human? more or less

the inevitable question

Last week in lecture, a brave student put up his hand and asked: isn't all this technology dehumanizing? For the past week, I've been trying to think of how to respond to this question, wondering how I might situate my own interest in new media while keeping the question open. I think the question of "the human"—how this idea or category functions in relation to the key ethical, political, legal (juridical), cultural, and environmental concern—is absolutely fundamental and can not be wished away with short responses. It probably requires a multitudes of tweets and retweets just to get the ball rolling. The following post goes someway to provide a rough sketch of what I see as some of the important underlying issues in the human/post-human debate. It also provides a few cultural texts/contexts that have helped me to think about the impact of digital media on teaching literature and the arts.

a bit of background

The question of the (de)human was raised in response to my clumsy introduction of, a microblogging application we have implemented to open an extra channel for students and instructors to continue discussions beyond the lecture hall—extra in the sense of being in addition to seminars, regular office hours, and Moodle fora. It is important to note that this concern about the (de)humanizing effect of social media surfaced in the midst of a larger anxiety about a change in the format of the course delivery. This semester my Emily Carr colleagues and I have been charged with teaching English 101: Intro to Poetry & Drama as a lecture course (with breakout tutorials) rather than as a seminar course. Predictably, the format change has caused significant trepidation among students and faculty, even before the course began. Many saw it as a regressive move—a retreat to the old model of the sage on the stage.

i like change

I should confess that, despite misgivings about the economic impetus for restructuring of first year English, I saw the change as a valuable opportunity:
  1. to rethink the curriculum,
  2. to radically shift our approach to teaching literature and composition,
  3. to work together with a group of seven colleagues (7 sages on the stage) to re-animate the lecture format.
I saw and see this change in the delivery model as a vital point of entry into a much larger set of questions around 21st century cultural literacies, especially these impact Art, Design, and Media education. Having taught first year English for most of past fifteen years, mainly in seminar classes, I am familiar with the pros and cons of small group learning. Furthermore, I have no interest in returning the massive survey courses—e.g., English 101: Beowolf to Hemingway. Yet, from my teaching, learning, and research on creative and critical collaborations, I've become concerned about a kind of complacency (mine own and others) with regard to received knowledge about the role and function of culture. A concern that, for me, goes to the heart of how and what we teach when we teach English.

teaching beyond print-culture

In the context of English, Critical thinking is one of the key learning outcomes. This usually means that students are encouraged to practice textual analysis (close reading, see also this howto from the Harvard Writing Centre) and to participate in in-class discussions (usually modeled on the Socratic method). Critical thinking is important. Given the current anti-intellectualism of our political leaders, I think it is vital. However, what often passes for critical thinking tends to rely on various out-of-date assumptions about communication and the importance of print culture. What happens when we consider 1/ the nature and transformation of texts as we move from analogue output (objects) to digital texts (an environment) and 2/ the impact of communication technologies on staging and mediating  meaningful dialogue or debate? In a nutshell, I wonder how long English, as an academic discipline, will last after the disappearance of the book. What comes next? Being able to interpret or unpack literary texts and then to be able to engage in dialogue with one's peers—these are absolutely fundamental skills. And university English can be (often is) an extraordinary opportunity for many people to learn about influential cultural texts and critical contexts. Having devoted a life to reading, studying, writing about, and publishing literary texts, I am aware of power of Literature and print-based culture. Nevertheless, we need to be clear that English Studies, as it developed during the twentieth century, came to be dependent on  the availability of print media, which was became affordable with the mechanization of printing processes (movable type), and print-based literacies, which were a major focus of government investments in educations and culture. As consequence, English as we now know it is deeply intertwined with the development both of mass media and the influence of the British Empire. Since the 1950's with the advent of television and the emergence of post-colonial resistances throughout the English speaking world, this has begun to slowly change. Across a number of fronts, there has been a dramatic shift in power and a growing mistrust of print-culture, particularly outside dominant cultures. (Perhaps, I need to follow this up on a post about Stuart Hall and legacy of the Birgminham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.)

if you google it, does it not bleed?

