When humanities meet the digital age

Jean-Luc Besset
Oct 9 · 10 min read

Since humans have inhabited the Earth, they have lived, survived the elements, honed their abilities and techniques, invented the wheel, writing, the steam engine, electricity and computers. They have conquered major diseases and even walked on the Moon.
They have also suffered, hated, loved and dreamed. And never lost hope.

Humanity gradually organized itself into tribes and later into nations with appointed leaders. These peoples have formed alliances, fought, reconciled, and reconquered one another in an endless cycle for reasons of survival, land, beliefs or simple rivalry. Often these reasons are nonsensical and biased.

Empire of the Humanities

Historians

Early on, storytellers orally passed down myths to explain origins, from the creation of the universe to the founding of cities.
Some of them then attempted to more accurately describe past events and put them in writing.

They were called historians. Their work was eventually codified and became a profession. Their ultimate objective was to train new generations and enlighten future ones.

Long confined to the conquests and lives of great men, their work was focused on less glorious yet equally enlightening subjects that ranged from studying the daily lives of ordinary people to economics, culture, family structures, personal inclinations, mindsets and ideas, and embracing the entire past of human experience.
Celebrated figures such as Thuculide, Herodotus, Gibbon, Michelet,
Bloch and Braudel have raised the discipline to great heights.

Billions of pages have been filled with facts, causal links and perspectives.
The same event can elicit so many different conflicting and complementary approaches and viewpoints! History is like an ogre whereby all of human experience is destined to be forever devoured by the vast ocean that is the past, whose every part reveals a world unto itself that is often unexplored and always somehow out of grasp.

For everything is history. A punk concert in 1977 is historic! A 1961 civil rights march in Alabama, a new film, a book, a medical discovery, a basketball game between small college teams, the introduction of the Macintosh computer in January 1984, a tragic news story, a new TV series. They are all historic to varying degrees and they chisel a more or less permanent groove on our destiny and memory.
Even a family vacation in Tuscany becomes part of the family’s own history where diaries, biographies and memoirs also help build the immense knowledge base of the human experience.

Novelists

But the game isn’t over yet.
For nearly six centuries, other people have been telling us about lives other than our own. Book by book they have imagined and unveiled the diversity of experiences, behaviors and human feelings that have existed or may happen. They are called novelists.

Their contemporaries consider them to be suppliers of distraction, bewitchment or pleasure that is created to help us escape for a few hours in an armchair, on a train, the beach or in bed. We are mistaken.

The truth is that historians have called upon writers for help and they belong to the same secret brotherhood. Their true role, through fiction, is to reveal part of the human condition, its future, feelings, dreams and fears.
Historians and novelists accurately map the experience of humankind, the novelist revealing through his creations what the historian cannot see.

Behind every work of fiction there is a feeling, a character, a personality, a particular experience that each of us has already, could have or might know first hand. The impossible quest of Don Quixote; Emma Bovary’s conjugal melancholy; the detached indifferent figure like Camus’ Meursault; the lyricism of youth in Kundera’s The Joke; the lessons, writings and social inferiority experienced by Martin Eden; the lost paradises and involuntary memory of Proust; the impossible love of Romeo and Juliet; Rodrigue’s sense of honor; the passing of time and waiting for Drogo in the desert; the disproportionate love of a mother in Promise at Dawn; the cold revenge of Edmond Dante; and, last by not least, the homesickness of Ulysses.

Thousands of examples recount humanity, experiences and feelings that are so much older than us. In our eternal pride, we think we are blazing new trails while simply following time-worn grooves.

Artists

But a third cast of characters helps us understand human destiny.
They always need to connect with beauty as a way to tap into their sensations and dreams. “Beauty will save the world,” says Dostoevsky in The Idiot.

Over the centuries, artists (poets, painters, sculptors, musicians) have assumed this essential albeit incidental role to give shape to the timeless workings of the mind. From animals on the walls of dark caves to glass cathedrals, from Quattrocento to Monet, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Marcel Duchamp’s video installations, Da Vinci to Warhol, songs of courtly love to Bach and the Beatles, Omar Khayam quatrains to Walt Whitman verses, the reality and triviality of life, money, the enigma, the dream and the mystery have all fueled human introspection and the question of our relationship to time.

An Ocean of Humanity(ies)

In a nutshell, we may just think we are experiencing a moment of pleasure by reading a page, contemplating a painting or listening to a song, but from time to time this millennia-old brotherhood of historians, novelists and artists deliberately built an ocean of significant knowledge filled with signs, letters, sounds, images and forms.
It turns out that for centuries this brotherhood has been mapping the entire human experience, its dreams, feelings, past, hopes and creations. It is not for nothing that we have long labeled their lessons as the Humanities.

The Great Digital Invasion

But history never ends. Indeed, a major event at the end of the last century toppled the apple cart:
Digital technology burst onto the scene.

For a long time, scientists have been confined to a universe of numbers far removed from the world of letters. The hard sciences stopped mixing with the soft sciences like they had in the Renaissance. Scientists were alone with their calculations and equations, left in offices or laboratories to invent formulas, design techniques and push the limits in mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and biology until computing was invented. Brilliant entrepreneurs did the rest.

In the span of a few years, business and then life and hobbies have changed. And since things have accelerated, engineers followed scientists and suddenly invited themselves into history and didn’t hesitate to step through the door.

Digital technology was originally only another way to access information,
but with the smartphone invasion it has become an almost singular focus in an increasingly accelerated way of life strained by economic constraints. Indeed, there are still only 24 hours in a day! And what do we do with this precious time?

