Scholars in all disciplines may acknowledge that change, both as a concept and as a practice, is inevitable. Many of them welcome the dazzling promises of emerging technologies, for they are convinced that the creation and transmission of knowledge in a future must be digital. Digital technology enthralls. The kind of change it promotes can have a profound, irreversible impact on methods of research, on our choices of what is valuable and what is trivial, and on our understanding of how “revolutionary “ paradigms and epistemes function in disciplines and in interdisciplinary work. Such change can be overwhelming. It encourages older, traditional scholars to be cautious and skeptical. To be blunt, a few of us honestly want to know what is at present only a matter of speculation in cognitive sciences: the consequences of long-term exposure to electronic forms on the brain. Will it be the case half a century from now that man’s higher order cognitive operations have been so altered that independent critical thinking will be minimal?
Some of us who have not been figuratively in “arranged marriages since birth” with emerging technologies are more willing than our younger colleagues to question just how progressive are swift changes in our disciplines and in the purposes of education. We want to know how the romance with digital technology is related to globalization. We want to know how the “love affair” with technology and everything digital is increasing or diminishing thoughtful, historical reflection on the formal (structural) and cultural (discursive) changes. One colleague has warned me that expressing concern about history is a mark of my own antiquity. So be it. Occasionally, there may be real virtue to be found in being antiquated and moral in nascent, amoral environments.
In ancient days before the 1970s and the ascent of the theoretical turn, we spoke and wrote in the humanities of sound, perception, great issues, discrimination and sense. Now we find ourselves in conversation with problematizing sound, topical concerns, ideologies incapable of naming their boundaries, sensations, and spectacle. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition (SPARC) have sought to persuade us to embrace “Create Change,” an initiative which “advocates changes that recognize the potential of the networked digital environment” (see http://www.createchange.org/about/index.shtml). If we fail to subject that potential to scrutiny, we may discover digital scholarship blindly imitating social networking. Representations “speaking to” representations might obscure the awareness that knowing the history of one’s discipline as well as one’s own historicity is endlessly significant.
Change is inevitable. Nevertheless, passive acceptance should be balanced with active resistance. Scholars in all disciplines, especially those in the human sciences, ought to think deeply about a central question that can be articulated in disturbingly plain language: is the ultimate outcome of digital scholarship the liberation or the enslavement of the human mind?
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Professor of English, Dillard University