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I tend to think in stories and the best ones inhabit me, so as I learn more about the digital humanities—like the fish gaining heightened awareness about the water in which he swims—one story resonates. In “Men areDifferent,” Alan Bloch (1963) writes about a robot archeologist—an android indistinguishable from humans—who tells about the shared history of robots and humans and then describes his trip to a faraway planet where he encountered a man, the last one in the universe. This lonely man “had forgotten how to talk” but with time, the robot and the man learned to communicate. One day the man complained of heat so the robot, inferring that the man’s thermostats were faulty, turned him off by piercing his neck—the same method used to switch off a robot—but alas, he could not get him “running” again. Soon this last man weathered away to bones. A classic science fiction foreboding, elements in Bloch’s tale align with my expanding knowledge and experience of the digital humanities and, as an educator, studying this field awakens within me an urgency for ongoing education, new literacies, and collaboration to foster a more humanistic future for our society. As MIT Scholars Burdick, et al, (2012) ask, what does it mean to be a human being in the networked information age? (p. vii). We had better find out.
Although written in the 1960s, Bloch’s story echoes our current digital reality. Almost everyone on Earth (myself included) is in what feels like an benign relationship with a smart device, yet the power dynamics are not reciprocal. For example, corporations like Facebook use us puppet-like as “unpaid labour” (Berry & Fagerjord, 2017, p. 16) as they mine our online practices for consumer trends and patterns. Each ‘like’ is data for them and dopamine for us. How did we end up here? Technology and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (2011) cautions, “[i]t is time to take stock” (p. 19), time to expose the ways technological tools have evolved (or not) and critically examine their effects on crowd behaviours, finance, research, culture, even spirituality: “the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” (Lanier, p. 19-20). Technology is accelerating rapid social change in how we shop, engage with text, communicate, even fall in love. Amidst the knowledge and skills required to navigate this rapid change and their underlying mechanisms, how do we reinforce humanistic pursuits?
Taking stock means assessing our current situation, getting educated, and acting on it in ways that advance epistemology, reasoning, and practices. Although Bloch’s story fancies that technological determinism—powered by artificial intelligence toward a dangerous endgame—is inevitable, our global society can still influence and positively alter our future if we embrace means and methods that seek to enlighten our technological paths and the information it produces. We can continue to simply consume slick technology for convenience, escapism, trolling—whatever ‘feels’ we seek—or we can use these tools to enable an alternative: “we have to think about the digital layers we are laying down now in order to benefit future generations” and address important issues including “global warming… new energy … wars… aging populations …basic business” (Lanier, 2011, p. 36). There is much to understand about the digital underpinnings at play in our technology; Humanities-based literacies will play a significant role worldwide. Burdick, et al (2012), propose that “Digital humanities may well function as a core curriculum for the 21st century” (p. 5), one where we join forces as global stakeholders in advancing fundamental human rights and values. This is critical given our current environment. With something as simple as basic digital citizenship we have leaders tweeting about the size of their nuclear buttons.
In Bloch’s story the robot-archaeologist acts as an historian yet his worldview is dangerously one-sided. By nature, archeology requires digging. Digital humanities provide a means to ‘dig’ into Lanier’s “layers” and “structures” inherent in both the sciences and the humanities. Rosenbloom (2012) highlights a need for “a form of methodological pluralism in which multiple methods may be necessary to increase our understanding of individual domains” (p. 223). This requires a new collaboration between the humanities and the sciences, a return to a basic founding principle of the digital Information Age: “[the Internet itself] provided a new model of how people could communicate with each other, [and] changed the nature of collaboration” (Lenier, et al, 1997, p. 7). Digital Humanities scholars, Berry & Fagerjord (2017) also emphasize renewed and new forms of collaboration to facilitate “both the ‘hack’ aspect of knowing how to use computers in humanities scholarship, and the ‘yack’ aspect of knowing how to think about what it is we are doing” (p. 1). Lanier (2010) likewise illustrates the associated negative outcomes of a lack of collective, thoughtful reflection on how to use technology nobly: “I fear we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in the process” (p. 39).
