What do the humanities give back?

Technology has bequeathed to the liberal arts a new, more expansive life. But the liberal arts also have lessons to bequeath, and we ignore them at our peril.

Technology—>Liberal Arts

Academia has its own version of the lean, scrappy start-up: the digital humanities. You could be forgiven for not knowing such a thing existed; however, as culture evolves increasingly online, this upstart field offers a model for collaboration between technology and the liberal arts.

The digital humanities proceeds on the assumption that “computational technology can advance the long-standing goals of the humanities”—namely, to teach and study, research and interpret language, literature, history, and other disciplines that examine human nature and seek to account for human experience.

The inaugural digital humanities project began with a pilgrimage, in 1949, from Italy to IBM. Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit, spent years compiling a word-stem concordance—a lemmatization—of some 11 million Latin words from the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, using punch cards and an early computer.

Today, thanks to tools such as Google’s Ngram viewer, we can create textual data akin to Busa’s Aquinas index at will. The “unsettling of hierarchies” promised by the digital humanities now should sound familiar to anyone who has ever extolled Twitter’s democratizing force. No longer must we rely on affiliation with closed institutions—university, church—to conduct nuanced humanistic research, or to publish it:

Need the precise wording of a reference from Emerson’s journals that evolved into a line in his essay Nature? Google Books has got your back.

Looking for recent scholarship on Thoreau’s Walden? JSTOR is just a VPN sign-in (or a subscription, but that’s another story) away.

Searching for nineteenth-century broadsides from your couch? Archives are offering more and more invaluable collections online.

We are in the midst of a great sea change. Humanists are swimming, and occasionally sinking, in an embarrassment of informational riches. The hierarchies that historically made the liberal arts possible are crumbling. Like it or not, technology is the driving force in a new, digital humanism.

What, then, should tech take from the humanities?

Liberal Arts—>Technology

If we take from the liberal arts one guideline on how to inhabit an increasingly non-analog world, it should be this digital humanities mission statement: “to remain aware of the uncertain, varied, unruly terrain of human existence even as that existence gets represented in digital form.”

Variation and difference make humanity compelling, and the great use value of the humanities is to explain why. The watchwords “critical reading” and “critical thinking” boil down to a belief that every statement, every action contains layers of meaning. There is no singular interpretation of, say, Moby-Dick not because there is no accounting for taste but because the great white whale might, in fact, stand simultaneously for everything and nothing.

But how? To articulate a compelling response to that question is to exercise the mental and linguistic rigor required by the liberal arts.

Thanks to sites like Medium, we read and write increasingly online. Thanks to partnerships between higher education and private industry, we are developing computer software to assess writing. To make good democratic hay of this entrepreneurial moment, it behooves us to remember that interpretive complexity creates a richer, more diverse world, one that thrives on rather than perishes by difference.

The liberal arts understand the crucial significance of a variety of voices, shades of experience, statements that are qualified rather than absolute. Technology, with its wide net and beautifully simple systems, can make it so.