How the arts still have power in the digital age

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Most of us who are of a certain age can still recall the first time someone showed us the Internet and bravely tried to explain how it worked (“you put your cursor on any of the bits in blue and click on them and they will take you to new places which will also have bits in blue…”). On the other hand, for most of today’s students, the idea of a world without the endless connectivity of social media is already impossible to imagine, as unfathomable as life without running water or automobiles.

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One of the strangest ironies of the digital revolution is that the changes it has unleashed are so extensive and so unrelenting that we rarely have the luxury of registering just how big these changes really are. One of the most deeply rooted narratives about Western culture, which we tell ourselves over and over in various ways, is about how the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago changed everything in ways that we haven’t seen the like of since.  That may or may not be true (historians continue to quibble about the magnitude of the changes attributed to it). Still, the fact is that the digital revolution has unleashed a range of cultural changes that are in many ways far more radical than the ones generated by the invention of the printing press. They have made their presence felt far more swiftly. It would take centuries for the printing press to have its full impact, and even when it did, printed books looked much like the ones that were being produced by hand in the manuscript age. There were just many more of them, and they could be produced a lot quicker by My Live Updates.

Digital innovation, by contrast, has challenged our most fundamental ideas about reading. Hypertexts look and behave nothing like books; the idea of audiences, literary traditions (which had developed along national lines), and the relation between readers and authors are all up for grabs in exciting new ways. Just as importantly, these changes have cast earlier technologies of writing in a new light by helping to expose many of the assumptions that had, until the last couple of decades, been so thoroughly naturalized that they resisted analysis. Long submerged questions about the history of books – about why people thought they mattered and how they traveled, the kinds of knowledge they promised, and the sorts of audiences they should or shouldn’t attract – have become the focus of valuable new debates.

But if these changes have shaken things up, it is equally true that it is hard to think of a time when the humanities were so badly besieged. The rise of an increasingly vocational mindset (one of the casualties of the 2008 financial meltdown, which saw students flee to more career-focused programs) coupled with the tendency of universities to align themselves with progressive forms of “useful knowledge” has made it difficult for people who believe in the broader public value of studying medieval architecture or Renaissance poetry or nineteenth-century German philosophy to articulate compelling arguments about why what we do matters. Google the phrase “crisis in the humanities” and (.27 seconds later) the search generates “about 339,000 results.”

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Fortunately, in the past couple of years, talk of crisis seems to have begun to give way to more constructive discussions about how best to respond to the pressures that face humanities teaching and research. It’s not that the picture has become sunnier. Numbers are still down, and research funding remains at an all-time low. But a crisis mentality is rarely conducive to the sort of genuinely creative thinking that these kinds of problems demand. Samuel Johnson may have overrated the tendency of imminent execution to clarify the mind. The humanities aren’t facing execution any time soon. Even with sagging enrollments, the number of humanities majors worldwide is at a level that would have been unthinkable not that many decades ago. But it is also true that these pressures have led to important discussions about why the humanities matter, what we mean by the term, and how these questions are being altered by the broader changes of our day.




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