Whither the Humanities in the Era of Transformative Science and Technology?

by Xaq Frohlich, KAIST’s Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy

Having listened to participants at the 3rd World Humanities Forum (WHF) in Daejeon, South Korea, I’m inclined to play on a famous line by Mark Twain: Reports of the humanities’ death have been greatly exaggerated. The theme of the conference was “Humanities in the Era of Transformative Science and Technology,” a subject arising from the ongoing concern about whether the humanities is fighting a losing battle and how to give it a greater voice. Two keynote speakers described the relationship between the sciences and the humanities in notably different ways. Chang-Rae Lee, novelist and professor of literature at Princeton, described them as distinct domains, asking the question whether, of the two, the humanities is less relevant today. Peter Galison, professor of the history of science at Harvard, on the other hand, characterized the two as being part of a common enterprise, both offering complementary tools for tackling technological issues that cut across disciplines and raise core human questions.

Following Chang-Rae Lee’s talk I was struck by how we in the humanities are avid consumers of the products of science and technology. We use our mobile phones like everyone else. We surf the Internet and draw on Facebook to connect with friends and even colleagues. We see how these products transform our lives and are transforming our professions. Perhaps we have been less successful, however, in making it clear how scientists and engineers (and policymakers) have been regular consumers of the products of our work. I taught humanities at a science and engineering school while earning my PhD at MIT, and I am now once again teaching science and technology policy at KAIST, South Korea’s flagship science and engineering school. From these experiences it is easy for me to see how the interaction between the sciences and humanities is not a one-way street. But it is only recently, in the face of growing policy debates about the funding of higher education and the place of the seemingly less profitable disciplines, namely the humanities, that I have begun to catalogue the ways that I see the humanities contributing to core concerns in the sciences and engineering professions, and to society more broadly.

One such area is in imagination and creativity. Science and engineering schools encourage young scientists and engineers to develop their creative thought processes, including the ability to formulate their own problems and novel ways to solve them. This is one reason why the Fine Arts are significant at MIT and why literature courses are often the most popular classes. (MIT students are avid science fiction readers.) Where better to test the possible, to imagine the impossible, than in the world of fiction? My own parents, both scientists, regularly draw insights from their love of literature. Language and literature courses offer more than just solid writing skills—though scientists and engineers need these, too—such courses offer opportunities for creative exploration and self-articulation.

A less obvious field for cultivating imagination is history, which is usually associated with preserving the past and, by extension, outdated ideas. I routinely tout history’s functional value for preserving institutional memory, a tool for looking to directions in the past to help predict the way forward. But history is also an excellent opportunity for a kind of study abroad—to travel in time, instead of space, to a different culture. As with science fiction, students can consider hard-to-imagine counterfactuals, or think about older notions of the spread of disease or ownership of property in contrast to those that we take for granted today. The value of these experiments in creativity and imagining other worlds is clear. In literature it serves as inspiration. How many inventions of today started as science fiction marvels of yesterday? A knowledge of history improves scientists’ and engineers’ abilities to anticipate difficult-to-foresee, and thereby avoidable, technological resistances, crises, and failures.

Another area where the humanities have much to offer the sciences is on questions of responsibility and ethics. Here philosophy and anthropology have strong traditions, such as in the power of logical reasoning to test out ideas and build consensus, or the social heuristics in “breaching experiments” or “going native” for examining our assumptions about who is “us” versus “them.” Different fields in the humanities offer different sets of tools to develop our moral nature and elevate it to reasoned analysis. One line that particularly resonated for me in Chang-Rae Lee’s speech was the humanities’ power to “cultivate solidarity with the other.” To read a novel is to share another person’s worldview. To study other cultures is to know them and potentially question one’s own suppositions and cultural biases. In the humanities, students can take these cross-cultural journeys independent of utilitarian problem-solving or a narrow focus on “the outcomes.” This allows students to open up to those cultures, to “the other,” even when doing so tests students’ core values. Put another way, the humanities are good at encouraging moral imagination, to anticipate viewpoints that differ from one’s own and respect them. This is a central part of critical thinking and also a central quality of good leadership.

Given that there is a clear need for cultivating these humanistic values in scientific and engineering leaders, another question that resurfaced at the WHF might prove more complicated: how do we go about bringing the humanities back to the sciences (if indeed it ever left)? Peter Galison noted, in his Q&A session that successive techno-scientific crises have brought scientists, engineers, and policymakers back to the table. Many are quite interested in cooperating with, and incorporating ideas from, the humanities and social sciences because the problems they face are not limited to one domain or the other.

One arena for building ties between the two is in the higher-education curriculum. When C.P. Snow wrote about the emergence of the “Two Cultures” of the sciences and the humanities 55 years ago, he saw it as a natural, yet dangerous outgrowth of the modern tendency towards specialization. Policymakers here in Korea have recently become interested in promoting the “creative economy.” This mostly appears to mean wedding business acumen (entrepreneurship) to science and engineering innovation, but it has also included experimentation with “convergence sciences,” “transformative research,” or “cultural technology,” all different ways of identifying new fields that seek to foster innovation by blending humanistic techniques with science and technology. This has led to a lively debate in Korea’s “Academy,” a debate that surfaced at the WHF, over whether the goal of reuniting the Two Cultures should be integration, creating new fields that blend the Two Cultures, or a more modest project of simply connecting them by having them consult on important, shared issues.

My field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) might, at first glance, look like a model for such integration. Historians, anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, and, yes, scientists, look at science and technology as culture, seeking to bridge the divide by showing how technical practices are also human endeavors. However, few in STS would ask that the various disciplines be reduced to a study of science. Science is but only one cultural institution important to understanding the human condition. The larger world of the humanities has much to say about science, even if it draws from religion, labor, art or other areas of modern living.

