Short-term Internet vs. long-term Humanities? (No)

In an interview to the Tagespiegel, the president of the Freie Universität in Berlin Peter-André Alt warned last week that “the Internet leads to more forgetting”. In fairness, Alt’s critique of the pitfalls of the Internet is much more subtle than this, as you can discover if you read the article (available only in German). He does emphasise however that the Humanities require time, concentration and breadth of view if they are to fulfil their mission and he raises a few key issues where he sees the Internet as a menace. He regrets for example the obsolescence of the record card (Karteikarten), which required a mnemonically-stimulating, almost haptic process of reading, copying and sorting. Similarly, he underlines the “patience” that used to be involved in the “very slow” process of writing articles. All in all, Alt seems to fall on the side of those who see the Internet as a short-term, fast-paced phenomenon, which he explicitly contrasts with the longue durée of the Humanities.

My beef with this argument is that it is far too one sided. For one, and with a slight touch of provocation, one may want to argue that the Humanities are in fact not always about the reflexive, concentrated and broad long-term view. I remember reading in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s “The Production of Presence” that the Humanities would in fact have much to gain by paying more attention to the present moment and by “going with the flow”. In the same vein, I am under the impression that much is to be gained from casual, almost benign and therefore transient conversations. Isn’t it true for example that the most useful, interesting and memorable part of a conference (even from a strictly cognitive, intellectual point of view) is at dinner or beer time, when lofty discussions about Hegel or Dostoevskij are mixed in with amusing anecdotes and the latest news from the grapevine?

If anything, my bane as a PhD student was that I could concentrate, reflect and take all the time I needed on whichever minute bloody problem I pleased, without being swept into a whirlwind of constant solicitations, debates or other intellectual distractions. As a Post-Doc, I have discovered to my entire surprise, that the hurly-burly of the academic schedule and the treasure hives of texts and stimulating blog posts available on the Internet actually helps one to move forward more consistently or indeed to broaden one’s horizon in a less monomaniac, mind-numbing way than copying quotations from a canon of texts one has more or less arbitrarily imposed onto oneself. The danger of losing one’s way in a mountain of potentially irrelevant or secondary facts, to my mind, is not greater on the Internet than when one concentrates exclusively on the original manuscripts of Schiller and Kafka (sorry for the cheap dig, Prof. Alt).

Up to a point, a short attention span and a more scattered, sometimes conversational approach to research can thus also be a virtue in the Humanities. There are enough texts and ideas which one would rather forget immediately after reading them, and there is plenty of stuff of whose existence it is clearly better to be vaguely aware of than not at all. Quickly finding and then casually skimming through texts is what bookshop-goers have done for centuries without obvious detriment to their cognitive abilities. Crucially, long-term memory and high-order synthetic thinking are resources that get rapidly depleted during the day and, in my case, are simply not functional for at least an hour after lunch. So one might just as well put other cognitive functions to use and do a bit of unstructured browsing on the Internet. That, of course, is not to justify endless procrastination on the Guardian’s Sports pages.

More seriously perhaps, it also seems to me that it is wrong-headed to see the Internet only as a facilitator for an ever quicker, scattered and superficial type of “knowledge”. In a way, the Internet does not lead to more forgetting, but to a longer-term memory. This is not a flippant remark: how many times have I been warned already that “the Internet remembers everything” and that therefore I should be careful what I do there. By connecting again with old school-friends on facebook, I don’t accomplish an act of forgetting, quite on the contrary, my forgotten past is summoned up again – and made to be endlessly repeated in a bizzarely Nietzschean way every singly day, until I think through the specific use I want to put my facebook account to. The same applies to serious academic resources: the abundance of journal articles, open access books, etc. quite obviously increases our cultural memory. In one word, the problem of the Internet is not so much a forgetting than an overload of memory.

This overload might of course be felt as a loss since the Internet provides its memory in a mediated, externalised form:  if one can’t master the huge flow of information, one is left with nothing. I also freely agree with Alt that the overload of digital memory can definitely lead to an irrational, scattered and brain-haired approach to research and knowledge. The question however here is not so much one of medium than of structure, hierarchy or “curation”, which is admittedly still deficient on the Internet (or in our use of the Internet). As such, it should be obvious that we are not dealing here with a fundamental incompatibility between the Humanities and the Internet but indeed with a fantastic potential for synergy.

The mission of the Humanities, in effect, is none other than to structure, interpret and hierarchise our knowledge, to make sense of our collective cultural memory, to sort the wheat from the chaff and to explain and justify how and why that sorting out is made. As such, the Internet and its dynamic, ever-changing nature appear not so much as a menace than as a challenge, a cultural object in dire need of the Humanities’ attentions (poor Internet…). The whole idea behind sdvig press, for example, is none other than to harness the Internet in this way and provide a clearly structured access to a rather imposing set of texts or textual data.

To sum up, I would say that I see no fundamental incompatibility between the alleged short-termism of the Internet and the alleged long-termist ethos of the Humanities: the first is the reflection of the hectic, creative and chaotic flow of modern life, which the second is urgently called to shape, reflect and structure into a useful, profound and broad-sighted source of understanding of that same life.


Patrick Flack

I am a Post-Doc researcher in Philosophy of Language and Intellectual History, with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. I am also the managing director of sdvig press

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