The Humane Digital

As a way of tackling both the question “whither the humanities” and the thorny issue of defining “digital humanities” in relationship to that question, I’ll offer this: maybe one strategy is to talk about what can make intellectual work humane.

First, let’s leave aside the rhetoric of ‘crisis’. Yes, if we’re talking about the humanities in academia, there are changes that might be called a crisis: fewer majors, less resources, a variety of vigorous attacks on humanistic practice from inside and outside the academy. Are the subjects of the humanities: expressive culture, everyday practices, meaning and interpretation, philosophy and theory of human life, etc. going to end? No. Will there be study and commentary upon those subjects in the near-term future? Yes. There will be a humanities, even if its location, authority and character will be much more unstable than they were in the last century. If we want to speak about and defend the future of the humanities with confidence, it is important to to concede that a highly specific organizational structuring of the highly specific institution of American higher education is not synonymous with humane inquiry as a whole. Humane ways of knowing and interpreting the world have had a lively, forceful existence in other kinds of institutions and social lives in the past and could again in the future. To some extent, we should defend the importance of humane thinking without specific regard for the manner of its institutionalization in part to make clear just how important we think it is. (E.g., that our defense is not predicated on self-interest.) Even if we think (as I do) that the academic humanities are the best show in town when it comes to thinking humanely.

I keep going back to something that Louis Menand said during his talk at Swarthmore. The problem of humanistic thought in contemporary American life is not with a lack of clarity in writing and speaking, it is not with a lack of “public intellectuals”. The problem, he said, is simply that many other influential voices in the public sphere do not agree with humanists and the kind of knowledge and interpretation they have to offer.

With what do they disagree? (And thus, who are they that disagree?) Let’s first bracket off the specifically aggrieved kind of highly politicized complaint that came out of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s and is still kicking around. I don’t think that’s the disagreement that matters except when it is motivated by still deeper opposition to humanistic inquiry.

What matters more is the loose agglomeration of practices, institutions and perspectives that view human experience and human subjectivity as a managerial problem, a cost burden and an intellectual disruption. I would not call such views inhumane: more anti-humane: they do not believe that a humane approach to the problems of a technologically advanced global society is effective or fair, that we need rules and instrumments and systems of knowing that overrule intersubjective, experiential perspectives and slippery rhetorical and cultural ways of communicating what we know about the world.

The anti-humane is in play:

–When someone works to make an algorithm to grade essays

–When an IRB adopts inflexible rules derived from the governance of biomedical research and applies them to cultural anthropology

–When law enforcement and public culture work together to create a highly typified, abstracted profile of a psychological type prone to commit certain crimes and then attempt to surveil or control everyone falling within that parameter

–When quantitative social science pursues elaborate methodologies to isolate a single causal variable as having slightly more statistically significant weight than thousands of other variables rather than just craft a rhetorically persuasive interpretation of the importance of that factor

–When public officials build testing and evaluation systems intended to automate and massify the work of assessing the performance of employees or students

At these and many other moments across a wide scale of contemporary societies we set out to bracket off or excise the human element , to eliminate our reliance on intersubjective judgment. We are in these moments, as James Scott has put it of “high modernism”, working to make human beings legible and fixed for the sake of systems that require them to be so.

Many of these moments are well-intentioned, or rest on reliable and legitimate methodologies and technologies. As witnesses, evaluators, and interpreters, human beings are unreliable, biased, inscrutable, ambiguous, irresolvably open to interpretation. Making sense of them can often be inefficient and time-consuming, without hope of resolution, and sometimes that is legitimately intolerable.

Accepting that this is the irreducible character of the human subject (the one universal that we might permit ourselves to accept without apology) should be the defining characteristic of the humanities. The humanities should be, across a variety of disciplines and subjects, committed to humane ways of knowing.

So what does that mean? To be humane should be:

Incomplete. E.O. Wilson recently complained that the humanities offer an “incomplete” account of culture, ethics and consciousness (and kindly offered to complete the account by removing the humanities from the picture completely). What Wilson sees as a bug is in fact a feature. The humanities are and should be incomplete by design—that is, there should be no technology or methodology which we might imagine as a future possibility that would permit complete knowledge achieved via humane inquiry nor should we ever want such a thing to begin with. A humane knowledge accepts that human beings and their works are contingent to interpretation. Meaning much, if not absolutely anything, can be said about their meaning and character. And they are contingent in action. Meaning that knowledge about the relatively fixed or patterned dimensions of human nature and life is a very poor predictor of the future possibilities of culture, social life, and the intersubjective experience of selfhood.