The state of literature, the nature and meaning of twenty-first century comminications technologies, a world without printed texts—books and newspapers—these are huge philosophical and sociological concerns. And I can't begin to answer them here. I'm not even sure, to be candid, that I want to save English by transforming it, or updating it. Still, I have trouble ignoring the impact of new media on how, why and what we teach under the guise of English. What strikes me about our current situation—in many ways this is crucial to how we might positively transform the Humanities—is that the new modes of communication, which are  irrevocably reorganizing all facets of twentieth century life, have yet to take hold in English class. Granted many of us now rely on Moodle, Blackboard or other Course Management Systems. Most universities I know have committed to "smart classrooms" and trying to provide faculty with computers and lcd projectors in the classroom. And in many institutions, the course packs that replaced books as a less expensive alternative are in turn being replaced by Open Courseware. I imagine too that many instructors are increasingly dependent on Youtube, Flickr, Google and other web-based tools to provide supplementary materials. In good old Marxist terms, one might have talked about this change in terms of base and superstructure. I might ask how can we discuss about the importance of English Literature, when even the most committed of us have all begun to abadon books? If reading and writing are what matter to us, why are we not shifting our focus on to wiki's, blog post, email discussions, or even tweets. Why are more of us teaching courses like UBC Prof. John Beasley Murray's wiki-based "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation"? Granted this is a Spanish Literature course, but I sure we can develop similar approaches with English texts and contexts. If it is critical engagement that motivates us, might we not be more inclined to find connections between the growth of English what do we make of Google's recent struggles with China?

social knowledge / social space

Relative to books, newspapers, and other older forms of mass media, Social media open new possibilities for educators and cultural producers, particularly for artists, educators, and designers. It used to be that if you wanted to participate in political dialogue you would have to travel to a particular space: Agora, Altingi, Parliament, House of Commons. Likewise for so called "higher learning," one would have to travel to the University: Bologna, Oxford, Heidelberg, Harvard, or the U of T. The central buildings for these great universities were their libraries. Much like the banks or treasuries at the centre of political capitals, the university library functioned as storehouse for what was most valued: information, debate, knowledge. The traditional function of libraries has been superseded. Digital Archives such as Project Gutenberg or perhaps more importantly those collected by Google are rendering libraries obsolete. This does not mean that I think librarians and archivists are no longer relevant (as my original draft of this post suggested (see comments bellow). In fact, the opposite is true their knowledge and skills are increasingly important as we struggle make sense of the at times overwhelming flow of information. With the emergence of the web and growing ubiquity of mobile communications, individuals can participate in political dialogue, scholarly research, and various cultural forms of cultural production from almost anywhere. The most powerful institutions will be those who can facilitate access to their massive storehouses—e.g., MIT or the Bodelian library at Oxford.

The example of  the Back Dorm Boys (wikipedia entry), featured in the above video, is instructive: the original response by the English speaking media to their viral youtube posts was to poke fun and to marvel at the number of "hits" these videos they were getting. Few recognized that these videos were produced by Wei Wei and Huang Yi Xin, two students at the Guangzhou Arts Institute, or that their off-centre mimickry of American culture might be anything but a pale imitation of the real thing, if one is allowed to refer to the Back Street Boys as such. The a tendency to disparage new forms of communication limits the development of new ideas, and in so doing, it allows for the exclusion of individuals and groups who don't immediately fit the norms of a dominant culture. Perhaps the ability to normalize or naturalize certian modes of representation to the exclusion of others is, unfortunately, one of the most enduring legacies of the Humanist project. Arguably some of the most influential and innovative interventions in contemporary culture are happening off or under the radar of West's major arts/culture institutions, and are often hard for people to recognize or accept as Art or Culture. This idea, as controversial as it is, has been fundamental to the reconfiguration of curatorial practices, particularly in the wake of  curator Okwui Enwezor's radical (re)programing of the Document for Documenta XI across a series of geographically dispersed platforms (Frieze Article)—to give one famous example.

