Christine Henseler, “The Humanities in the Digital Age”

As everyone knows, Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW. But what you may not know, is that the original software program that he tinkered with and that ultimately gave rise to the Web was called Enquire, short for Enquire Within Upon Everything. This title derived from a musty old book in Victorian advice first published in 1856 that Berners-Lee noticed on his parent’s bookshelf. He was fascinated by this text because he considered it “suggestive of magic, [like] a portal to a world of information, [including] everything from how to remove clothing stains to tips on investing money” (1). The expansive content of this book was not, he admitted, “a perfect analogy for the Web, but [it was] a primitive starting point” (1). And this point of departure led him to program the first strings of code for an idea that was based on a much larger vision, one that encompassed “the decentralized, organic growth of ideas, technology and society [. . .] about anything being potentially connected with anything” (1). He explained in his book, Weaving the Web (1999), that this was “a vision that [provided] us with new freedom, and [allowed] us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselves” (1-2). Through this prism he realized that “the entirety of our previous ways of working [was] just one tool among many. It [left] our previous fears for the future as one set among many. And it [brought] the workings of society closer to the workings of our mind” (2). He reminds us that despite the various ways in which we use the Web today—commerce, research, surfing—and perhaps because the Web is already so much part of our lives, our understanding of the origins and the full potential of the Web has been clouded (2). Similarly, our perception of the potential of the Humanities in the digital age can be rediscovered when we re-consider the Web on the deeper, more mindful level that Berners-Lee first imagined.

You see, Berners-Lee joined technology with society and the mind, that is, with the humanities, with the “enquiry within upon everything,” right from the start. The origins of his ideas remind us that we cannot, ever, talk about the power of technology in the twenty-first century without considering both its social and human impact and involvement. Without the critical, creative, and analytical power of the mind’s eye, as we know, any words and images remain as flat as the screen on which they are projected. Berners-Lee realized that, “A computer typically keeps information in rigid hierarchies and matrices, whereas the human mind has the special ability to link random bits and data” (3). He realized that “computers could become much more powerful if they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information” (4). But while foreseeing the power of creating structures like nodes instead of trees or branches, Berners-Lee also recognized that computers could only assist humans in legwork, but the intuitive finding of “solutions to our problems” was one that only the human mind could ultimately accomplish (5).

When mainstream media, politicians, educators, and critics cut and eliminate Humanities programs and disproportionately support STEM disciplines, they reduce Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web to less than fifty percent. With one stroke of the pen, they diminish the full potential of humankind. In truth, computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are exceptional at developing new systems and structures, tools and technologies. But, as my lovely colleague in digital art, Fernando Orellana reminds us, many of our STEM students only know how to use and create tools, like hammers to drive nails into boards. In other words, they are amazing builders and technicians, but in the end, all they create is a new board with nails perfectly hammered into its planks. They may be able to use those boards to build frames and support walls, even build a series of superstructures, but what good are these constructions if left empty of human habitation and meaning? Good engineers do not just build buildings or bridges, they also analyze the environmental impact, human uses, economic, cultural, and political impact of their work. As such, the power of what the humanities contribute to the world at large may not be backed into marginal or abstract thought processes or reduced to skills without application, or brought to the forefront only when going digital through data mining, mapping or visualization. No, we need to be thought of as a significant and central part of the inherent structures that determine the twenty-first century, not as an afterthought, not as an aside, not as abstract or insignificant, but present everywhere, right from the very start.

You see, despite all of the cries for help and the signs of doom and crisis, or maybe because of them, I think we stand before a moment of great opportunity: the humanities, like the web, have an enormous role to play in human’s articulation and understanding of today’s world. Our disciplines are exceptional at engaging with processes in node-like relations whose role is to un-knot problems and questions, make the invisible visible while retaining the fluidity and linking possibilities that make us so unique. There is a reason why the word “node” comes from the latin “nodus,” meaning “knot.” A “node” only exists within a network of associations that, together, either activate connection points for redistribution or function as end points. But nodes don’t stand alone, and they are always moving, receiving, sending, or absorbing. Therefore, unknotting the predominance and significance of any one idea, concept, or element must always be an interactive and collaborative affair. In other words, we should not try to go at it alone; and neither should the STEM disciplines.

To start building new structures of our own, we must embark from the question of how the humanities and humanistic studies can matter more in any and all areas of academic and personal life. We may want to stress the historical importance and future potential of a vision in which the humanities have always been knotted or tied into a first-class education for any and all citizens. In our knotted vision, humanistic perspectives are found in possibly any and all disciplines on and off campus. In the vision we need to unknot, today’s emphasis on STEM disciplines must be met with renewed and inherent energy and understanding of how the humanities matter in today’s tech-driven world. If we, or better yet, our colleagues in other fields, can stress the human impact of environmental disasters, the role of human happiness in equations on economic growth, or the storytelling techniques used by police forces in Argentina, we can also tell our politicians and parents what humanistic perspectives they are leaving out in their arguments against the educational and professional value of the humanities. In essence we need to work toward performing the most difficult task of Berners-Lee’s career: namely getting different operating systems to talk to and understand one another.

