Dario Martinelli: Technophobes Can Be More Narrow Minded than Technocrats

Important | 2017-05-05

Do you know, which type of hand dryer is the eco-friendliest? Which technologies were more harmful than beneficial to society? Up to the 19th century these questions could be addressed to a philosopher (who was also a mathematician, and an economist). Today humanists are trying to avoid solving any problems, connected to contemporary society.

“There is this silly message that if you are a technophobe you are actually a cooler humanist. There is this “chic” attitude of saying “oh no, I do not care for these things”, and “these things” could also be very important tools for your work, like Power Point. There is the hypocrisy of the whole thing. Technophobes are not against technologies: they are simply against certain technologies that they are too lazy to understand”, says Dario Martinelli, Director of Kaunas University of Technology International Semiotics Institute.

The Times Higher Education 2015 World University Rankings has named MIT one of the top three universities worldwide for arts and humanities education. What do you think about the fact that primarily technological university has been recognised in humanities and arts?

I think the fact alone is very good news for people like me who believe in a “friendly relationship” between humanities and technologies. At the same time, this datum must be contextualized. MIT is in the top 3, yes, but it is also the only technological university in the top50, and in order to find another one we need to wait for position n.61, occupied by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. So, what is the news, really? That a technological university was n.3 in humanities, or that MIT, one of the best and richest universities anyway, was n.3? It is a little bit like saying that human beings can run 100m in 9″58, just because Usain Bolt can.

However, despite this remark, it is quite impressive that a technological university may develop such a strong pedagogical and research policy to defeat such humanistic giants like Oxford, Cambridge or Berkeley. It certainly is encouraging to the kind of work we do at KTU, and hopefully it will make one or two people at LMT, or similar institutions, reflect upon the potentials of the connection humanities-technologies, and interdisciplinarity in general. Incidentally: let us not forget that, while MIT’s overall position is n.3, when it comes specifically to research the ranking is n.2, and for citations it is n.1 – so, the best results come exactly from the research areas: MIT produces more relevant knowledge in humanities than nearly everybody else.

What does this say about the role humanities and arts currently play / can play in our society? How does it influence your own view of the scope and themes for humanities research?

Humanities are currently facing a complex crisis that involves their impact on  society, their popularity among students and scholars, and also their identity as producers of knowledge. This is a fact that is empirically supported by data of all sorts, including institutional funding and research outcomes.

We have lost relevance because we don’t seem to listen and talk to the current world as much as we used to. We were so busy preserving a supposed “identity”, “authenticity” of the humanities, that we thought that the way the world is changing was not our business. So, instead of using the tools of humanities to understand the world, we accused the world of not understanding humanities. Instead of interpreting our identity as a dynamic process (as all identities are: we all change as we grow up, don’t we?), we decided to get stuck into a space-time bubble (somewhere between Romanticism and Post-modernism), and we ended up fighting for leaving things “as they used to be in the good old days”. The “keepers of the republic” lost the republic, because they wanted to keep it in a relatively small garden surrounded by fences.

For this reason, it is crucial that the humanities re-acquire a recognizable role in research and everyday practices. The key-word, here, should be “dignity”. If we compare the centrality of humanists in the past centuries with the marginality of nowadays, it is clear that the first crisis experienced by humanities, in order of moral priorities, is a crisis of “dignity”. As I often tell my students: there used to be a time when if somebody asked you “what do you do in life?” and you answered “I’m a philosopher”, they would have looked at you in admiration as a prominent figure of the community, indeed a “keeper of the republic”. Nowadays when you say you are a philosopher, people say “OK, sure, you are a philosopher… but what do you do really?”, or, at worst, they give you a compassionate pat on the shoulder which basically means “Oh, poor thing, so you are unemployed”.

To recover dignity, the humanities must rethink their position and role at all levels, from the choice of research topics to the selection of the right platform to showcase them; from the approach to writing a project application, to the whole way they read and interpret the world. 

You have a humanist institute in the technological university, how does it feel? What challenges do you feel while communicating with your colleagues from non-humanistic/social sciences fields?

This was actually the very first issue we felt we had to address when I took over the direction of the International Semiotics Institute (ISI), and that led to many of the reforms me and my staff introduced, in comparison to the previous “life” of the institute (as some reader may know already, ISI was previously based in Finland, and it came to Lithuania only in 2014). We didn’t want to be a humanistic “island” within a technological university: we knew that the dialogue/confrontation between humanities and technologies had to be an important aspect of our research.

This is the whole spirit by which we created this platform called “Numanities” (as in “New Humanities”), which became the leading research concept of the institute. We have our events (the International Congress of Numanities, which gathers every year more than 100 participants from all over the world), we have our book series in Springer called “Numanities – Arts and Humanities in Progress”, we have our various research projects and so forth. With this platform we try to address several questions that are relevant for current society, and one of these questions is of course technologies.

