New Media, New Knowledge: Technology and the Humanities
Knowledge is neither timeless nor immutable. It is produced by and situated within particular contexts that themselves undergo complex and inevitable changes. To understand this is, in a sense, to submit to two truths: First, the more knowledgeable we become, the more clearly we recognize that knowledge is not some singular, unified 'thing' that we can ever possess -- or even perceive -- in its entirety. Second, although information might seem more valuable when only certain people have access to it, knowledge becomes more viable when it is open to and accessible by everyone. Bodies of knowledge are nourished by intellectual curiosity and creative innovation, and are strengthened by informed debate and critical inquiry. Without these, bodies of knowledge do not live very long; they either obsolesce or, worse, become dogma.
Knowledge is held together by ideas and information, endowed with meaning through a variety of conceptual frameworks. In this sense, knowledge is indissociable from the narratives that shape it. And it is here that the academic disciplines comprising the humanities are of particular and enduring importance, for the humanities are centrally concerned with questions of meaning and representation.
From the printing press to the daguerreotype to the iPad, new information and communication technologies have had a tremendous impact on the humanities. Equally true, though, is that humanistic inquiry has also influenced and enriched how we understand these technologies, as well as the practices, uses and values to which they give rise.
Of the many ways new and emergent technologies have affected the world, perhaps the most profound has been their role in transforming how ideas and information -- and thus, knowledge -- are created and disseminated. The paradigm of knowledge production that held sway throughout most of the 20th century was predominantly hierarchical. The emerging paradigm of knowledge production is more collaborative, largely because new media technologies have weakened many key and long-standing dichotomies: expert/amateur, producer/consumer, author/reader. As more people participate in the production and dissemination of ideas and information, the narratives through which these become knowledge proliferate. It is here that the humanities intervene, reasserting the need to recognize and to interrogate the mechanisms and processes that compose these narratives.