The mass of digital uses is today converging towards the consumption of subpar content that is distributed or suggested by algorithms and intended to distract us from real life, to capture and then drive our attention, in short,
to colonize our brain.

Here, too, Gresham’s Law reigns: bad money drives out good.
If we only have five minutes (and we ALWAYS have only five minutes),
what do we prefer to look at? Another cat video or a piece of art? You know the answer (unless you prefer that Instagram picture of a beachside wineglass over cats). Our mental landscape has mutated.

We went from a virgin land, known only to us, isolated and wild, only crossed by the wind of our imagination, our memory, and our will, to one that has suddenly become a studied, mapped, explored, fractured, hunted and exploited field. In short, it’s now a business. The largest current market capitalizations are the result of this business.

Our digital experience has become the exclusive territory of the present.
We have lost in both depth and time what we have gained in long-distance communications.
At the beginning of the last century, a European child’s way of life and mentality were more similar to his ancestors in the Middle Ages from the same village than to his young counterparts in Delhi or Patagonia. The reverse is true today.
Similarly, when our parents and grandparents were young, they maintained a valuable link with the past by hearing family stories, learning from past generations, reading books, those unique vehicles to lost worlds. Exoticism was elsewhere, in the space dimension, in what we called “distant countries.”

Today this exoticism is in the temporal dimension called yesterday.

Our mental landscape in its connivance has spun on its axis from vertical to horizontal, from transmission to communication.
We live in the age of horizontality, false information, instant gratification and cognitive bubbles, generators of ignorance, division and hatred.

Artificial Intelligence

But previously and more discreetly, in the middle of the last century, other seeds were planted, notably by the English mathematician Alan Turing (who cracked the German code and helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II).

To achieve their full potential, these seeds waiting for the full effects of Moore’s law on the power of machines and our exponential number of traces and digital data. The “data,” THE raw material of this ongoing revolution: artificial intelligence.

AI already has thousands of concrete applications in services today, in start-up schedules or engineering dreams, in any area where the cognitive plays a role, which means almost everywhere. And just as clouds usher in a storm, artificial intelligence is ushering in fantastic promises and terrible fears.

But let’s go back to the human brain that years of digital consumption have already radically transformed. With the progress of neuroscience, biology, computer science and especially the merger of their respective grammars into a common one (at the end everything there is an algorithm), it is clear that AI will make our poor brain one of its main fields of conquest.

The Four Musketeers

We now face a fork in the road:

Route 1. We continue our momentum and entrust not only all our decisions, but also our imagination to machines. And why not? They already know us better than our friends, our family, our spouse and probably ourselves. (You’ll see, they will even end up knowing our inner sanctum.) But this will end a certain kind of humanity as we have known it forever.

Route 2. The Brotherhood of Humanists decides to let in scientists. They add letters to numbers. They are like the Musketeers, except there are four.

For example, within the next decade AI, biology and neuroscience will make it possible to decisively and positively influence our brains by adding fragments of selected experiences, biographical traces, a body of knowledge and wisdom in order to change our attitudes and behavior, and thereby our happiness.

Let’s assign digital and artificial intelligence the task of collecting, processing, transcribing and transmitting the entire human experience, including that sensitive, complex and devoured world we call the past that historians, novelists and artists have been passing down and creating for centuries. The historic, literary and artistic past that includes popular culture and is an unknown untapped part of ourselves, yet the only thing that can help us understand and fully feel the world around us: a military conflict, a question political, a work of art, a landscape, a feeling.

Would we live life the same way if we knew that our misfortunes, happiness and major questions have already been experienced an infinite number of times and described in a novel, a poem or a history book? Not by opening a book, but by it being right there in our brains.
What are thousands of exhausted tourists looking for in Machu Picchu? Is it really a pile of stones between heaven and Earth? Or rather the civilization of which they are a trace.
Imagine knowing about and personally experiencing every work before visiting a museum. We all know that the eye sees nothing without the lens of culture, whether it’s a ruin at the Roman Forum or a painting at the Louvre.

Wouldn’t you pay more for a visit if it didn’t involve the touristic drudgery of staring at rectangles on a wall?
Finally, suppose a young white Southern man instantly and always not only had knowledge of African-American history (including its fiction, songs and art), but also real insight into the lived experience of a young black man. Wouldn’t the world be a better place? (This example works in both directions, of course.)

That would be true augmented reality.

Somewhere, history has a logic. Like relay runners, historians, writers and artists were waiting for the last runner to pass the baton and complete the masterpiece. They were just waiting for the right time. It would have been a shame if Moore’s law and artificial intelligence appeared before humanity had acquired the knowledge and experience (paid for with centuries of suffering). And also before Faulkner, Hugo, Picasso, Mozart, Da Vinci, Shakespeare and all the others.

At the beginning of the 21th century, humanity must face the prospect of its own demise from two groups of opposing threats:

External threats: Climate change, global warming and the disappearance of biodiversity that is radically changing humanity’s relationship to nature and its living environment.

Internal threats: The attitude of the human community in relation to itself and its past experience, the return of a tragic story, the renewed questioning of the meaning of life, of free will. In fine, the relationship to everything that made us us before the digital colonization.

To fight against both, we must rethink our consumerist model: must more take care of our being by populating our thoughts and culture vs focus on having stuff.

ever.li strives to build a better world by intersecting the humanities & AI.

“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.
Albert Camus’ Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech,
Stockholm, December 10, 1957

Jean-Luc Besset
jeanluc@ever.li,
Oct 9 2019

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