Do we communicate with scientists? Well, this part could be improved, no doubt. There was some attempt to cooperation, even promising ones, but the impression that I got was that we were not taken too seriously – but I do not mean it polemically, because we are talking about very nice people. For instance, our institute had (what I thought was) a brilliant idea for an augmented reality app related to Lithuanian Jewish heritage. We thought it was a winner, and we set up a cooperation with some people at Santaka, but after a few steps, without pointing the finger on anybody, we kind of ran aground. Sure enough, about a year later, the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews launched the “Discover Jewish Lithuania” app – which was basically our idea (mind you: they did not steal it from us, they just had the same idea independently). We could have done it first, but the project was dropped. By the way, I am very happy that the Centre did this – and not at all envious – because I really think that the Lithuanian Jewish heritage should be given much more attention than it has received so far. I only hope that this could teach all of us the lesson that when scientists and humanists join forces, there is plenty of good stuff that may be generated.

On the other hand, in our International Congress of Numanities ICoN, we always invite eminent colleagues from hard sciences, and their presentations are very well received. Also, we have a multidisciplinary online project called “How to Things” (http://www.howto-things.com/), run with Institutio Media, which is all about dialogues between arts and humanities and natural sciences.

In the context of ongoing discussion about the higher education in Lithuania (optimisation of universities, establishing higher entrance requirements), some people voice the opinion, that “technocrats” are aiming to close humanities and social sciences, and then, of course, lament about the decline of society. Firstly, do you also see qualitative criteria as “technocratic”? Secondly, is it only up to humanities and social sciences to save the society?

Of course not: it is not only up to humanities and social sciences to save the society. In fact, we humanists are increasingly lousier at that, and thankfully there are scientists who, while we engage in endless and useless discussions on things like “intelligent design”, sit in their labs to “intelligently design” a device or a medicine that will save thousands of lives. 

Back to the first part of your question: I would start by saying that technocrats are only one head of a creepy three-headed monster that includes also econocrats and bureaucrats. And, to my mind, these other two heads are much scarier than technocrats. I say this because, at least, in technocracy I can see “pros” and “cons” in an equal number. In econocracy and bureaucracy I see almost only “cons”. First of all, more technical knowledge is always better than less, as a principle: we could repeat the example of the many illnesses that now we can cure, thanks to progress in technologies. Second: like it or not, there are political/managerial decisions that are indeed technical, and I’d rather deal with these decisions competently than incompetently (sounds very obvious, but in a post-truth world where people vote for Brexit or for Trump, “obvious” choices are becoming a rarity). Third, there is a solid record of technical solutions that have objectively “solved problems”, and this should not be overlooked (unlike, for instance, bureaucratic solutions which, almost always, complicate things and generate more problems). So much for the pros. On the other hand, yes, one has to admit that there is an equally strong record of technical solutions that proved fallacious, or sometimes even disastrous. Plus, it is a dangerous idea to think that political, social, cultural skills are not necessary to run whatever “system” or “community”, and to assume that technical knowledge is all we need. Not by chance technocrats will not see the value of humanities and social sciences: technical skills alone do not enable them to see such value, because they have a limited set of parameters to recognize “value”. But, and here comes the irony that you underline in your question, technocrats do have the parameters to recognize decline in society, so they can see that part. What they lack is the connection between the symptoms and the causes of such decline: they see it’s there, but they can’t see why. That is why, I believe, a leadership composed only by technocrats could never work.

What is a “technocrat” in today’s society? If I use computer, smart phone, and apps to shop, read news and count my expenses, does the definition apply to me?

I’m not sure. I would rather call you a technophile, if your passion is strong but under control, or a technomaniac if your passion becomes an obsession, and you are a bit addicted to these gadgets. Technophiles will adopt new technologies very often, but only if they can see a tangible improvement in their quality of life. Technomaniacs are the herd of sheep who will queue since the night before to the Apple Store to buy the new iPhone model, because they must have it.

You become a technocrat (kratos in Greek means “rule, strength”) when you believe that your technophilia or technomania should be a social and political condition, and the only (or the main) strategy for running a community.

Which is more challenging, in your opinion: to “humanise” a “technocrat”, or for a humanist to accept digitalisation and technologies interfering with everyday life? Why?

It depends, but then again the comparison in your question is not equal. When you mention “technocrats” you are talking about a specific (and extreme) category of the big group of technology-oriented people. When you talk about humanists you are mentioning one whole big group already, which moreover may include a lot of technophiles already. In other words, it’s an easy answer: it is more likely for humanists to accept technologies than for technocrats to humanise themselves. However, if we move the axis of the comparison to a more equal point, and to technocrats we oppose for instance “humanist technophobes”, then I would probably tell you that, generally speaking, technophobes are more narrow-minded than technocrats.