The process of tying and untying the knots that separate the Humanities from the STEM disciplines is one that is as complex as it can be productive. To do so, we must begin by thinking differently about some of our own structures. At a recent New Media Consortium conference, MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito reminded us that our political, economic, and educational institutions are built on pasts of big systems centrally controlled. He suggests we ask ourselves, how can our institutions celebrate ways of doing things that may not be expected, but also do not give up total control? How can we build in more freedoms in diverse environments? How can we develop controlled structures that allow for a greater degree of flexibility, agility and connectivity, no matter what approach to learning and to research we may pursue? From my perspective, this reevaluation of our structures is also extremely important because when others decide to take us down, we should be ready to build new structures in their stead. And they should be stronger, higher, deeper, more fluid, more integrated, perhaps even more malleable. Like an invisible cloak, we should be able to move anywhere we want no matter where others might want to place us.

In addition, we should ask ourselves, how we can build in and engage with the tensions we naturally face between disciplines, between communities, and between discourses and philosophies? As I was looking for images to accompany this talk, I came across this photograph on a site subtitled “Architecture of the Air,” in which the author talked about the existence of inherent synergistic structures in our universe on a micro and macro level in which elements naturally reside in a “tensional network,” which serves as the foundation of this business’s “tension-fabric designs.” To adopt and adapt this approach to our current crisis, how then can we actively work with the social, economic, political, and academic tensions we sense on micro levels to build a larger vision of the humanities on a macro-level for the future? How can we, like this company, quickly transform interior and exterior spaces to change the educational fabric of our institutions? And how can we do a better job at working together, especially inter-institutionally, to accomplish this goal?

This is our time. This is our opportunity. We need to not only work with our fabric, with our tensions, but also with and on the edges so as not to lose our edge. Emmy Award-winning American author and television writer, Michael Malone recently wrote a piece called “How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities” in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said:

“We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.”

If my presentation today is anything, it is a call, not to arms, but to the arts and letters. We must not lose our edge in this century of technology. Together, we can do what the Web does best every single second of the day, namely tell millions of stories through words, images, and music. Where are the humanities but not on the screen of every adult and child looking at their computers, i-phones or i-pods? Where are the stories but not in any successful enterprise? What made President Obama’s second run a success? He recognized that “the ‘mistake’ of the early years of his presidency was his focus on getting policy right while not also conveying the story of why the policy matters” (Epstein). So let’s remind the policy makers, the entrepreneurs, and the technologists not only why they need to tell a good story, but how to tell a good story. Because to write or represent a good story we have to connect and link ideas, we have to use and think about the design of spaces, the power of the image, the sound, the word, the logic behind our arguments, the cultural perspectives of our audiences, the faith, or lack thereof, in what we do. It means working with the tensions that technology, society, and the mind have always provided us, right from the start.

So, before anybody tries to write us out of their storylines, I invite you to create the stories that others should read, see, and sense. Create them out of words, steel, brick, dig deep and reach high to make and remix any and all of your ideas, big or small. As a faculty member, I encourage leaders to collaborate inter-institutionally and internationally to retain our edge in this century of technology. As one of the co-leaders of the advocacy collective 4Humanities, I invite you to contribute your voices and your work to our showcase, our plain and simple initiative, or our future media campaigns. But instead of presenting stories about the humanities solely to place on our websites, for our audiences of already converted and convinced, I encourage everyone to step into the public arena within which policy, budget, and politics are decided and the opinion of the general public is molded. Help us all rediscover the humanities and write and create for mainstream newspapers and magazines, blogs, tweets and videos that go viral. Speak on public radio shows and newscasts; create advertisements for MSNBC or Hulu.com, and begin to build the scaffolding that supports our old structures and contributes in the making of the new or remixed.

In the process of building a new structure for the humanities, don’t forget Berners-Lee’s secret ingredient, namely the importance of “connecting the unconnected.” We must prove that different operating systems can find common ground, that innovation can lie in productive tensions, and that we can and must share in the future of the digital age. In the process, we must remember that the Humanities are not in or out of the digital age, we are not a before that must radically alter to partake in a new century after the fact, nor are we just one ingredient inside this network of structural hybrid nodes. We are not in the digital age. No, we are the digital age. The bits and bytes of the digital age, the entire structure upon which Berners-Lee designed the Web, has always been powered by the Humanities.

Works Cited

Christine Henseler is Associate Professor of Spanish at Union College. She works on topics pertaining to Generation X, twenty-first century Spanish literature, media and cultural studies, and the humanities.

3 thoughts on “Christine Henseler, “The Humanities in the Digital Age”

  1. This is a very insightful and inspiring article. I have heard this term, “Humanities and the Digital Age,” a lot lately, but your articles sheds light on the deep and meaningful connections between the Humanities and the Web. I recently heard a podcast about the Web and open spaces. I think another important link between the Humanities and the Web is their open accessibility. Innovation and dialogue are only possible if we make our research more accessible beyond academics. Thanks!

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