Slow. As in “slow food”, artisanal. Humane insights require human processes and habits of thought, observation and interpretation, and even those processes augmented by or merged into algorithms and cybernetics should be in some sense mediated by or limited to a hand-crafted pace. At the very bottom of most of our algorithmic culture now is hand-produced content, slow-culture interpretation: the fast streams of curation and assemblage that are visible at the top level of our searching and reading and linking rest on that foundation. This is not a weakness or a limitation to be transcended through singularity, but a source of the singular strength of humane thought. We use slow thought to make and manipulate algorithmic culture: social media users understand very quickly how to ‘read’ its infrastructures but it is slow thought, gradual accumulations of experience, discrete moments of insight, that permit that speed. There is no algorithmic shortcut to making cultural life, just shortcuts that allow us to hack and reassemble and curate what has been and is made slowly.

Dedicated to illegibility. By this I do not mean “difficult writing” in the sense that has inspired so much debate within and about the humanities. By this I mean a permanent, necessary suspicion baked into our knowledge about all political and social projects that require a human subject to be firmly legible and compliant to the needs of governance in order to succeed in their operations. Often the political commitments of humanists settle down well above this foundational level, where they are perfectly fine as the choices of individual intellectuals and may derive from (but are not synonymous with) humane commitments. That is to say, our political and social projects should arise out of deeply vested humane skepticism about legibility and governability but as a general rule many humanists truncate or limit their skepticism to a particular subset of derived views.

Is this a riff on Isaiah Berlin’s liberal suspicions of the utopian? Yes, I suppose, when it’s about configuring the human subject so that it is readily understandable by systems of power and amenable to their workings. But this is also a riff on “question authority”: the point is that if power can be in many places, from a protest march to a drone strike, the humane thinker has to be a skeptic about its operations. Humane practice should always be about monkey-wrenching, always be the fly in the ointment, even (or perhaps especially) when the systems and legibility being made suit the political preferences of a humane thinker.

Playful, pleasurable, & extravagant. My colleague in a class I co-taught last semester made me feel much more comfortable with my long-felt wariness about influence of Bourdieu-ian accounts of institutions and culture, and how in particular they’ve had a troubling effect on humanistic inquiry that often amounts to functionalism by another name. My colleague’s reading of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think was to read it as calling attention to how much academics do not simply make judgments as an act of capital-d Distinction, as bagmen for a sociological habitus. Instead, she argued that it was evidence for the persistance of an attention to aesthetics, meaning, pleasure that is not tethered to the sociological (without arguing that this requires depoliticitizing the humanities). That our intellectual lives not only should be humane but that they are already.

This is very much what I mean by saying that humane knowledge should be playful and even extravagant: that every humanistic work or analysis should produce an excess of perspectives, a variety of interpretations, that it should dance away from pinning culture to the social, to the functional, to the concrete. Humane work is excess: we should not apologize meekly for that or try to recuperate a sense of the dutifully instrumental things we can do, even as we ALSO insist that excess, play and pleasure are essential and generative to any humane society. That their programmatic absence is the signature diagnostic of cruelty, oppression and injustice. This is what I think Albie Sachs was getting at in 1990 when he said that with the beginnings of negotiations for the end of apartheid, South African artists and critics should now “be banned from saying culture is a weapon of the struggle”. Whatever fits the humane to a narrow instrumentality, whatever yokes it to efficiency, is ultimately anti-humane.

So what of the digital? Many defenders of the humane identify the digital as the quintessence of the anti-humane, recalling the earlier advent of computational or cliometric inquiry in the 1970s and 1980s. Should we prefer a John Henry narrative: holding on to last gasp of the humane under the assault of the machine?

Please, please no. digital methods, digital technologies and digital culture are already a good habitus of humane practice and the best opportunity to strengthen the human temperament in humanistic inquiry.

Again and again, algorithmic culture has confronted the inevitable need for humane understanding, often turning away both because of its costs (when the logic of such culture is to reduce costs by eliminating skilled human labor) and because of a lack of skill or expertise in humane understanding among the producers and owners of such culture. I’ve long observed, for example, that the live management teams for massively-multiplayer online games frequently try to deal with the inevitable slippages and problems of human beings in digital environments by truncating the possibilities of human agency down to code, making people as much like a codeable entity as possible, engineering a reverse Turing-Test. And they always fail, both because they must fail but also because they don’t understand human beings very well.

