have the ability to put students into other places, other times, and give them the opportunity to walk through ancient Rome or the wild west and have them respond to events, issues and scenarios. They can walk the streets, have conversations with Rousseau, with Jane Eyre, or Adolph Hitler. This is just one of the more obvious possibilities of a way in which we could teach that has never been possible before. If we as a society can provide computer simulations to teach fighter pilots how to kill more effectively -- as humanists we need to take some control and turn the technology to our purposes.

When it comes to turning technology to our purposes we have been thinking scared and small. Without suspending our own critical judgement, when it comes to technology we must think bigger than we have been thinking up to this point.

* Developed from a presentation made to a panel on "Renewing the Humanities", October 31, 1997, in the Senate Chambers of the University of Victoria.