Just back from the Adirondacks, where I spent a couple of days at a Syracuse University faculty conference on “Digital Humanities,” of if not that, exactly, on the use of digital platforms for the purpose of research and pedagogy in the humanities (publishing books online, multi-media platforms, digital archiving, preservation of digital materials, data visualization, text and data mining, use of media in the classroom, including blogs). Surprisingly very little was said about online education or MOOCs, and nothing positive.
As I’ve said before at this site, the use of digital tools has the potential to extend the profile of small, niche discourses, like Jewish Studies. More get-together than conference, presentations were informally presented for the purpose of encouraging discussion among faculty colleagues interested in this kind of stuff. My own entry into this discourse has been via interests in images, the imagination, places, and platforms, and their re-organization into the kind of picture thinking more commonly called Jewish philosophy. Apparently, these interests and running this blog and promoting it on social media were enough to got me on the list. Happily, the event was dominated by younger colleagues far more digitally native and fluent than I.
My own informally presented remarks were included under a “panel” on “Critiquing and/or escaping digital culture.” Refusing the binary between the human and technological, I based my comments on Lewis Mumford, Susan Sontag, and Vilem Flusser. Mumford recognized the need to integrate and humanize technologies. Sontag thought about cultivating a more ecological approach by which to negotiate the profusion of photographic images, which we can now understand as a problem relating to technology. And Flusser would seemed to have ripped off almost whole cloth from Abraham Joshua Heschel the importance of Shabbat in “the universe of technical images.”
My own thoughts fall somewhere in what I hope is a sweet spot between and against technological determinism and luddite reaction. While advanced technological systems run 24/7, I wanted to suggest in my comments that most of the machines that we use have an on/off switch. It’s possible to shut down a device or to go offline on a regular basis, to diminish your “technological footprint” even as you extend it, to combine old technologies and old media with new ones. Which systems we use and how reflect purposeful decisions based on intentional consciousness more or less undetermined in advance one way or the other by the technological environments we inhabit and that inhabit us.
Digital tools and environments open up all kinds of transformational possibilities in the university humanities, to change the way we understand the objects of our scholarly interests, and the very character or structures of these objects as they are placed in new world contexts. If I’m not phobic about these technologies overwhelming those objects, it is for two reasons. Old technologies tend to cohabit with new technologies and vice versa. This was a point made by Bolter and Grusin in Remediation. Secondly, and just as importantly, I don’t think limits on technology are antithetical or heteronomous to technology. I’m guessing that limits are actually worked into and integrated into the internal design of technological systems and the way in which we use them and think about them.
At the level of the device, if not the system or technical environment itself, people make decisions all the time, good ones and bad ones. But the decision making is not mono-form. Before the emergence of a new medium, one made the decision to purchase and use this device or that device. For instance, do I “want” or “need” a smartphone? Is my employer insisting that I own and use one? Do I want to explore the relationship between an academic object or field such as Judaism, Jewish thought and technology, to consider Judaism and Jewish thought as technology; or to consider the place of Jewish Studies in Digital Humanities and the place of Digital Humanities in Jewish Studies? Regarding smartphones, now, for middle class people, the decision is not to buy one; meaning that the person who does not own and use a smartphone has made a conscious and self-conscious effort not to do so, for combinations of personal, political, ecological, and aesthetic reasons. And it may be in the near future that my colleagues and friends in Jewish Studies or Religion Studies will have to make the conscious decision not to pay attention to technology or to digital humanities, whereas today it is considered perfectly normal not to engage these questions or phenomena.
About MOOC’s in the university, I’m betting on huge fights between faculty and administrators. Indeed, MOOC’s and things like Google-Glasses and self-driving Google-cars may constitute the limit point that defines the emergence of Digital Humanities, and digital culture more broadly, simply because they prove too dangerous or damaging to either the public good and any semblance of agency and privacy that people might want to preserve. It’s hard to say in advance one way or the other. I want to think that these innovations are not inevitable, that these may be technological innovations that “society” ends up resisting or refusing, thus establishing a limit to the interface between human culture and technological systems, between human culture as technological system. Who knows? This will depend upon the 1,000,000 + 1 decisions made by social actors and social communities ad hoc and organized at the grass root.