My more modest proposal is simply that humanities literacy should be an integral part of a science and engineering education, just as science and math literacy should be an integral part of the humanities. This could take the form of an integrative curriculum, classes that look at historical episodes in science or the literary imaginations of technology. However, such integration should require students to reach beyond their comfort zone and take classes in different disciplines, following a broad liberal arts tradition. In doing so, they gain alternative competencies, which they may or may not choose to draw upon when working in their chosen fields. A similar argument could be made for encouraging workshops and exchanges across the “Two Cultures” at a more senior level in higher education or in policy circles. Adding voices from the humanities when setting policy would add to the diversity of viewpoints, reducing the likelihood of unanticipated backlashes. If this sounds radical, consider that during World War II, anthropologist Margaret Mead was called upon to serve on various wartime technical committees because anthropologists had resources and knowledge about other cultures that scientists, engineers, and policymakers did not. Most tech companies today seem to understand this. I have friends in anthropology who were hired by Google, Yahoo, and Apple, because these companies know that understanding the human-machine interface means understanding humans.

A second way that we in the humanities can find fertile ground in the “Era of Science and Technology” would be to meet the public halfway. I’ve been struck over the years with how my students have already been grappling with many of the issues that we in the humanities are trained to explore and unpack; it’s just that their cultural reservoirs for thinking about such issues are coming from pop culture. How many of my engineering students in the US grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and found the moral conundrums and social issues explored there—many are simply classical works in the humanities repackaged for a futuristic television show—formative in how they think about the ethics of their own research? How many times have I argued that Logan’s Run (1976) or, more recently, The Island (2005) are just modern day versions of issues first explored in Thomas More’s Utopia, or have used Gattaca (1997) to raise ethical questions about DNA technologies, questions more poignantly explored in Brave New World?

Yes, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message, but new media also need messages, and we in the humanities are well positioned to deliver quality content for these new technological platforms. The humanities at its best reflects deep reading and careful reflection. It is perhaps because of this that pop culture has at times appeared an anathema to it. The 140 character limit of Twitter, or everyone’s “15 minutes of fame” in pop art, do not lend themselves to deep thinking. Chang-Rae Lee observed the obvious when he stated that a small display screen and a focus on expediency and convenience results in shorter text, less nuance, and, by extension, a diminishing quality of language. For Lee, the language arts should be a face-to-face “contact sport” because we are “analog creatures.”

But this shouldn’t mean that we shirk from the digital. Many of my peers are discovering that social media provide a useful way to increase their audiences. Alex Wellerstein, for example, writes a blog “Restricted Data” on nuclear secrets. A simulation atomic bomb test app NUKEAPP that he developed drew an extraordinary audience, over 6 million people by his last estimate, clearly more than his peer-reviewed publications ever could attract. Perhaps more importantly, his exchanges with the public opened up new perspectives on his research. The more diverse readership viewed his subject differently than scholars do. Others, like William Turkel, are experimenting with digital history “hacks,” taking public history online and rethinking ways of analyzing and visualizing data with digital tools. By engaging these online platforms, I believe we can raise the level of conversation in ways that are urgently needed.

In my science and technology policy classes, I can see my students, many of them coming from science and engineering backgrounds, struggling with humanities texts. The other day one student lamented: “The author is so critical,” he said, “so effective at exposing the serious problems of a particular policy, yet he doesn’t offer alternatives or a positive message.” I took this complaint to heart. Critical thinking tends to be, well, critical. In policy, the market craves simple answers. But in the larger world, there are rarely simple answers. When in 2005 a group of anthropologists published Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back, they did so with a simple premise: why are we letting overconfident, thin analysis and pat observations scare us away from policy discussions? There is rarely a technical fix that is merely technical, and often technical fixes gloss over the more compelling, albeit complicated social fixes. Science and engineering students often come to the humanities looking for answers, but walk away from us with more questions. As I have strived to make my research in the humanities relevant to science and technology policymakers, I have had to grapple with their demand for answers and actions, even though I can see problems more readily than answers. It is the classic dilemma illustrated in the Bhagavad Gita, the paralyzing hesitation of weighing all the costs of one’s actions, balanced against the duty and imperative to act. Yet we need scientists and engineers who don’t just “do and die,” but also “question why.”

It sometimes feels like “relevance” in the humanities is a four-letter word. Many of my peers are equally wary of words like “utility” or “real-world applications.” Historians groan at what looks like “Whig history” marshaled as a justification for some present-day purpose or agenda. Yet, walking away from the 3rd WHF, I found myself thinking, what are the products of the humanities that scientists and engineers consume? When the first transatlantic cable was laid, the first telephone wire to connect the US and Europe, many believed it to be the end of war and conflict because the faster exchange of information would somehow solve miscommunication, which was believed to be at the root of conflict. Two World Wars have disabused us of this notion. In his speech, Chang-Rae Lee bemoaned the flood of information brought by new communication technologies, noting that there is a difference between consumption of information and comprehension of it. Information on social platforms is just stimulation, but to make it knowledge requires something else. We in the humanities have many tools to offer an Era of Transformative Science and Technology, tools that encourage people to question, to doubt, to wonder, and to marvel, but perhaps most importantly, to comprehend.

About the Author

Xaq Frohlich is an Assistant Research Professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s (KAIST) Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy. He has a PhD (2011) from MIT and is currently working on a book on FDA nutrition labeling, which explores the history of nutrition science, food regulation, and changing cultural norms about food, diet, and health in 20th-century America.

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