Digital Tools and the Humanities

I am intrigued by the potential relevance of social media and other digital tools to the goals of the humanities.

Reading, writing, and the humanities have often been connected to social, cultural, and political developments. Some, for example, argue that societies have become increasingly complex by developing technologies and systems, including literacy, that encourage coordination and cooperation, which produces an increasingly complicated interdependence that constitutes cultural evolution, and that a humanistic, liberal arts education, as critical thinking and self-examination, human connection and concern, and narrative imagination, leads to the cultivation of humanity and is central to democratic societies (Nussbaum 1997 and 2010 and Wright 2000).

At the same time, social media and other digital tools have been praised for their democratic potential. For instance, some suggest that these technologies have enabled individuals to turn to others rather than institutions, as well as challenge mechanical models of institutions and produce new forms of collaboration economies (e.g., Li and Bernoff 2011, Notter and Grant 2012, and Tapscott and Williams 2008). Others argue that these can enhance efforts for social action by promoting alternatives for group formation without the conventional costs that limit their effectiveness and that, through a participatory culture, access cognitive surpluses in the aggregate time of educated populations for increased generosity and creativity in a connected world (e.g., Shirky 2008 and 2010). Still others advocate these technologies as ways to supplement traditional approaches to education even as some remind us that these technologies cannot be separated from larger social, economic, and political formations (e.g., Lewin 2013, McChesney 2013, and Suoranta and Vadén 2008).

Given these and other perspectives, I wonder whether these technologies can, in fact, support (and even supplement) the social and cultural functions of humanities, and if so how they might do so.

Lewin, Tamar. 2013. “Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burdens.” New York Times, April 29. Accessed May 13, 2013.

Li, Charlene, and Josh Bernoff. 2011. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

McChesney, Robert W. 2013. Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New York: The New Press.

Notter, Jamie, and Maddie Grant. 2012. Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2010. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

—. 1997. Cultivating Humanities: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: The Penguin Press.

—. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Books.

Suoranta, Juha, and Tere Vadén. 2008. Wikiworld: Political Economy of Digital Literacy and the Promise of Participatory Media. Finland: Paulo Freire Research Center.

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams. 2008. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Penguin.

Wright, Robert. 2000. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Vintage: New York.

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