On Sunday, I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with none other than Duke professor and HASTAC founder Cathy Davidson. At issue was the tone of her recent blog post, “How Digital Humanists Can Lead Us to National Digital Literacy.” I wasn’t going to write anything about it, but you know, it’s been bugging me a little bit. Allow me to quote her introduction to the post…
“Here’s the entrance exam question for 21st century literacy:
QUESTION: If SOPA/PIPA had been passed into U.S. law in 2002, would Wikipedia exist today? If either law had passed in 2012, would Wikipedia exist in 2022? Why or why not? Discuss.
If you cannot answer that question, you are not literate nor are you in control of your life—even if you think you are.” [my emphasis]
Now, I don’t know about you, but when a leading scholar (the leading scholar?) in the digital humanities argues that a nuanced understanding of SOPA and PIPA are necessary conditions for both literacy and personal autonomy, it strikes me as hyperbolic at best, and elitist and condescending at worst. I, for one, have no idea what Wikipedia would be like in 2022 if SOPA had passed. Apparently, I’m an illiterate slave to the system. Surely, Davidson doesn’t really think that personal autonomy is a function of how Web-savvy we are. Well, I posed the question and she responded: “If we live our lives on the Web and don’t understand its positives AND negatives, we do not control our lives. All of us.” This is equivalent to saying that if we do control our lives, then either we don’t live on the Web or we do understand the positives and negatives of the Web…or both (which is weird).
Logic aside, I have trouble getting behind the belief that the personal autonomy (i.e., the ability to make informed, rational decisions free from coercion) of Web users is predicated on their ability to understand specific, Internet-related legislation. Now, maybe I could see it if Chris Dodd succeeded in becoming a Sith Lord and really could control our minds, but that seems unlikely. Tying autonomy to specific domain knowledge is just patently absurd. Can you imagine someone arguing that if you vote and you don’t understand Citizens United, or if you’re gay and don’t understand the implications of the Defense of Marriage Act, then you’re illiterate and have no control over your life? It’s not just absurd; it’s bordering on offensive.
Hyperbole aside, Davidson goes on to explain that most of us can’t answer the question posed, because most of us are “inheritors and perpetrators” of an educational system rooted in misguided Industrial Age theories about labor, consumption, and social progress (here’s Ken Robinson on the issue). As it turns out, if you’re an educator, you are actively participating in an antiquated educational system that favors the elite and is designed solely to prepare the rest of us for the workforce. Oh yeah, and don’t forget, you have no control over your life…that is, “unless you happen to be a Digital Humanist” [original emphasis]. That’s right. According to Davidson, you are “inheritors and perpetrators” of a corrupt system “unless you happen to be a Digital Humanist.” Suck it, physicists, philosophers, engineers, art historians, and the rest of you: your only option is to join the Digital Humanities.
Now, I’ve got no problem with the Digital Humanities. As defined by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, ‘Digital Humanities’ refers to:
“a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or…ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies.”
This is a great field of study. An important field of study. In fact, I admit that a lot of my work falls under this definition. Sure, I’m baffled by the silliness of some of the Postmodernism 2.0 stuff like “Critical Code Studies”, “The Ethno-Hermeneutics of jQuery” or “Postcolonial Client-Server Architecture”. But, that’s just me objecting to a certain methodology, not to the importance of studying the digital as a part of the humanities. Like I said, I’ve got no problem with the Digital Humanities.
However, when a leading scholar like Davidson makes patronizing and divisive comments to the effect that if you don’t get SOPA, then you “do not control your life”, and that you’re perpetrating a broken system “unless you are a Digital Humanist”, well, something is amiss. Yes, as Web users, we should learn more about SOPA and its effects. Yes, as educators, we should think carefully about educational reform for the 21st Century. But one thing we should not do is hold SOPA and education reform up as litmus tests for literacy, autonomy, and effectiveness as teachers.
So, what do you think? Should familiarity with SOPA be used to measure literacy and autonomy? Are educators outside of the digital humanities perpetrators of a corrupted system? Am I just being overly sensitive?