Fashion and Serfdom: Humanities Edition

This is about the digital humanities:

Why is this happening? In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture. -Kurt Andersen, You Say You Want a Devolution?

Andersen here is positing that we are seeking cultural comfort by recycling the past and rarely create anything new, as a reflex against the onslaught of our times. That’s fine, but less than charitable. Even with the example of “why are we still wearing t-shirts and blue jeans?” The real answer is that for staples, it’s more important that they be functional, physically and symbolically. Andersen glosses over the idea that when things work well, you don’t need to improve them.  Given that, any push for “improvement” really becomes a waste of time, effort, and money. In the wake of the passing of Steve Jobs, it became clear that innovation was overrated. It has been widely demonstrated that Jobs took existing ideas and made them marketable, and by way of Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What It is and How It Evolves, this isn’t any great surprise. The drive of “innovation” as used in most discussions is often a thin veil for “marketability.” Jobs wasn’t interested in innovation to make the world better, his innovation was leverage to get people to buy products. The great strides in innovation Andersen sees in information technology are in fact, more of the same old he sees in cultural products. In buying technology’s marketing, Andersen judges the slow movement of cultural production too harshly.

As the baby-boomers who brought about this ice age finally shuffle off, maybe America and the rich world are on the verge of a cascade of the wildly new and insanely great. Or maybe, I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper. -Kurt Andersen, You Say You Want a Devolution?

Andersen has a speed issue. He expects rapid evolution that technology has promised, and he will now extend that negativity into the future, labeling all coming generations as not being revolutionary enough, even while he stagnates in a “decline of western civilization” narrative, which really reached its maximum potency in Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence. This is an old tune, and I won’t work harder to discredit it, but really, Andersen limits himself by worrying too much about western-centric, dead-rich-white-guy culture via Steve Jobs, and is trapped in the same cycle as everyone else. The terms of evolution and revolution have been hijacked by marketing, and they now force the expectation that things will move at that speed, and with this also comes the cultural blindness that keeps many people locked and repeating.  What Andersen sees, and falls prey to (we all do), is serfdom to time-scales dictated by marketing and technology, not by judging things in their own time. This problem is now a problem for the humanities, and we’re pretty ornery about it. Matthew Reisz entitled his critique of the digital humanities serfdom in recognition that the technology is driving research, and not the other way around. He quotes an unnamed scholar:  

“I felt that digitizing had become an end in itself, that too much of the limited research funding available in the humanities was going into it, and that consequently people whose aim was to get funding were being given a perverse incentive to limit themselves to what often seemed like a very mechanical and low-level form of research. Meanwhile, there was less money available to fund researchers wanting to investigate a substantive question or develop an original idea.”

The problem echoes Andersen’s complaint: because of technology, people are unimaginatively digitizing away without really pushing for “originality,” but fails to recognize, as Reisz does, that the “mechanical” exposes problems with the technology, bringing up issues to be worked out before “more original” work can be done. Again, the hype and speed has eclipsed the reality of progress. A second complaint registered also highlights the myopic vision that digital humanities have wrought:

The danger for (Tamson) Pietsch (lecturer in imperial and colonial history at Brunel University) is that “what gets digitized drives scholarship. I’m sure since its release there have been a disproportionate number of articles using material from The Times‘ digital archive.” It is also safe to assume that poorer countries, like poorer universities, are going to be slower to digitize their archives, with all the potential for distortion that introduces.

As the cliché goes, the winners write the history books, and in the world of the digital humanities, this is still the case. Pietsch recognizes the blind spots that the digital humanities can create, because they are the same blind spots that have always existed. The intervention of the digital frustrates the problem, as the unnamed scholar illustrates: there is too much concern for the technology,  hyper-focusing attention on itself as opposed to the broader issues at play. The condition of our serfdom is the myopic vision of not seeing the larger world. Scholars are obsessing over the lack of innovation in blue jeans and t-shirts, while Tamson Pietsch is rocking it old school chipping away at a huge problem. That’s real innovation, unless you’re Andersen and just waiting around for the end.

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