Do humanities professors dream of electric sheep?

Over the weekend, our graduate students put on a fantastic one-day conference, and it included a faculty roundtable discussing the digital humanities. The line-up included one super-enthusiast, two moderates, and me as the designated Mr. Negative– which in itself tells you where the window of debate is now located. I mean, I blog, I occasionally tweet, I push my students to consult Wikipedia for the background facts on what we’re studying. Take away digital photography, and I wouldn’t last a week in the archives; take away my morning dose of internet news, and I’m a wreck. The digital revolution has gone awfully far if someone like me gets cast as the voice of caution and doubt.

In the Teaching section here and on my Academia.edu site, I’ll post a cleaned-up version of my formal comments. Here I’ll offer a short version of those, mixed with some thoughts that came to me during the (outstanding) discussion that followed the panel’s presentations.

I won’t go on much about my own super-enthusiast side, except to say it’s real. As it happens, my particular weakness as a scholar coincides with some dramatic strengths of the new digital resources. I’ve always had trouble getting dates and details exactly right, and the old printed reference bibliographies have always just left me depressed and listless– anyway the specialized resources I usually need aren’t even available in the universities where I’ve taught. Think of it as my kinky version (not my only version, I hasten to add…) of a thrill we’re all experiencing these days: suddenly I’ve got a cheap, easy electronic solution to a dark, secret, personal weakness.

But the storm warnings also seem to impress me more than most of my colleagues. For the PG-13, super-scary version, check out the philosopher Tim Mulligan’s Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe. Among many other issues, Mulligan thinks seriously about the reality we all know lurks behind the digital wonderland– namely, it could go poof at any moment, because of a war, a breakdown of the electrical system, evil-super-hackers, an NSA Stuxnet-type operation gone wrong, or dozens of other altogether-possible scenarios

So Mulligan imagines his post-catastrophe philosophers having to make do with what he calls the Princeton Codex– scrambled bits and pieces of Princeton University’s paper library that survived climate change and its attendant disasters, in roughly the same messed-up way as ancient European literature survived the Dark Ages.

Except for one big difference. Everything from the ancient world at least had a fighting chance of making it through the bad times, and a lot was waiting there for people like Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus to sort through and build on when the dust settled. In 2015 we’re probably already beyond that point. A steadily greater percentage of our knowledge is now preserved only up there in the cloud, and pretty soon it will be most of our knowledge; if it goes, it’s gone for good.

So that’s the Total-Catastrophe worry, but there’s also the Right-Here-Right-Now worry: digital knowledge reshuffles the sociology of knowledge, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse. At this point we don’t know how much worse, but maybe quite a bit.

On the plus side, the digital world gives new reality to old ideals of equality and fraternity. Like everyone else, I now connect directly and easily with scholars all over the world, people I would never have encountered in the old days. And I get to publish my thoughts in places like this without awaiting the approval of editors or reviewers. Sure, the hierarchies and barriers still exist, but they’re way weaker than they used to be.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville explained long ago, the third element in the great French trinity doesn’t necessarily play well with the other two– and Tocqueville would have loved thinking about liberty’s tormented place in the new digital regime. “Tormented,” because our online doings are watched 24/7, by governments, insurance companies, angry teens, employers, and all sorts of others. Real havoc regularly ensues–health coverage rejected, jobs lost, visas denied, legal trouble, personal humiliations.

In the nature of things, life in this new panopticon entails controlling what we say and do, and even what we learn– multiple authorities now monitor our visits to informational websites. It’s the most effective kind of censorship, the kind where we do the real work ourselves, each of us monitoring our own utterances.

That seems to be part of a larger problem, which we’ve barely started wrestling with: digital culture binds us extra-intensely to our late-capitalist social order, not only because the individual bonds are so strong, but also because there are so many of them. Of course we rely on the corporations that supply our computers, browsers, storage, electricity, etc etc etc. But we also find ourselves slotted into mini-capitalist-entrpreneur roles– each of us bloggers now worries about generating traffic, attracting readers, speaking to our audience; nowadays we’re all minor-league versions of the hustlers who produce the Big Bang Theory.

Higher up the food chain, the resemblance gets even creepier. Here’s the former director of a major digital humanities project, a well-established project at a great public university, speaking some years ago about his job: “A main part of Thomas’s role as Director is to write grants, as well as to seek out appropriate public and private agencies, whose interests match the VCDH’s projects. He compares it to finding funds for a venture capital firm.”

So in this world of surveillance, audience-seeking, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, what happens to the humanists’ trouble-making functions, our capacity to raise harsh questions and social criticism?

My own answer is, so far, so good. Anyone who reads these posts will understand how liberating I’ve found the new media. But the storm clouds are there, and they may get very dark, very fast.

 

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