Mastering the Digital Age: How the Liberal Arts Can Turn
Technology into Progress
Written by: Caleb Hamman
Sitting in Clowes Hall for freshman orientation, I found the
devotion of an entire segment to the dangers of Facebook a little
weird. Two years ago, social media had yet to fully reveal
themselves, at least to me. Obviously some suspected their
shortcomings, such as the presenters in Clowes that day. But I
doubt even the prescient could have predicted all of the perils and
pitfalls that would accompany the opportunities of the so-called
While one might dispute its ramifications, the emergence of an
electronic order is not up for discussion. In 2009, the average
American consumed 34 gigabytes of information per day, with more
than 91 percent of it radiating from electronic sources. As
newspapers are bankrupted and books become digitized, the likes of
Twitter multiply, and the ascendancy of the blogosphere appears
ever more permanent. Facebook now has 350 million active users who
on average spend nearly an hour per day surfing the site.
A digital age indeed.
But what of the liberal arts? If we can assume for a moment the
risks of digitization, can we say a liberal education offers any
prescription? Have I, a student of politics and philosophy, been
better prepared for hardwired complexity? And what about students
of the natural sciences, of the fine arts, of gender studies, of
mathematics? In short, can we, for our efforts, hope to navigate
the wilds of the digital labyrinth?
I sure hope so.
While I sincerely believe us to hold the tools for the task, I
must confess to doubts about our prospects. The hazards of the
digital age are not of a sort to be trifled with, and if we fail to
give them due attention, I fear even the liberal arts may prove of
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It seems to me we must bring our attention back to the maze-back
to the "wilds of the digital labyrinth"-for if we are to plot an
escape through the liberal arts, we must first trace the
impediments of digitization.
To frame the inquiry, I would suggest beginning in 1964, in the
year Herbert Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man, a scathing
critique of "advanced industrial society." While the era was far
from a digital age, it was nevertheless a time in which technology
was rapidly reconstructing human interactions. And then, like now,
the process was not purely benign.
For Marcuse, the benefits of industrialization were accompanied
by the systematic promotion of "one-dimensional thought." It was a
condition that stifled liberal values like criticality and civic
participation, for it made citizens complacent with their society
and fused individual self-interest to the preservation of the
status quo. As technologies like the radio and the television
disseminated manufactured needs, so mass production delivered
pacifying goods on an unprecedented scale. Thus came the intrusion
of "industrial rationality" into the sanctuaries of language and
cognition, and as one-dimensional thought hijacked reason itself,
it fashioned it in a mold cast by technological imperatives.
Needless to say, this is less than a comforting vision.
I would apologize for the exposition, but it seems to me the
parallels are too stark to ignore, the links between
industrialization and digitization to profound to omit. The
symptoms of one-dimensional thought, particularly the loss of
criticality and reason-these seem to me the very dangers of the
digital age, the wilds of its concomitant labyrinth.
Unfortunately, the connection is not as incredible as one might
Nicholas Carr, in his seminal piece, "Is Google Making Us
Stupid?," cites a panoply of scholars-psychologists, media
theorists, neuroscientists-in arguing that the digital realm, more
than a simple portal, is threatening to change the way we think.
Technology, it turns out, may be shaping "the neural circuits
inside our brains." This would seem to be cause for concern.
Of course the real question is not the rewiring itself, but
rather the effects of the transformation. Anthropology and
sociology have revealed the malleability of the mind, and
digitization wields a hefty hammer. Thus the unknown is not so much
the craft itself as it is what comes off the anvil. But here I've
already staked my claim.
It seems to me reason and critical thinking are endangered
species in an electronic order. When information is immediate,
there arises a temptation to search rather than struggle with
complexity. When knowledge appears to spring from all corners,
every problem surely has an answer. One need only consult the
mysteries of the omniscient Google. The question itself is damned,
written off as a mere annoyance, and the digitized is severed from
the edification of agnosticism. Entertainment, disinformation, and
half-truths converge, blending insidiously to create
epistemological chaos. And while intricacies are flattened with
irons, so simplicities become obscured. In a land of limitless
perspectives, all opinions appear equal, and certainty is made to
seem mirage. The realm of answers renders reason to antiquity,
criticality becomes a false concept, and one-dimensional thought is
given renaissance in a digital age.
Obviously it does not need to be this way. Technology is an
instrument, not an agent-its properties are a function our own. Yet
it seems apparent, at least to me, that reason and criticality are
being compromised. It may be a contingent truth, but the effect is
unchanged. 34 gigabytes is just too much. Impossible to process, it
must merely be skimmed, mostly dumped, a few bits stored.
So what of our question? What of the liberal arts?
It seems to me I have already given an answer. If you don't
think so, maybe try Google, but I wouldn't recommend it. To
conclude I will merely observe that the targets of digitization
seem to be the very values nurtured by the liberal arts. Thus I say
meeting the digital age is not a question of means but a question
of wills. If we can find our resolve, then, perhaps we can do more
than just sanitize our advancements. Maybe we can actually harness
them to better the human condition.
1) Information consumption (34 gigabytes) from UC San Diego:
2) Facebook statistics:
3) Carr: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google