Bloch’s robot-archeologist, certainly lacked the necessary empathy and humanity, thus the tragic outcome. The story evokes the discord between “machine” and mankind, what Rosenbloom (2012) refers to as the “uneasy relationship between science and the humanities” (p. 220). If Bloch’s robot represents science, and pathos for the last man represents the absence of humanities, Bloch’s climax implies that we must better understand our technological tools and their impact or, through ignorance and entropy, aid our downfall. It is necessary to infuse a humanistic worldview in our approach to technology or like the fate of Bloch’s last man see our values “weather away.” But how? Through education and new literacies that combine the sciences and the humanities and through shared goals. Without it, we will remain like intellectuals feasting at a dinner party, armed with only perfunctory knowledge about our food’s origins and thus continue take our feast for granted.
In Bloch’s story the robot and the man had to learn to communicate with each other. Assuming mankind created the robot, how did they lose a common language? At some historical point, one might hypothesize they evolved to form differing networks. Using his treatise on our networked society in the Information Age, Castells (2000) might also propose that one network had switched off another it deemed no-longer compatible (p. 22). Castells (2000) notes that “there is little chance of social change within a given network” (p. 22) except “to challenge the network from the outside and in fact destroy it by building an alternative network around alternative values” (p. 16). Indeed. This is key to our current story too. If we develop an alternative network founded on technical literacy combined with humanities principles—such as wisdom, philosophy, reasoning—we can foster a new discourse, one founded in critical thinking intent on using powerful technological tools for greater social stewardship: “Digital_Humanities…envisages the present era as one of exceptional promise for the renewal of humanistic scholarship and sets out to demonstrate the contributions of contemporary humanities scholarship to new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments.” (Burdick, et al, 2012, p. 7).
Like Bloch’s story reveals, there is a current need to reflect on unequal power dynamics and expose/examine the “switchers or power-holders in our society (…connections between media and politics, financial markets and technology, science and the military, and drug traffic and global finance through money laundering)” (Castells, 2000, p. 16). In doing so, we can expose this “human-made automaton” (Castells, 2000, p. 17) global network currently shaping our society rather than the other way around. As Lanier (2010) states, “someone who has been immersed in [our current] orthodoxy [like a fish unaware of the water] needs to experience a figure-ground reversal in order to gain perspective” (p. 23). I am most interested in Lanier’s (2010) “alternative mental environment” (p. 26), with diverse perspectives not composed of a mass of “people who are no longer acting like individuals” (p. xiii). Digital humanities provide new ways to reflect on technology, media, text, research, our values, our future. As an educator dedicated to advancing learning, I recognize at the core of Bloch’s story the breakdown that enables a technological dystopia: ignorance, sustained by apathy or exploited by greed. I doubt Bloch’s notion of our bleak future; however, without education and new literacies—without the combined ‘hack’ and ‘yack,’ we may not even recognize what is human, if we are all thinking like Bloch’s robot.
Berry, D. & Fagerjord, A. (2017) On the way to computational thinking. In Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age. Malden, MA: Polity. 1, 16.
Bloch, A. (1963). Men are Different. In Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales. Asimov, I. & Conklin, G. (Eds.) Collier Books. USA. Retrieved from http://www.gdhsenglish.com/thompson/assets/pdfs/ENG3U1%20pdf's/Short%20Stories/Men%20Are%20Different.pdf
Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T. & Schnapp, J. (2012). Digital_Humanities. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA. vii, 5, 7.
Castells, M. (2000). Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society. British Journal of Sociology. Vol. No. 51 Issue No. 1. London School of Economics 2000. 16, 17, 22.
Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a Gadget. Vintage Books. New York, NY. xiii, 19-20, 23, 26, 36, 39.
Lenier, B.M., et al. (1997). Brief History of the Internet. Internet Society. 7. Retrieved from https://www.internetsociety.org/internet/history-internet/brief-history-internet/
Rosenbloom, P. (2012). Toward a Conceptual Framework for the Digital Humanities. In Digitial Humanities Quarterly, 6 (2). 220, 223. Retrieved from http://ict.usc.edu/pubs/Towards%20a%20Conceptual%20Framework%20for%20Digital%20Humanities.pdf