Technophobia, actually, is one of the things that is really damaging humanities, and for various reasons. First: the loss of time and energies. We are currently organizing the World Congress of Semiotics, the most important event in the field, and we’ll bring to Kaunas something like 600 people from all over the world. Now, you won’t believe how many of these 600 are pathologically incapable to handle very easy things like an abstract submission system. Second: there is this silly message that if you are a technophobe you are actually a cooler humanist. There is this “chic” attitude of saying “oh no, I do not care for these things”, and “these things” could also be very important tools for your work, like Power Point. Third: there is the hypocrisy of the whole thing. Technophobes are not against technologies: they are simply against certain technologies that they are too lazy to understand. You can see them complaining about technologies… on Facebook, or while talking on their smartphones, or driving their SUV cars. The truth is that we are all naturally inclined to accept technologies, as long as we can master them. At the first difficulty we become against that very technology, and when the difficult technologies become too many for us to handle, then we switch to the moralistic tone, and we start blaming this ever-frenetic society and missing the good old days.    

What could be the criteria for judging the efficiency in research and studies of humanities?

To answer this question, we should start by judging the inefficiency of the current criteria. Academic activity is nowadays monitored and measured by a multitude of rankings, reviews, evaluations that by now occupy a good third, if not more, of the total working time of the average academic.

Funnily, this assessments are supposed to check on the “quality” of the work, but in order to compile all the reports, you waste a lot of time, and therefore your “quality” gets worse.

One reason why bureaucracy takes a lot of time is because it claims to be able to map all the variables within a given task, while it generally fails to do so (I told you bureaucrats are worse than technocrats!!!). That is particularly true in the humanistic academic environment, where – generally speaking – things make sense when developed into a narrative structure, not into a “this or that” classification. A report, as compiled by a humanist, would make much more sense if the scholar was enabled to write it in free form, where s/he has the chance to show the consequentiality of certain activities (and related choices), as part of a perhaps eclectic but very coherent discourse. But no. The report is split into millions of questions and boxes, the narrative is deconstructed and the result is a fragmented puzzle where the single pieces make much less sense than their sum. When this problem is raised, the hyper-bureaucratic apparatus responds in the worst possible way: it adds more variables, more categories, more tasks, in the vain illusion that sooner or later the full spectrum will be covered, and failing once again to understand that this is not a quantitative problem.

There is a famous rule in economy that says that you cannot have, at the same time, a cheap, fast and efficient service. If you want it efficient and fast, you can’t have it cheap; if you want it cheap and efficient, you can’t have it fast; if you want if cheap and fast you can’t have it efficient. I believe this applies to everything in life. Currently, institutions are failing more or less on all the three points: these assessments are not fast, are not cheap (because there is plenty of money invested in the “experts” that create these systems), and – by all means – they are not efficient.

My suggestion is that, when it comes to humanities, we understand two basic principles: a) that humanities can be more easily “qualified” than “quantified” (so, description-based assessments are preferable to number-based assessments); and b) that humanistic output must be interpreted in a narrative-organic fashion, and cannot be fragmented into separate boxes. Bureaucrats must understand that, albeit less practical for their own files, these two characteristics are the strength of humanities, not their weakness.

Humanities contribute to progress by uncovering visible and hidden variables within a process, not by reducing them.  For the same reason, you cannot assess the efficiency of humanities by forcing them to play with someone else’s rules. You can’t assess basketball with the criteria of tennis, otherwise you start wondering why the ball is so big, why there are so many people on the pitch, and what on earth happened to rackets?

In the current systems of assessments, humanists are basketball players to whom it is asked “what racket do you use?”

You have recently published a book Arts and Humanities in Progress: A Manifesto of Numanities. Can you elaborate a little of the concept of Numanities?

It is the attempt to make humanities again more relevant within society. With the due exceptions of course, humanities have marginalized themselves from real problems: they talk less and less to society and to people, and they seem to have lost the capacity (that once was very solid) to understand what’s going on. And that’s a pity, because humanities have the best tools (critical thinking, to begin with) to understand what’s going on, but somehow – in many cases – they prefer to keep clear from this, and find shelter in a medieval monastery where they can keep on studying the past for the sake of studying the past, not for teaching some lesson for the present and even for the future. 

The important part – let me reiterate on this – is that we are in, for and with the society. The “numanists” are neither technophobic nor technomaniac: they want to know technologies. They do not criticize or praise before knowing, and criticism departs only when it is concluded that a new technology is not improving quality and dignity of life, but making them worse.

Let provide an example: public washrooms. Roughly speaking, restrooms in public places offer their customers four different ways to dry their hands: paper towels, fabric towels in a roller, warm air dryers and, much more recently the so-called airblades (those with an air jet speed of over 600 km/h that look like they could disintegrate your hands at any moment). Achieved a decent hygiene level for all of them, the main concern around these technologies became of course their environmental impact.

