Technology and the Humanities

Interesting piece in the New York Times about the slow but increasing adoption of technology in research and analysis by academics and others involved in art and humanities:

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

These researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, searching through large numbers of scientific texts and books to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread, and combining animation, charts and primary documents about Thomas Jefferson’s travels to create new ways to teach history.

Reminded me of this talk I attended at the LSE a while ago.

The educational web

Very interesting debate going on, on the topic of generation Y and their relationship with the internet. Matt Richtel wrote a long piece in the New York Times last week which attracted over 400 comments, where he declared in the headline that kids are ‘wired to distraction’. Yesterday, Don Tapscott wrote a rebuttal in the Huffington Post. Excessive dependence on the web isn’t something people should encourage – but depending on the way in which it is used, it can greatly enhance the educational experience. Surely there is something to be said for the thousands of parents who equip their kids with an iPad loaded with educational apps these days (I see at least a handful of them whenever I’m in an airport), with the kids themselves gaining a degree of technological fluency I never even dreamt of at their age.

Overall, I’m on Tapscott’s side. Call me old but I’m familiar with the ‘broadcast’ method of education he speaks of below, and I know that it probably did more harm than good. The web has altered the balance of the relationship between teacher and student, and we need to leverage that in the right way for the benefit of everyone involved.

I also like the analogy to TV-watching. The web has altered the power balance there too, as it has with newspapers. It’s a force that can’t be reversed, and people need to get to grips with it.

In the old model, the teacher is the broadcaster, sending information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. It goes like this: I’m a teacher (or professor) and I have knowledge. You’re a student and you don’t. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you. As I often tell educational audiences, the definition of a lecture is the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.

So is it any surprise that teacher-broadcasters and TV broadcasters are both losing their audience? Kids who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV — or a teacher — doesn’t appeal to this generation. But unlike the entertainment world, the educational establishment doesn’t offer enough alternatives to the one-way broadcast.

The flimsiness vs. the infallibility of the web

A growing quantity of culture now is globally dispersed, user-generated, open-source, multiplatform, available on demand — jargon that, taken together, speaks of a gradual untethering from the particular slivers of earth and particular moments in time in which culture was traditionally imagined to sprout. More people than ever, perhaps, have the opportunity to be makers of culture, even if that means more to choose from and, consequently, fewer standards and blockbusters shared in common.

Culture as we’ve known it in the past, that calls on decades, if not centuries of knowledge, is no longer what it is today. With digital technology putting the power in anyone’s hands – anyone that has access to it – culture cannot just be made, it can be rewritten. May I point you in the direction of Wikipedia, for example, which isn’t culture per se, but everyone’s first reference point when they want to find out about history (among other things). In a similar vein, James wrote an interesting post earlier this year where he questions whether there can ever be an online masterpiece, given the flimsiness of the web:

Is the web itself hostile to the idea of art, to the idea of the masterpiece? We coo with satisfaction at the latest piece of whimsy on the web (one of Frank’s projects, Young Me / Now Me would qualify here), and move on to the next thing. Is it possible to imagine a work that took years to make, that makes a genuine attempt to understand what Kundera has called a ‘human possibility’, rather than something that is designed to entertain us for a few minutes?

Anand Giridharadas further says in this New York Times piece that we’re often synced with our tastes but not with that of others. I personally feel the truth of this more often than not – what does that mean for us as a generation, I wonder.


I’m actually glad I’ve found out the exact term for using multiple media forms at the same time – watching TV, surfing the internet, and checking your phone, for example: it’s called ‘media-stacking’, and is “most prevalent among 18 to 24-year-olds, as 76% of respondents in that age group regularly browse the Internet while watching television”. I know plenty of people who are outside that age group who media-stack though. It’s definitely a disease that spreads 😉

Scott’s Vocab in the New York Times has more here.

Translating words into art

One of my favourite talks at SXSW was danah boyd’s, on privacy and publicity in a socially networked world. She’s put up the transcript of her talk here, and you should read it if you haven’t already.

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Heather Willems of ImageThink, a company that translates talks into real-time visuals, was hard at work during the session and what you see above is what she drew as danah was speaking at SXSW. Heather kindly sent a clean graphic of her work to a bunch of us who requested it after the talk – thanks Heather!

I also thought her work on Daniel Pogue’s double review of the iPad in the New York Times last week (one for techies, one for everyone else, as he says), was quite amusing:

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Today’s election coverage

Today is probably the most important day in American election history that many will see in their lives. As we all wait with bated breath to see who will be revealed as the next President of the most powerful country in the world, here are a few things I’ve noticed about today’s election coverage by three websites and social media platforms: 

For one, the New York Times has a great video providing an overview of the elections so far. I would have embedded it, but as is usual with the New York Times, they aren’t very sharing-friendly. I think that is perfectly ridiculous, because it’s a very good video and any site that doesn’t proactively encourage link love is only doing harm to themselves. I hope someone is listening out there and changes that aspect of the site. 
Two, Facebook has done a Google and is encouraging everyone to go and vote with a notification on their main page. Conversely, Google, who usually come up with very inspiring logos for events not half as important (the first day of Fall and the Persian New Year, for example) have remained mum on the issue – there’s no change to the regular Google logo today.

Three, Twitter is going full-steam ahead with their coverage of the elections. Everyone knows by now that it can boast the presence of both @barackobama and @johnmccain, and that Barack Obama is way more Twitter-savvy than McCain. (Latest case in point: Obama’s last tweet was 7 hours ago but McCain’s was October 24th – as of 11.25am UK time today). More importantly however, Twitter is powering Current TV’s election coverage later tonight with live tweets, co-hosted by Digg, with a video from and a DJ set by Diplo.
4 years ago, George Bush and John Kerry weren’t half as spread over the internet the way McCain and Obama are today. It means a lot that these candidates can reach out to people – Americans who are not resident in the country, for example – in a way that they couldn’t and wouldn’t even have thought of last time. Technology and the growth of social media will also most likely result in way more young people voting than last time – and that means a greater number of people voicing their opinions. Essentially, that means a stronger democracy, and (fingers crossed) a better world for all of us.