March 25, 2011

Of Rockets and Humanities

Speaking a year ago at the 50 Years of Public Computing at UI symposium (April 15, 2010), Professor Marc Snir noted that technologists at times have been uninterested in the outcomes of their inventions: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department.” Of Community Informatics (CI), Snir noted: “CI cares where the IT [information technology] rockets come down. That concern is an integral part of IT research.” Snir went on to argue that IT can, is and must be a force for good, contributing to the democratization of knowledge, challenging power relations in the process. Technologies change society, he noted, with changes in the way we process information. Handmade items now become precious; likewise, “brain thought” will be rarer and more valuable than machine thought.

Universities are information organizations, as Snir put it. IT should be affecting them, but teaching, research and organization are remarkably the same these days. A fundamental assumption is that a professor is in a position of authority, but knowledge workers (such as university professors) will be increasingly obsolete. We are not really able to see what is needed, but much education happens outside of the classroom. Prof. Richard J. Light’s study at Harvard, The College Experience: Blueprint for Success, showed that collaborative environments help all of us integrate knowledge, and that teaching by doing contributes to success. (See also, Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Other points Snir made:

· Information flows are lateral, meaning decision processes are less hierarchical

· Virtual ad-hoc processes will continuously change geographically distributed organizations

· Data is cheap; a key skill is knowing how to find or create data

· Self-service is cheaper

· Online education needs to increase to optimize education when and where needed

· Citizen and community science needs assessment measures

I came across these notes while cleaning my office, and they resonate with another talk I attended recently, that by David Theo Goldberg, “The Afterlife of the Humanities.” With Cathy N. Davidson, Goldberg is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (The MIT Press, 2010). Goldberg spoke of state-located institutions rather than state-supported institutions these days. Asking “what are universities for and for whom?” Goldberg noted that they used to help transform class structures. He argued that in some ways the blogosphere has sidelined universities as a place for public comment. Then he listed a number of venues where exciting exchanges are taking place, at DIY universities:

· P2PU (partially funded by Mozilla)

· Singularity University

· Free/Slow University of Warsaw

· Center for Possible Studies

· Public Schools Brussels

· Copenhagen Free University

· University of the People

· EduFactory

· Factory of Ideas

And I would add our own local School for Designing a Society.

Goldberg went on to mention Chris Newfield’s blog, “Remaking the University”  in his outline of the usual defensive arguments in favor of the humanities:

-they are intrinsically valuable (Stanley Fish is associated with this idea)

-they make economic sense by providing transferable skills and supporting science

-they emphasize civics and make good citizens (Martha Nussbaum argues this, especially in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities)

-they can dramatically shape the public sphere by creating counterpublics

Goldberg spoke of the “greater humanities” and the condition of “living in a critical condition.” He suggested that it’s time to take the networks of ideas as networks seriously, offering some examples:

-Making Publics

-Poor Theory manifesto suggests revisions and remixes, as in compost

Public Reason, a blog for political philosophers

Then he asked, “what is the university we are for?” He argued for the capacity to make wise judgments together, in conversation. Humanities are consequential: they speak truth in relation to power, as both trouble-shooter and trouble-maker. They provide much more than negative critiques; they serve as compasses and help imagine what is possible. Goldberg proposed dramatically reconceived humanities that are germane to our working lives, with institutional humanities disappearing.