Jun 21, 2014

Why the Digital needs the Humanities

University of Saskatchewan MS Ege 15 (verso): the Beauvais Missal
To my knowledge, I have made people cry only twice by talking about medieval studies. (I am not counting students upset about their grades, which is a different story, or colleagues losing their minds with boredom at the back of the room during conferences.) Both times, I was speaking about the University of Saskatchewan’s box of medieval manuscript leaves from the Ege collection, and trying to explain why we should still be interested in pages ripped out of books made hundreds of years ago, even if most people can no longer read them and they are no longer used for the purposes for which they were intended. The first talk was to a mixed group of academics, students, and members of the general public, at the University of Saskatchewan in 2005; the second was to an audience of art librarians and archivists at a conference in Banff, Alberta, in 2006. Both times, people came up to me afterwards and confessed that they had been moved to tears – not by my eloquence, alas, but rather by the very idea that human skill and dedication could produce objects (that is, medieval liturgical and biblical manuscripts) of such beauty and meaning, even when most modern readers could not really comprehend the full scope of their meaning.

I was taken aback by such an emotional reaction to the manuscript material – perhaps because I think that many of the Ege leaves are actually quite pedestrian, perhaps because the material in the Ege collections is not actually in my main line of research, perhaps because I’m out of touch with my feelings. But now I suspect that the emotions my listeners were experiencing fit in with a very common defence of the humanities in a time when the humanities seem to be under attack. I think of it as the Sentimental Defence. It presupposes that there are universal human values – an aesthetic sense, a moral sense, a spiritual sense, a sense of community, an ability to be creative, that sort of thing – and then argues that the disciplines we call the ‘humanities’ (a classification invented by modern Western scholars) are bastions of those values. Furthermore, the Sentimental Defence of the humanities often positions those values against a number of perceived enemies: globalisation, commercialisation, mechanisation, science (!), and ‘technology’, whatever that means. At best, the world of digital tools, which is usually what people mean by ‘technology’ now, is regarded as being inhuman; at worst, it is seen as anti-human. A natural outcome of this stance is the view that a medieval manuscript is a product of the human spirit, but a mobile app is a product of ‘technology’ and might even suck your humanity out of you so that you become a shallow, conformist, soulless digital slave. The Sentimental Defence thus argues that medieval manuscripts, like literature and art and music and other things that humanists study, are worth preserving, valuing, and studying because they represent human values in ways that digital technologies cannot.
The apparent opposition between the humanities and technology is a false dichotomy.

University of Saskatchewan MS Ege 1 (verso)
The main problem with the Sentimental Defence is not that it is sentimental, but that it is false.

The apparent opposition between the humanities and technology is a false dichotomy. Technology is not opposed to humanity, because technology is created and used by human beings for human reasons, good or bad. This Ege leaf, from a 12th-century glossed gospel of John, represents medieval information technology; it is a tool for collecting, organising, and transmitting knowledge. So ingenious and functional was this tool – text on a page, collected in a codex –  that the principles of its design continue to be used in the present day, not only in print but also in digital environments. Between this medieval tool and the mobile app are more similarities than differences. Thinking about not only the material basis of such technologies, but also the ways in which they are designed to serve human purposes, helps us to see the continuities as well as the contrasts. The medieval scribe was a technician; he (unless the scribe was a she) learned a set of specialised skills to encode information in a communications device (i.e. a manuscript) for others to use. A modern software engineer, programmer, web designer, or, yes, you, the ordinary user, reading this off a screen – we are no less human than that medieval scribe.

(As for whether the technologies that humans have developed throughout history can be used for good or ill, that’s another question; all I’ll point out here is that ‘human’ does not necessarily equate with ‘good’, since human beings can be selfish, lazy, greedy, and evil at least as often as they can be generous, industrious, altruistic, and virtuous. Because technology is a human product, it shares the moral scope of all human activities.)

We should preserve, value, and study medieval text technologies not because they are somehow more human than modern digital technologies, but to help us understand where our technologies came from, and to inform our decisions about where they are going. The historical scope of this project – c 500 to c 1500 – covers a thousand years of experience in inventing, developing, testing, and using information technologies that still shape our world today, in a digital age. The study of medieval textuality therefore gives us access to an extraordinarily rich and surprisingly underexamined body of knowledge about how human beings create and use technologies that, in turn, transform societies and ways of thinking. We do not need the humanities to save us from the digital world. The digital world needs the humanities because it is one of the humanities.

Yin Liu

Further Reading

On the Ege medieval manuscript leaves, the best place to start is the useful website by Fred Porcheddu of Denison University. Also of interest are Peter Stoicheff’s article in Digital Studies 2009 and Lisa Fagin Davis’s blog posts for her Manuscript Road Trip, e.g. for 2013 Oct 7 and 2014 Mar 5. If you want the whole deal, you should probably go to Scott Gwara, Otto Ege's Manuscripts: A Study of Ege's Manuscript Collections, Portfolios, and Retail Trade (Cayce, SC: De Brailes, 2013). ‘Ege’ is pronounced ‘eggy’, if you’re wondering.

For examples of the idea that the humanities need to be defended, simply put something like ‘why we need the humanities’ into your favourite search engine on the Web, and see what you get.

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