Humanities, not science, key to new web frontier

Originally Published: Edmonton Journal, 21 July 2010: A.15

A local high school asks you to speak to a graduating class about careers in the new digital economy. What would you urge them to study?

Computer science? Engineering? Philosophy? Classics? Celtic studies? You might be surprised at how useful those last three could prove to be.

Engineers and computer scientists are not the only ones who have played important roles in building our new digital economy; students of the humanities and social sciences have played an equally significant role.

Just ask Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia, who earned his PhD in philosophy, or Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who initially applied to Harvard University to study classics or Michael Everson, who did doctoral research in Celtic studies before becoming a lead developer of Unicode, the technology used to transmit the different alphabets on the web.

What makes the new digital economy so exciting and so different from what came before is the emphasis it places on problems humanists and social scientists have always studied: organization and communication; finding the balance between the group and the individual; and producing, disseminating and sharing cultural work.

The Internet is no longer primarily an engineering problem. Its basic technological building blocks have been in place for 20 years. What is new is how this technology is being used. Time magazine nominated “the PC” as its machine of the year way back in 1983. In 2006, its person of the year was “You,” the person who contributes to social networking sites such as Facebook and helped build Wikipedia into history’s largest encyclopedia in less than a decade.

The significant thing about the new digital economy is not its technology, but its applications. Wikipedia reinvented a new way of writing reference works on the basis of relatively simple pre-existing technology. Services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are revolutionary because they helped create the blogosphere, a social phenomenon in which ordinary people are able to organize themselves and share their opinions in ways never before possible.

The humanities and social sciences are important to the new digital economy not simply because they help people think about technology in new ways. They are also directly responsible for some of the fundamental protocols that allow this technology to function.

By far the most important of these is XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. XML is a computer language that allows webpages to reuse data from different sources and to reformat themselves for display on different devices. If you have ever posted a video to YouTube, written on a friend’s wall in Facebook or checked the weather or your stock portfolio online, you have used an application that depends on XML for its core operations. Even the fact that you can choose to read this newspaper online, on your smartphone or in print is a result of the adoption of XML in the newspaper industry.

XML owes much of this success to the work of humanities and social science researchers.

C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, the lead designer of XML, has a PhD in comparative literature. Before starting work on XML, he was lead editor at the Text Encoding Initiative, a consortium of universities, libraries, dictionaries and other scholarly organizations that developed a similar earlier language for exchanging data, such as dictionary entries, bibliographies and ancient texts. In fact, one of the biggest users of this earlier language was the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, a pioneering project that was also the first completely computerized dictionary.

Making Canada a digital nation will require challenging the assumption that the digital age is purely a question of science and engineering. In the digital age, technology is a powerful enabler. Our ability to connect virtually using digital technologies, to access information and knowledge and to use digital content in every aspect of our lives will determine our success as a digital nation.

The next “killer app” is probably sitting right now on the computer screen of a student in the humanities and social sciences.

Daniel Paul O’Donnell is a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge. He is also co-president of the Society for Digital Humanities and a vice-president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Credit: Daniel Paul O’Donnell; Freelance



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