Can the humanities put the humanity into digital humanism?

Far from enhancing our public intellectual debate, the internet is increasingly limiting it. Are we missing something from the discussion around digital?

The late Steve Jobs once, famously, described a computer as a “bicycle for the mind”. It was a wonderfully evocative phrase, even by his standards, giving us the sense that it was a device to fundamentally enhance human cognitive power. The internet seems like a natural extension of that, by bringing that enhancement to human communications.

As so often happens with metaphors, sometimes it starts to break down. The bike enhanced human physical potential, but for many it was supplanted by the car, which enhanced our potential for travel, while at the same time hitting us with pollution issues – and even physical health challenges, as people sat passively in vehicles, rather than exercising themselves through movement. Many people have noted the irony of people driving to a gym, to sit on a static bicycle…

We might be in danger of repeating that mistake, but in an even greater scale.

We made the algorithms, and now they are remaking us

The original computers were standalone devices, and then we networked them, and found even more potential in that. And then came the algorithms and the AI, and the balance of power started shifting. Where once we searched for the information we needed, now that information is invisible pre-sorted an narrowed for us before we ever see it, thanks to algorithms. Worse than that, often we don’t even choose what we see – it’s all determined for us by the algorithms.

As someone remarked recently:

People are being distorted by very finely trained AIs that figure out how to distract them.

Who is this techno-cynic? Is this some luddite decrying the new age?

Uh, no.

It’s Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web.

We have these dark ads that target and manipulate me and then vanish because I can’t bookmark them. This is not democracy – this is putting who gets selected into the hands of the most manipulative companies out there.

The new digital elite

In essence, we are in danger of creating a new elite, one who have the ability to shift and manipulate public sentiment through strategic use of AI and algorithmic filtering. The more we allow our world view to be filtered through those systems, the more we open ourselves to this level of manipulation. This isn’t a bicycle for the mind: it’s a railroad for indentured workers. That’s about as far from the vision of a bicycle for the mind as you can get, because it’s actually limiting our cognitive ability, by reducing our access to alternative stimulus.

Now, let’s be fair. While there are certainly bad actors using the system, many of those who created these tools did them with the best of intentions. But, there’s an old saying about good intentions, and they way they pave the road to hell…

The very nature of technology paves the way for this problem to develop. Coder tend, by their very nature, to come from a scientific background.

Most modern education systems start streaming children into disciplines by their mid-teens, with a very clear distinction between liberal arts and sciences starting to emerge. I was lucky to have grown up in the Scottish education system which allowed for more flexibility (in the 1980s, at least) than many others, and was study a mix of arts and sciences until I was 17. Most people do not have that experience. Instead, they chose one stream or another, and part ways with a whole half of human intellectual endeavour.

The missing area of human knowledge

There are consequences to this. These tools, which are helping reshape our worldview, are largely built by those who have rejected and been isolated from the liberal arts. Why does that matter?

Here’s what Bob O’Donnell of Techpinions suggests:

However, a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” John Mill’s “On Liberty” essay, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognize much sooner the potential for the “tyranny of the majority” or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of today’s social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

For those worried about the rise of populist demagogues worldwide, one might take a moment to consider the fact we have built and adopted systems that promote and enable them should give us at least some pause for thought.

This lack of historical, sociological and political perspective is all too often absent from the debates around tech. Restoring them is critical to making at least a passable attempt at understanding the likely consequences of a tech. And it requires both sides of that cognitive divide to soften their position. For every techie I’ve met who dismisses liberal arts fields, there’s an arts graduate who boasts of their lack of technical undestanding. Both of these positions are equally damaging – and equally untenable in the long term.

But is it too late?

Berners-Lee again:

We are so used to these systems being manipulated that people just think that’s how the internet works. We need to think about what it should be like,” he said.

One of the problems with climate change is getting people to realise it was anthropogenic – created by people. It’s the same problem with social networks – they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.

We can — and should — reclaim these tools for all humanity, not just a small slice of it.

Steve Jobs also once said that Apple stood at the “intersection of technology and the liberal arts”. And that’s where we all need to be right now.

By restoring the humanities to our technology, we might just bring some digital humanism to our digital endeavours.

Mounzer Awad