In Search of Balance: Debates on Digital Humanities

Writing a blog post is not writing. Writing about digital media does not determine the value of technology. I don’t know how to program. Using social networks, blogs, Blackboard, iGadgets, online-whatever, is only satisfying my feigned ability to use new technologies. You probably don’t know how to program either. But, friend, we gobble the new medium up. Don’t we? Too bad, for we’ve, once again, become the clientele of a small elite that in this case has managed to gain access to the true potentiality of new media. We accept the seller’s words as truth. It is safer to do it that way.

This is not new story for me.

Instead of pursuing new abilities, we fetishize new toys. (Rushkoff, 14)

At the same time, engines are given the capability to ‘think’ for themselves. If we continue to be consumers, we could be giving them our human agency, both individual and collective; our human force given to our much treasured gadgets. Where does its knowledge end and my cognition begin? And, viceversa? Some of our complex processes are made by machines now, so we no longer get a reward on trying to complete them traditionally, or manually.

Douglas Rushkoff provides all these statements to get us to suss the importance of being able to program ourselves. Prof. Ramsay has told us so many times in class. Engines could be shaping our world. But, “after all, who or what is really the focus of the digital revolution?” (14). It looks like instead of taking advantage of what these machines could do for us humans, we are rearranging humans to use/serve machines (15). The solution, says Rushkoff, could be in deciding how devices are programmed; or at least know how and why are they programmed. We could be programming these tools, why are we not doing it already? What would be the purpose, anyway, one could ask. Being able to “adapt to the technologies of tomorrow” (130) as well as to comprehend that transformation (both of technology and society) comes from programming.

Transformations. By the time I finished that reading I was already wondering, what implications does our ignorance of programming carry in the Humanities? Rushkoff points out that now “we cannot truly communicate, because we have no idea how the media we are using bias the message we are sending and receiving” (133). Thus, if we are going to study all spheres of human knowledge, we need to grasp that bias of the information due to the media. We have to add the Digital realm to our inquiries. Maybe, Johanna Drucker provides a better insight on the need for a Digital scholarship inside the Humanities. She turns around the question, though. Instead of the usual: How is digital environments affecting traditional scholarship?, she asks:

Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment?

An answer would be ‘what are you talking about?’ Critical thinking is not applied as it used to. The worrisome fact is that we are taking for granted anything out there for its “persuasive and seductive rhetorical force of visualization.”  For that reason, Drucker calls for an assertion of the cultural authority of the Humanities in this digital world we now live in. It would be the best way to give critical and cultural value to these platforms. Method and theory have to become one. Doing and thinking. Not just thinking.

Humanists accepted the new tools as they provided an awesome way to have all the versions of a texts in the same webpage. It had never been that easy to compare four versions of the same poem. New levels of inquiry. What could be possible to do, then, if humanities were to actually create the digital contexts? After all, data mining or concordances have been done without computers.

Now, my questions go back to the beginning of the semester, when we were discussing about the meaning of DH and their implementation in the departments of literary studies, history, etc.: Where to start from? Do we want to teach undergrads to program within their chosen non-computational discipline? Personally, I would have loved to be taught further into programming languages while taking all the classes in Modern Languages and Technologies. They certainly gave me an insight look at editing, social networking, blogging, etc. But, besides having this blog, creating a Wiki page and editing a text, I did not learn how to program. The little I know, I learnt on my own. Should we leave it to the choice of students to learn or not? Should this be an self-taught skill? No, it shouldn’t.

On the other hand, and in tune with Alan Liu, I am also concerned that programming might become the way to go for DH scholars. Criticism is much needed while we curate cultural artifacts. Or while we create them. Thus, once we come to terms on the need to take part on the programming of our society, not only do we have to start creating digital culture but also being critical and analytical about it. Unquestionably, there is a need to achieve fair equilibrium to understand this age.

Works cited:

Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. New York: OR Books, 2010.

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2012.

Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2012.