The Human in Digital Humanities and Media Studies

Parakram's picture



Humane Scholars are the most unmechanized of men.

                                                            —Jacob Neusner, Scholars and Machines 1960


What do we know about the epistemological and ethical figure of the “Human” in our own work on the Digital? To what extent do we perceive its beleaguerment in the face of technological innovation? And in what ways are we engaged in the continual re-articulation of a Humanness in response to the alienating or inhumane conditions of our modern lives?

I believe that an epistemological intersection between Digital Humanities and Media Studies relies on their perceived relationship not merely to computing technologies, but rather to a history of techno-science: the intertwined relationship of technologies and scientific knowledge based on the belief that Science has the power to alter aspects of reality (material, political, and ethical). Not coincidentally, the origins of the digital computer emerge alongside the height of investment in technoscience at mid-20th century, and the Digital develops in complementary movement with particular theories—systems, cybernetics, information, and what is now Neuroscience—all that at the very least question the uniqueness and complexity of the human being alongside other observable phenomena. Within the contexts of poststructuralism or cultural studies such interrogation of the Human work towards anti-essentialist understandings. Within the context of techno-science, though, there is more ambivalence for the humanist scholar.

On the other hand, much capital and resource investment have gone into these cutting edge sciences. Whether housed within an English, Communications Studies, History, or Gender and Sexuality dept., the scholar of the humanities is well aware of the shifts at the University level, of disinvestment and redistribution based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics coalition (STEM) which has had its hand in legislation on every level in the U.S. The priority of the digital seems to be systemic as resources continue to grow not only for math and science concentrations, but now software writing, or “coding for kids” as a new mark of literacy. Thus, it seems that teaching with or teaching about digital media is now less about “thinking” than “making”. On the one hand the recently burgeoning Massive Online Learning Courses are marketed in part as a solution to the “problem” (budget, marketability, value?) facing the Liberal Arts in Universities, and on the other the job skill set of media “production experience” is less about techniques for the camera or studio production, and more about the ability to create apps for smart devices, or to instruct in flash animation. Our particular moment of question for a Humanities skill set in a STEM world is, I believe, a great opportunity to revisit our changing historical relationship with the sciences and with techno-science, as well as the unfortunate and artificial exacerbation of our differences via the Culture Wars.

I would also like to suggest that in our disciplinary debates that we continue to interrogate the Human in humanistic thought that is both productive of and delimiting to our understandings of technologies and scientific knowledge.

To the extent that the Digital marks a significant change to education, communication, and knowledge practices—it also marks another moment of retrenchment and reinvestment in what the Human is—on all ideological sides of discourse on technology. From “human-centric” and “intuitive” computing, to “Robo-ethics” in Artificial Intelligence research, to the growing number of Ethics courses in applied science colleges—there is a significant history to be done on the discourse of “humanizing technologies” that reaches back much further than the emergence of the digital computer.

Finally, if the digital occupies a space of “other” to our figure of the Human, what are the possibilities for a “digital non-humanities” as further study of this otherness?

Image on front page from Argonne National Library and available through Flickr










Emanuelle Wessels's picture

Technology and Anxiety in Academia

A very thoughtful piece on the fears and concerns over subjectivity and human-ness brought by the rapidly changing technological landscape that is increasing defining the work that academics do. What I find especially compelling about your post is the suggestion that these fears extend beyond the worry that teaching and learning technologies will render the professor obsolete by "stealing" the academic jobs. This narrative dominates critical discourse on technology and academia (see here and here). You indicate that there is a deeper level to the critical pushback against technological influence on academia that touches upon the question of what it means to be human. This inquiry is material, insofar as it signifies a distinction between the (obsolete?) humanist German Model of education and the contemporary version, which is global, technologically infused, and neoliberal. When the professor is "consumed" by students as an image fed into a computer during a Skype session, does that fundamentally alter what they are? What are the relationships between ontology, subjectivity, and capital in the age of digital humanities, online learning, and the ongoing demands for technological literacy? Must we retain our humanist notion of the professor, or would it behoove us to continue to interrogate it? Perhaps it is most beneficial to keep striving to use digital scholarship and innovation to our professional advantage, which involves practical solutions to work with the changes and not against them (I am thinking of Suzanne's new cyborg manifesto from earlier in this series). Are we simply seeing another instantiation of technophobic designation of technology as the "bad other?" I don't purport to offer answers/solutions to all of these questions, but I think that it would be productive to grapple with them. Thanks for evoking these philosophical concerns.