• Thinking technology through the humanities

    Those of us using digital technologies for teaching often think of technologies as helpful and interesting tools that can help us make the humanities relevant, or that are fun and interesting to teach, in and of themselves. I have been teaching a unit in my library cataloging and classification class in which I use an example from the humanities to think about technology, rather than the other way around. I would like to think of other ways that the humanities can help us train technologists to design better tools for human (and non-human) flourishing.

    The unit in my class is small, but I draw it like a thread through the course material, which is about using library cataloging standards (a specific form of metadata application) to develop consistent and easy access to the entire library collection. We read a short piece from a queer poet who is also disability rights advocate. It becomes our touchstone for thinking about how technological infrastructures necessarily create inclusions and exclusions. We also read some excerpts from Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, in which the authors make clear the moral force of categories (including categories writ small, as manufacturing and interoperability standards) and the moral obligations of the designers of technical systems to surface the exclusions their systems create even in a good-faith effort to create ease of access and functionality across local and global scales.

    I am trying to help my students avoid the traps of technological determinism, the idea that technologies will do their own things, irrespective of humans, and that it is up to humans to adapt. What other ways can the humanities illuminate how we use, assemble, and patch together technologies, and the consequences of doing so? And how can we be diligent in showing that the humanities are also fully germane and foundational to technologies in society, rather than appearing always to say that digital technologies bestow relevance on the humanities?


  1. I’m not sure what level (grad/undergrad) this class is, but several people have theorized against technological determinism in various ways and in different contexts–I’m thinking of people like Andrew Feenberg, even Lawrence Lessig, and I’m also reminded of de Certeau’s _The Practice of Everyday Life_ where he talks explicitly about how users are not passive, how they often deviate from prescribed use, and how consumption is a kind of practice. Also, I love Angela Haas’ “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice.”

  2. This sounds like a terrific session, please count me as one who would enjoy this discussion. Just out of curiosity – what poem do you read to your cataloging class?

  3. LMaruca says:

    I’m also interested in hearing about your strategies and sharing some of my own. I teach a unit on literacy technologies as part of my History of the Book course. I find it useful to think of new technologies in the context of old, familiar ones–and to denaturalize those old favorites by comparing them to the latest in media innovations. Course description and syllabus are here: http://hotbookwsu.wordpress.com/about/

  4. scoutcalvert says:

    It’s a grad class in library cataloging. Yes, there are lots of interesting and helpful people thinking about technologies, often from a history of technology or sociology of technology perspective (when we’re lucky). We read the first 10 pages of Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, in which he uses a mountain as a metaphor for how ableist society constructs itself, in a way that naturalizes exclusions of people with impairments. By the time the course is done, students understand that not only can we use technologies for increasing access to the public for people with disabilities, but that we already use them to enable people who are not disabled. Technologies are not neutral, and they also don’t live outside of assemblages.

    Clare doesn’t set out to make a critique of technology, but this short excerpt helps students recognize that as designers of technological infrastructures, they bring into being technologies that have a variety of effects. So, I am interested in how, really, the humanities (i.e., arts, poetry, literature, but also history and philosophy, where not already part of HOT or POT) can help us think about technology.

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