Holberg Laureates Discuss Technology and Liberal Arts

Publisert 27.09.2017
In a world in which distraction reigns, the humanities invite quiet focus, says Holberg Laureate Stephen Greenblatt–but he acknowledges that this is hard to do.

On 22 September, Holberg Laureates Stephen Greenblatt and Manuel Castells met at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a discussion. The topic was the status and importance of education and research in the social sciences and the humanities today, in the face of pressing issues of our time, such as growing inequalities, mass migration and cultural and religious conflicts.

Together with an engaged audience, the two Laureates explored the challenges that face not only the liberal arts as such, but also our very lives, in the omnipresence of new technology and digital media.

Tools for Understanding

Greenblatt, a John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars, underscored how the humanities for centuries have occupied a central part of the liberal arts.

They stimulate the extra potential of the human mind and make us better equipped to understand both the most exalted matters and everyday issues. They shape the minds of the young and are essential to their education, as the humanities allow us to enter the sensibilities of a different place and time, to explore the world with empathy and understanding, and to feel that someone you have never met is speaking to you.

Strange Images from Distant Times

"There are human enterprises in which we demand the latest versions of everything;” said Greenblatt, “--but the humanities are not that enterprise.” “The age of the equipment does not matter,” he explained, as he reminded the audience of the ancient cave paintings in France and Spain, as well as paintings in other parts of the world, some more than 40,000 years old.

Many of these paintings are strikingly sophisticated, taking advantage for instance of the buckles in the walls. This point has also been made by people such as filmmaker Werner Herzog, who, in his documentary “Cave of Frogotten Dreams,” showed how images of bulls with multiple heads and horses with more than four legs were made so that a flickering flame of a fire may produce the illusion of a moving image.  

In the Lascaux caves in France, Greenblatt pointed out, some of the paintings have been completed more than 5,000 years after they were begun. Most of the oldest cave paintings in the world are hand prints, made with several different techniques. In other caves there are strange images, like the “Venus” in Chauvet, France, where a woman’s genitals and legs are attached to the head of a bison.

As works of art, these ancient images transcend time and represent narratives. Even very early images and music may be seen as great art, and while the reindeer created 17,000 years ago in the Lascaux Cave is not necessarily better than a great Rembrandt painting, said Greenblatt, it is certainly not worse. The same is true of literature that we possess.

Darwin’s Regrets

Greenblatt also spoke about how Charles Darwin, as one of the most important 19th century exponents of the natural sciences, was a man who at a younger age took great pleasure in poetry and art, particularly during some the most innovative phases of his life. However, he later lost interest.

At old age, Darwin lamented how he had lost his taste for the humanities. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he wrote.  “[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

The Humanities vs. the STEM Subjects

It is a somewhat worrying fact that the number of students who major in the humanities have declined, in the US and other countries, noted Greenblatt. One of the primary reason for this, he said, is anxiety for the economy, which makes the humanities lose to the academic disciplines of natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Those fears are misguided, according to Greenblatt. Many professions welcome skills in the humanities as a prelude to specialised training; however, this has only partially weighed up for the assumption that an education in STEM subjects and business are more likely to provide job opportunities.   

The technological revolution and the globalization and pervasiveness of digital media have great consequences for everyone--and for the status of the humanities. While new technology opens up immense possibilities, it also means that we live in a world where distraction reigns, and the quiet focus that the humanities require is harder to muster, as it requires a greater effort to look at anything penned earlier than last night, Greenblatt.noted.

In the Eye of the Tech Storm

Manuel Castells provided his analysis from his position as a professor of sociology and an expert on communication and globalization. His academic positions include University Professor and Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society at the University of Southern California, and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

Castells underscored that the humanities and the social sciences are essential for the understanding of who we are. “These academic fields are more important than ever in these times of troubles, as we are living in a world of fast pace and post-truth—which I prefer to call lies,” he said.

Castells also insisted that these subjects are sciences, not fantasies. “I do not surrender to the notion of hard and soft sciences,” he said. “The epistemology should be similar, in order to promote human understanding.”

Castells then described the social and cultural transformations that have taken place since the 1960s, and how power and wealth is dependent on mastering the mechanisms of the network society—the term he uses to describe “social, political, economic and cultural changes caused by the spread of networked, digital information and communications technologies.”  

“We have entered blindly into a storm,” Castells said, as he criticized “utopians from Silicon Valley” and the media, who constantly propagate the notion of the consumer’s need to move full speed ahead in this new technological world.

News, Propaganda and Government Control

“The media is overwhelmed and cannot effectively organize public debate,” claimed Castells and submitted that, rather, the media’s legitimacy has been eroded and that they have been reduced to channels for special interests and frequently engage in the manipulation of information. He cited examples of grossly misleading or propagandistic claims, such as that of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in the period leading up to the US invasion in 2003.  

One aspect of the digital age than runs counter to human communication, is that people do not look for information, but confirmation, Castells asserted. “But they connect at emotional levels,” he added. Art and music invite such connections and thus may be seen as universal languages.

So how can we control the internet? We can not, insisted Castells. Governments strive to maintain their monopoly on power, but the internet challenges that. However, the degree to which such monopolies are substituted by increased democracy, may vary greatly.

“So, do we accept that we can not control the internet,” asked Castells, “or do we try to control everything--like China?” “Are we ready to live in chaos? Can we handle it?”


Audio from the entire event is available from the link below. Video will be available shortly.