a conclusion of sorts

This long, a slightly rambling post has touched on a number of complicated issues around the cultural politics of representation, including thinking about the history of English Studies, the Enlightenment, Post-coloniality, contemporary Curatorial practices and more. The points I've raised in the post are but the tips of a much larger idea flows, which I will continue to explore in future posts. Nonetheless, I hope they might help situate this prickly question of "the human" or more to the point our assumptions about the dehumanizing nature of these technologies with were are so embroiled.

9 thoughts on “human? more or less

  1. I disagree with you that libraries, librarians and archivists are obsolete. Librarians have expertise in curating collections, finding information that’s not available on the open web, metadata standards and cataloging, information literacy, open access publishing, digitization, information architecture and heaps of other things.

    It is naive and offensive to suggest that librarians are obsolete. Suggesting this provokes a similar response to when people argue that art education and the arts in general are frivolous and pointless.

    Your assertion is strong reminder that me and my coworkers need to be working harder at doing outreach and continually reevaluate what we’re doing in order to stay relevant.

  2. Great collection of ideas and speculations here… I find it interesting how this notion of ‘dehumanization’ is so often linked to mediated processes, a kind of hankering for the days of what used to be. But the days that used to be were also days that held their own particular longing for a different (non-existent) past. I adhere to a fairly concrete principle around technology: unless we take ownership of all this newness, it can take ownership over us. That is, unless I can look critically and acutely at new media, for instance, I (and those like me) will eventually succumb to how others interpret this media. So I don’t want students to ‘not use’ wikipedia, but I do want them to use it with critical awareness (of its mutability, user-edited unreliability, etc). It’s also become increasingly apparent to me that to ‘dehumanize,’ which is, at is core, to treat others as if they were illegitimate subjects, can happen in f2f environments with great regularity, and sometimes it is the disseminative force of media, through the likes of youtube, twitter, facebook, that actually points to and remarks upon that dehumanizing act. What I’m saying is that in the pedagogy of the humanities, we have a host of tools at our disposal, all of which can work toward a greater humanization, and it should. Our limitations are not set by our technology but by the elasticity of our imaginations.

  3. Hi Tara, my mistake. I did not mean to say librarians or archivists are obsolete. My point was the opposite, though my early morning syntax might be read otherwise.

    Librarians and archivists, the skills and resources they bring to bear on this massive flow of information is incredibly important. I had wanted to make a point about libraries as buildings, as privileged spaces of dominant cultures, as a technology of power. I wanted to suggest that as library collections become available, especially if this availability is practiced in less, not more exclusive ways, they will continue to exert a vital force on our collective thinking and doing.

    I will go back a re-edited the offending phrase, thank you for pointing out my confusion.

  4. A very interesting post, especially since I happen to be a librarian. In my experience, the moment you put something on the web, it begins to fall apart, to deconstruct. The ability to hyperlink from one bit of information to another bit of information tends to turn what had appeared to be a coherent unity, e.g. a newspaper, a journal, a book, or a library, into a myriad of separate bits of “information” that is reorganized in unpredictable and even in bizarre ways. Some decry these bits as totally chaotic but others do not. I personally think that a debate over whether it is chaos or not is useless since I don’t see any possibility of anything stopping it for a long time to come. It is much more productive to figure out how to adapt to it.

    Just as journalists have identified closely with their newspapers, librarians have identified very closely with their libraries. Therefore, they believe that a lessening in the importance of the “library” translates into a lessening of importance for themselves as well. But now with the decline of newspapers, we are beginning to see that it is important to differentiate between “journalism” as an endeavor, from a “reporter who works at a newspaper” as separate concepts, and therefore I believe it will be just as important to differentiate between “librarianship” and “a librarian who works in a specific library.” While I have no doubt that “journalism” and “librarianship” can survive and even flourish in the new environment somehow in all kinds of novel ways, I don’t know if “newspapers” or “libraries” will be able to adapt. This is a further example of the trend toward deconstruction that affects people’s lives and careers. I don’t know if this is such a bad thing although it is definitely disruptive.

