The Internet as a subset of the humanities

By definition, the humanities are a set of academic disciplines dedicated to studying the human condition. They include the entire span of human creation – language, history, literature, art, technology, and everything else that fits under the guise of humanity. Law and its consequences. Anthropology. Self-reflection. It’s a broad scope.

In practicality, however, the humanities – as laid out by the National Endowment for the Humanities – make up the non-visual-art side of human thought. Literature and history, civics and government; the furtherance of society is built upon knowledge of the humanities. The mistakes of our forefathers and the insight of our peers, each mind creating a web of culture that guides us and keeps us interesting.

Nowhere, however, in the NEH’s definition is mention of technology and, more so, the culture of the Internet. Isn’t it time for that to change?

“Internet” and “Web” appear often, don’t get me wrong. They are used as a medium; often, they are simply nothing more than a method for distribution. Books are scanned and stored thanks to the Web, newsletters and meetings are set up over the Internet. Web culture is non-existant; instead, we see the culture of technology pushed to the side to make room for its tools, like buying an IKEA shelf for the allen wrench.

But there’s magic in that shelf. There’s more forward thinking civic dialogue, literature and true change being cultivated via the Internet than any traditional medium combined – a dialogue that consists not only of what we’re used to (Writing! Critique! Government!) but what we’re still discovering.

The web is more than a tool for cultural change – it is culture change ITSELF.

Full disclosure: I’m fortunate enough to serve on the South Dakota Humanities Council. What was once a council built on a history of retired professors and state authors has become younger, more in tune with technology and its tools. We’re slowly taking the next step, no longer content to rely only on the tools of technology, but with technology itself. The future holds discussions about what it means to be a South Dakotan today, in today’s terms, with today’s problems and today’s new ways of telling stories.

Your local humanities council is probably doing the same thing. But, unfortunately, those efforts often go unnoticed. Slashed budgets, public indifference and a multitude of distractions keep humanities councils – who are charged with protecting and celebrating the humanities in all of its forms – under the radar. So while we’re making changes, humanities boards are still struggling to move past the traditional author/scholar makeup and push into the future. Into considering web culture and content as important as novels about buffalo.

The representation of modern Internet culture is lacking. Where are you? Will you help?

If you read, you support the humanities. If you blog, you support the humanities. If you create web sites, or if you design beautiful products, or if you edit things, or if you take part in the consumption or creation of anything whatsoever on the Internet or via physical medium, you support the humanities. You support the process and history of technology, and you support the changing landscape of creative thought.

I, as a full-fledged member of an NEH-supported council board, thank you. And now, I challenge you to remember that the humanities are invaluable. They shape the fabric of our culture, and they deserve not just support, but complete appreciation and participation.

Regardless of the number of books you’ve written, or the number of Master’s dissertations you’ve given, or the number of historical texts you’ve memorized, the humanities are current. But it will take work to get them there – to stop looking to the past and begin pushing today’s agenda. Because the humanities aren’t just dusty books and the Venerable Bede.

The humanities are you.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 6th, 2011