Possibilities and Limitations of Digital Tools

Writers have frequently turned their attention to how the fate of humankind might be shaped by technology. William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, offers a poetic vision of an imagined future digital landscape:

Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding—And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.1

The cyberspace of Gibson’s novel possesses a great deal of beauty and human ingenuity, and many acknowledge that Neuromancer was prescient in its depiction of digital advancements; his cyberspace includes features very much along the lines of how technology had developed by the early twenty-first century, in both good and bad ways. The future as revealed in Neuromancer contains enviable advancements in medicine and other sciences, but Gibson also crafted a world for his readers that presented warnings about the dangers of technology and its potential for altering humanity in disquieting ways. The society Gibson writes about is dystopian, and the novel reminds us that we must ask how we can pursue digital advancements while also avoiding the hazards that can accompany them.

We look to art, literature, history, music, drama, and dance for works that help us think about what it means to be human in an increasingly digitized environment. Keeping that focus of what it means to be human and asking the big questions to which the humanities invite us to respond remain key as we approach our work. Employing the use of digital technologies as a way to look back toward the humanities, we must prioritize the human element in our study, as it can help us realize the potential benefits and acknowledge the possible problems of using technology as a way to move forward. Moreover, thoughtful uses of technology can often help us see through society’s biases, as the data generated can sometimes highlight disparities in representation rooted in gender, race, sexuality, and other categories.

Technology itself is inherently neither good nor bad, but the tools we use should consistently be questioned for how they shape our interactions with each other. As humanities experts, we are well-suited to consider the big picture through various theoretical frameworks, and we must approach the digital humanities with these frameworks in mind. It is critical for us to think about how technology impacts and is impacted by the issues that we know exist in broader society, including, but not limited to, problems such as class discrimination, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.2 As is the case with so many of the potential threats individuals face in the modern world, marginalized communities disproportionately bear the brunt of technology’s limitations, and it is the job of digital humanities practitioners to employ best practices to avoid harm while taking advantage of the possibilities for good in the tools we use.

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