This is an opportunity for humane knowledge (we can help! Give us jobs!) but also often evidence of the vigor of humane understandings and expertise, that the human subject as we understand it recurs and reinvents so insistently even in expressive and everyday environments that see a humane sensibility as an inconvenience or obstacle.

But this is not just an extension of the old, it is sometimes in a very exciting way genuinely new. “Big data” and data analytics are seen by some intellectuals as an example of opposition to the humane. But in the hands of many digital humanists or practicioners of “distant reading”, they demonstrate that the humane can become strange in very good ways. Schelling’s “segregation model” is not an explanation of segregation but a demonstration that there are interpretations and analyses that we would not think of out of ourselves, a reworking without mastery. The extension and transformation of the humane self through algorithmic processing is not its extinction: approached in the right spirit, it is the magnification of the humane spirit as I’ve described it.

This is not a CP Snow “two cultures” picture, either. Being humane is not limited to the disciplines conventionally described as the humanities. Natural science that is centrally interested in phenomena described as emergent or complex adaptive systems, for example, is in many ways close to what I’ve described as humane.

We might, in fact, begin to argue that most academic disciplines need to move towards what I’ve described as humane because all of the problems and phenomena best described or managed in other approaches have already been understood and managed. The 20th Century picked all the low-hanging fruit. All the problems that could be solved by anti-humane thinking, all the solutions that could be achieved through technocratic management, are complete. What we need to know next, how we need to know it, and what we need to do falls much more into the domains where humane thinking has always excelled.

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3 Responses to The Humane Digital

  1. Laura says:

    You’ve probably seen this, but what you say here made me think of the TED talk: The basic argument is that algorithms are kind of stupid, and yet we trust them because hey, they’re smarter than people, right? Um, no. Or I guess, depends on how you define smart. I gave a presentation today, and I was asked the question, “Can you talk about the relationship between computing and the humanities?” Very good question. And I gave the stupidest answer because I went right to what was easy: using computing to help us analyze events, text, etc. or to create art. But when I usually talk about why I, as a humanities-trained person, went into computing, I explain that computing needs the perspective of the humanities. Too many people without any training in what you call the humane are creating the tools that we use to live our lives. Unlike someone with a humanities background, they don’t think about the unintended consequences of what they’re creating. We can blame the very basics of poorly created interfaces, but we can also look at many of the things you just mentioned. Data doesn’t tell us everything without having some smart people think about it, even if a computer has done the number crunching.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    Would you take ‘humane’ in this context to be a synonym for ‘anti-reductive’? Or a neighbor, perhaps?

  3. NickS says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post since you put it up, and I feel like I still haven’t fully digested it. I think the question that you open with, “With what do they disagree? (And thus, who are they that disagree?)” is an excellent one, but your answer doesn’t feel completely satisfying, and I’m not sure why. So, a couple of attempts at trying to figure out what seems to be missing to me:

    1) I do appreciate your continued belief that the digital is an important domain for the 21st century humanities. That is my intuition as well (not surprising, perhaps, since, I’m trying to work through the question in a blog comment).

    2) I understand why you were inclined to bracket out the culture war, but I think this description is missing the importance of politics. Take, for example, the arguments made about inequality in a book like The Spirit Level. I find it convincing that a key insight of the humanities is that people are affected by relative as well as absolute resources available to them. That’s an inherently political belief.

    3) That said, it’s tempting to tilt the scales, and to classify, more or less, everything that’s good in life as “humane” and defining the opposing point of view as, “anti-humane” pushes in that direction. I would think that it’s worth identifying the issues in which the ideal outcome requires a dialectic between the humane and it’s opponents.

    4) It also feels like what you’ve written edges in the direction of identifying the humane with decentralized [knowledge/decision making /culture] and the anti-humane as the forces of centralization / standardization / Taylorization. That seems like an easy mind-set to fall into, but it also puts the humanities in the position of, “[standing] athwart history, yelling Stop.” Is there a way to articulate the idea that it is humane to automate whatever can be automated without doing a disservice to human experience, and to know when to limit automation?

    As is clear, I don’t disagree with the position you’ve taken, I just want to feel around and try to figure out where the edges are — and what happens at those edges.

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