Monday, May 30, 2016

Turning Poems And Plays Into Data

            The pervasive penetration of modern technology is now extending into areas of human life that one would never have associated with modern technology.  I have talked in the past of the importance of protecting the humanities both in school and in one’s daily life as a protection against the malign influences of technology that lead to people becoming robotized.  But perhaps I was wrong in my assessment of the protection that the humanities could offer.  There is a whole new area of study that has been developing for some time that I admit I was not aware of.  The area is called digital humanities and, although there are many different definitions that attempt to explain it, a simple description of it would be the intersection of computer processes with humanities subject matter.  Computers are used to sort out, to archive and to curate the humanities.

            It sounds harmless enough.  An attempt, if nothing else, to use digital connectedness to organize humanities scholarship and to perhaps find interesting statistical juxtapositions to help with new interpretations of different creative works.  But I believe that the input of computer processes on humanities material may have a dark side.  And this relates to how we will experience works in the humanities after they become configured to fit into computer processes and categories.

            So what is the nature of this subtle transformation of humanities works by digital computer processes?  Before I proceed with this analysis, it may be appropriate to review some of the categories for philosophical phenomena that have been developed in this column.  Something is a figure if it has defined boundaries and does not blend with the phenomena around it.  Any single thing like a hammer, a spoon, or a house can qualify as a figure.  Something is ground or grounding to the extent that it has more indeterminate boundaries and is, in fact, capable of blending or blurring together with the phenomena around it.  Bodies of water, forests and jungles are all examples of ground.  And something is a vacuum to the extent that it exists in the spaces between figure and figure, between figure and ground, and between ground and ground.  A dark room that is totally closed off from all light is an example of a visual vacuum.  So is outer space, even though it has figures like suns, planets, moons, asteroids and comets floating in it. A phenomenon can actually have different combinations of these three categories and, as a result, produce different configurations of stimuli.  Corresponding to the three basic categories of phenomena, there are three basic categories of stimuli that emanate from them.  Defined discrete stimuli emanate from figures or figure aspects of phenomena.  These are stimuli that have a bounded beginning and a bounded ending either temporally or spatially.  A flashing light and a staccato musical note are examples of this.  Flowing blendable continual stimuli emanate from grounding and ground aspects of phenomena.  These are stimuli that have a blurry beginning and a blurry ending.  A wave on an ocean and a legato musical note are examples of this.  Finally, infinite continuous stimuli emanate from vacuum or vacuum aspects of a phenomenon.  The darkness in a dark room with no light, or the hum in a room with total silence are examples of this.

            So how do we apply all these categories to our discussion of the subtle transformation of the humanities by digital technology?  We can start by saying that technology highlights some aspects of humanities works that weren’t as noticed before.  To the extent that digital technology helps us to look at patterns in, among other things, words, phrases or the mention of different subjects, it means we are more focused on different focused fragments of these works, different mini-figures with their defined discrete stimuli.  From these fragments or pieces that are examined, sharp abstracted structures of ideas are created that become separated from the grounding, the contexts of symbolic meanings in which the work under consideration exists.  Formal statistical analysis displaces creative intuitive understanding for apprehending and understanding the works.  It is as if the work turns into a ream of ideational data rather than remaining the organically created work that it was meant to be.

            To the extent that this happens, emotions, immediate sensations and deep intuitive meanings are diminished in their role for apprehending and understanding the work.  And this tendency is reinforced to the extent that a lot of time is spent on a work in its role as a file in an archive or more than one archive.  As a work in an archive, a work in the humanities becomes a large figure datum that gets shuffled in with other large data, other works in the humanities, all of which are subsumed under the larger rubric of reams of humanities data that become one more subject to be catalogued in the digital world.  What becomes a matter of concern is that in studying works in the humanities, the computer processes involved in archiving them or in deconstructing works in order to find patterns and comparisons of different pieces or pixels of the works, lead to the diminishing in importance of the intuitive understanding of the flowing blendable continual organic whole of each of the works.

            We no longer have mindsets that are easily predisposed to global understanding of phenomena, to the flow of symbols and icons, where parts are looked at in so far as how they represent or are bonded with the whole.  We have become trained to look at the phenomena in our world as defined discrete categories, as free floating figures, maybe sometimes connected to each other, but ultimately flowing in a vacuum.  There are so many categories like this in our world, and the way we find to most easily handle them is to sort them into archives and statistical patterns.  And what makes it so easy for us to deal with material as sorted categories is that we are becoming, in effect, sorted categories ourselves.  We are becoming hardened, overly defined, discrete, robotic creatures who are losing touch with the flowing coherence of our own organic senses of self.

            The fact that even an area of our mental life - the humanities - that would seem among the least susceptible to becoming mechanized is being organized into defined discrete logically connected categories says a great deal about the extent to which technology is impacting our lives.  The humanities were supposed to be one of the last bastions where a large dose of logical organization and statistical studies with data were going to be off limits.  The humanities were supposed to be a mental place where one engaged in creative intuitive symbolic thinking with lots of flowing blendable continual stimuli to shape our thought processes and our thought content.  But with computers, tablets and smartphones, more mechanical thinking filled with a lot of free-floating data is now penetrating areas of thought that deal with more creative humanistic concerns.

            It means that little is safe anymore from the expanding influence of modern technology and that modern technology, by permeating so many different areas of our lives, has the opportunity gradually, incrementally to transform our very essence as human beings.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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