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When we forget that the book is a technology

It seems like this is going to be one of those debates that will be rehearsed over and over again, but here’s a quick response to the scuffle caused by the recent LA Review of Books piece on “literature is not data.” The general resistance to electronic reading (aka digital humanities) is premised on a very simple misconception: that the book wasn’t a technology, but the computer is. As I write in my book:

For some, the humanities have become a dogmatic space of being anti-technological (and thus a way of making us more “human”). This not only goes against the grain of our anthropological record, where technology was integral to human knowledge from the start. It’s also not how many of the humanists of the past saw their work. For someone like Erasmus, an important precursor for Humboldt, the technology of the book was integral to his mission of promoting humanistic learning. When he published his new translation of the New Testament in 1516, he provocatively titled itNovum Instrumentum, a new instrument, and not Novum Testamentum, a new testament. The book was a crucial instrument of learning for Erasmus, not a mere tool to be ignored.

We are at a similar moment today in terms of our new textual instruments. Only when we understand the humanities as a mode of learning how to interact with our reading technologies – and not just as a road to the pure life of the mind – can we begin to address the immense amount of work there is to do to integrate computation into our teaching and research. We in the humanities have always taught a higher-order literacy. And literacy has meant, for people like Erasmus and Humboldt, a kind of knowledge in which language and technology are woven together. Computers and the Internet aren’t making the humanities obsolete; they’re making them more valuable than ever.