    Since the very nature of the “newspaper” has disintegrated beyond all practical recognition with tools like Google News, I predict that “libraries” will disintegrate as well as projects such as Google Books (among many others) come online. It will be increasingly important for “those who practice librarianship,” i.e. experts in information retrieval divorced from any single source, to remain flexible and adaptable. It will be plenty of work to create new tools and techniques, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

  5. James, the link you make between newspapers and libraries, or more to the point between librarians and journalists is much appreciated, as are your comments about the vital “practice of librarianship” in a post-Google universe.
    It’s interesting that my post, which was intended to focus on teaching and learning English and the use of educational technologies in a lecture course, has generated such thoughtful responses from librarians. My clumsy, off-hand remark about the demise (I hope transformation) of libraries seems to have struck a chord. I realize I need to go back into this issue, and to try to offer something a bit more engaging and respectful about the transformation of libraries from a focus on object to a focus on practices, something librarians have been aware of for years, perhaps centuries. After all, as a writer, editor and publisher and I have a serious attachment to books and have a few ideas on the subject.
    The fact that you (and Tara) took the time to read and respond to this post more or less proves my awkwardly phrased point. Librarians (like journalists) have a key role helping us lay folk navigate and manage an increasingly complex information environment. As much as one might desire to spend long quiet afternoons in the sanctity and solemnity of a larger university library, the fact is that much of our research is entangled with this box and it is difficult, at least for me, to completely detach myself from the flow of email, blog posts, tweets lighting up my workspace—especially, since librarians have done such a good job allowing us to score a good connection w/ the outside world.

  6. Thanks for clarifying your position. I’m glad you don’t have a hate on for libraries and librarians.

    I look forward to meeting with you and your RA to talk about how you might use Zotero to manage information within your research project, as well as how it might be an appropriate tool for collaborating with others outside your project.

  7. Whew. Hate to be labelled a hater of librarians.
    I’m meeting w/ RA this a.m. and will get to you about Zotero. Looking forward to talking w/ you about it.

  8. Technology is good, but we have to use it smart. How to be smart? Keep everything simple. Keep everything in one spot. Keep everything in focus. There are too much pollution around us. Not only the environmental pollution, visual pollution but also internet pollution. Internet trash like spam email, abandoned websites (which used to be some popular sites), abandoned email sites, abandoned community sites. They are like abandoned satellites, the trash in the space, we won’t see it, but we know that it was there. And most of the time, we leave it there and forget about that space. Will Deqq, facebook, twitter, google end up to be one of them?
    Information on internet are like stars on the sky. Some people loves to study the stars by looking through the telescope. Some people loves to study the stars by watching discovery channel. Some people loves to study the stars by hearing stories from others. There are many ways to receive information. So, if you tell a person who loves to hear stories from others that they need to use telescope from now on, the stories will told by a computer which build in a telescope. If you need help, you send an email, post your comment on a forum and interact with people by pressing the keyboard, read post on screen… and then you just have to wait and wait… to wait for the response. To wait for the signal from the outer space. Sometimes the signal would suck up by a black hole. But don’t worry, it’s fine. It’s just a black hole which stored a lot of information there. Welcome to our new space, this space is called black hole.
    Well, I just want to write something I am struggling with, too – technology and humanity. I felt like in my generation, which I have witnessed the transitional period from writing a letter to sending an email, from using a film camera to a digital camera, from using a walkman to Discman to MD player to ipod. I figured out it’s a pain for me to overcome so many changes, when I look back the products I have been bought, it seems like I have been living in a puberty age all the time. I still need to overcome many changes until I grow up. After 50 years, I think I am a grown up now, but someone will tell you, no, you are still in a puberty age, more changes are needed.

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