Now: does anyone know which of these technologies has the lowest environmental impact? The answer, documented in an MIT study, shows exactly how progress is a bumpy, curvy and twisting road. Summing all the six parameters of the Life Cycle Assessment (the most reliable measurement for environmental impact), the worst thing we can do to the planet, when drying our hands in a public restroom, is to use paper towels (36 impact points altogether). Warm air dryers are just a trifle better (35), but certainly in no significant manner. Things timidly improve if we use recycled paper towels – as opposed to virgin ones (29), or – even better – if we use a fabric towel roller (24). But it was only when airblades appeared (particularly plastic ones, as opposed to aluminium ones, which score higher in water consumption) that a minimal environmental impact was reached. A plastic airblade scores only 6 in LCA. And of course airblades dry our hands in only 10 seconds – which is also good for the efficiency of this tool. In other words, it is an “appropriate technology” (borrowing from the economist Ernst Schumacher): “appropriate” because it doesn’t address the question of going forwards (progress) or backwards (tradition). It went “towards”: towards the environment, towards efficiency, towards the people.

This was a happy ending story. There are other technological stories which do not stand out for their brilliance: some brought more problems than solutions (e.g., SUV cars), some ended up being used the wrong (or evil) way (e.g., Zyklon B), some were just very, very stupid ideas (like the short-lived motor powered roller skates, which caused hundreds of accidents), and finally some are so shamefully uncivilized that one should not even address any other question in relation to their use and simply remove them asap (e.g., intensive farming).     

And who is going to monitor all these technologies with effective critical tools, that encompass also ethical and social aspects? To my mind, it is humanities that have the best set of tools, in this respect, so with Numanities we are asking humanists to get out from the medieval monastery and to start listening and talking to the world.

In the book you are dealing with problems humanities face today: the decline of their popularity among students and society, etc. What are the reasons for the crisis of humanities today?

One goal I set, in writing the book, was to replace (as much as possible) self-pity with self-criticism, among us humanists. We all know that there is a crisis going on, and that is undeniable. But we seem to only explain this crisis by blaming the modern western world and its economical policies. You know: “the system”, “the power”, THEM! I’m not saying that the system should not be blamed at all.  However, we should not forget a thorough self-critical assessment of the situation. Our primary fault as humanists was that of stubbornly thinking that the world’s changes could never really affect us: we felt that our identity was sacred and didn’t need to “develop”. Well, guess what?, our identity was not sacred and “the system” didn’t really think twice before cutting our funds, and placing us in a marginal position – that medieval monastery I mentioned. But the question is: were we just grabbed by the system and caged into the monastery, or – as I suspect – we were already heading there, and the system only helped us to get there quicker?

I think we equally need to distribute the responsibilities to “them” and to “us”. That sacredness I mentioned was (deservedly) achieved because the knowledge that humanities used to create in the past was very relevant and central for the society; because there were rigorous standards of excellence.

Nowadays, the humanists have pigeon-holed themselves, and have forgotten how intrinsically interdisciplinary humanities can be. Scientific areas are neatly separated nowadays, but we tend to forget that only a few centuries ago all sciences were branches of philosophy, which instead today is regarded as a sub-group of the humanities. A funny, little exercise that we can do to better understand this split, is to check on any encyclopaedia how many great intellectuals of the past belonged to both humanities and natural sciences until the very early 19th century, and how many of them became only humanists afterwards:

• Galileo Galilei (1564 –1642): astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher and mathematician.

• René Descartes (1596 – 1650): philosopher, mathematician and scientist.

• Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 –1716): polymath, philosopher and mathematician.

• David Hume (1711 – 1776): philosopher, historian and economist.

And so forth. And then, at some point, we had:

• Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804): philosopher

• Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831): philosopher

• Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860): philosopher.

• Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976): philosopher

Humanities ceased to be an interdisciplinary container of knowledge, and became a segment of it, and a segment that, in more and more cases, had less of a concrete vision of the possibilities of a society, and more of a metaphysical drift from it.

I am not claiming a “return to the past” (far from it), but I shall insist on the “appropriate technology” concept. Numanities wish that humanities become an “appropriate technology” in the modern world. They should not go astray from it, but embrace it and provide everybody a good set of tools to face it. Therefore they need to be “interdisciplinary containers” of knowledge. There is this old joke that circulates within the academic environment: there is one image of a scientist with a test-tube and the caption says “Science can tell you how to clone a T-Rex”; then there is another image where a big T-Rex is running after the scientist trying to eat him, and the caption goes “Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea”.

Taken to a serious level, the joke simply meant that hard sciences are in charge for elaborating any kind of technology, while humanities are in charge for saying if a technology is “appropriate” or not.