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Technology For Better or Worse: Its Impact on Humanities, Development and Beyond

Sebastian Ille | November 14, 2019

The humanities are dead. We heard it all before. Yet, contrary to common perception, the technological transformation of our society will not render the humanities obsolete. The latter will form a symbiotic relationship with new inventions and technological dynamics which will mostly reshape three elements of the humanities: research methods, teaching, and application.

The humanities are generally concerned with the study of the various aspects of human beings and human society. Yet, for those leering at the so-called hard sciences, the alleged inadequacy of scientific methods and stronger emphasis on philosophical analyses has marred the humanities – a gap that is supposed to be filled by the more quantitatively inclined social sciences which are interested in the study of the same aspects. Yet, it is increasingly impossible to discern the humanities from the social sciences; mainly due to an increased sophistication of the approaches used to study social systems which are now used in the humanities and the social sciences. The advances and easy access to computational technologies have opened the path to new approaches to studying human processes at a degree that has been inconceivable before. With these approaches, the humanities emancipate themselves from the more abstract and less comprehensive models of thought. For example, computer simulations (so-called agent-based models) and graph theory (i.e. network analysis) are no longer exclusive to STEM and the social sciences. These approaches are now increasingly employed in the humanities to understand emerging properties in human behaviour and the underlying non-linear dynamics of various processes studied by the humanities, such as cultural revolutions, conceptual and communicative mechanisms, power relations, or plot and character development in literature. Artificial intelligence (AI) has also found its way into the social sciences and humanities. Big data and deep learning are now employed to make sense of large data sets and are, for example, used to restore ancient texts (Assael et al., 2019) or generate literature (Sutskever et al., 2011). The digitalisation of the humanities has not only rendered it virtually indistinguishable to the social sciences but also brought them closer to the so-called hard sciences. Indeed, social sciences and humanities are now frequently mentioned synonymous in the same breath, thus a distinction is even less than academic.

Yet, some of these new approaches and technologies raise further questions that can only be adequately tackled by the more ethereal and less tangible or mechanical approaches of the humanities. Not only politics and economics but also law and philosophy will need to study and analyse how we will deal with the impact of artificial intelligence in the future. How do we treat decisions made by an AI, how do we ensure that these decisions are ethical and how do we punish unethical behaviour? Who bears the responsibility if an AI makes a wrong choice and how do we ensure that AIs are not abused for personal political and economic gains by subjugation or at a cost to others (one might not only think here of Cambridge Analytica or the Flash Crash on 6 May 2010 but of the new trend of AI recruitment that could allow firms to reject those applicants who are prone to shirking or striking or the social control of citizens)?

In addition, approaches like deep learning have their limits and should not be seen as a substitute but as complementary to more orthodox approaches in the humanities. Deep learning, for example, is currently unable to form abstract thoughts and understandings of the world, and thus, to differentiate between correlation and causation. It does not possess the ability to generalise and apply an algorithm to unfamiliar contexts. Surely, combining the approach with other solutions, like symbolic AI can mitigate the problem, but it is no surrogate for the human ability of critical reasoning. The humanities’ strong focus on reading, writing, debate and critical reasoning, but also their emphasis on soft skills will render the humanities more important in the future.

New technologies with AI and robotics at their forefront will be a boon and bane for future societies. Not only will these technologies require answers to the aforementioned questions, but they will also significantly transform society and how humanities are taught. This transformation of the work process will set in motion a creative destruction that will cause severe social shifts and transformations in the short-run. They will render us both more connected and more isolated. While recent projections (e.g., The Economist, 2018; Oxford Martin School, 2018; ONS 2019Forbes, 2019) estimate job losses at a rate of between one tenth to half of all jobs and anticipate a significant impact on wages of workers without a college degree or higher, AI based automation will also open up potential gains in prosperity and new job opportunities. As such, the negative impact on the labour market may only be temporary (as it has been in previous industrial revolutions) but this Schumpeterian process will alter the way the humanities are taught along three dimensions: what is taught, to whom it is taught and how it is taught.

Automation and the use of new technology will not eliminate but strengthen the need for self-awareness, critical thinking, communication, and mindfulness. While the increasing emphasis on the STEM disciplines and the falling number of graduates in the humanities is seen as the latter’s symptom of their demise, the growing reliance on technology will eventually render the humanities more indispensable than ever. Those educated in the humanities will function as a bridge between technology and humans. In the future, we will require not only a non-technologist understanding of technology but also a grasp of human behaviour and biases as well as the limits of AI and big data. Stronger integration will require workers with higher skill mobility and cultural awareness as well as the ability to critically analyse situations and correspondingly, make judgements, take decisions and manage people. The need for greater flexibility engenders the demand for life-long learning. The typical humanities student will no longer be in her early twenties but will have substantial years of life experience. These students will require a more student-centred approach to learning and teaching as well as a more flexible syllabus. At the same time, new crises that make physical attendance of lectures more difficult, such as the recent refugee crisis, shift teaching online to enable students to obtain a digital diploma (e.g., Coursera or NCH). These platforms offer a more interactive experience with virtual courses during which the student can direct the lecture’s content.

Technology will change the very fabric of our societies. Thus, it will make it necessary to broaden the fields of study in the humanities to include the transformative impact of technology on us and society at large. Human behaviour and interaction have transcended the limits of the physical creating the need for a better understanding of the synergies between the virtual and the real world. For example, since the Arab Uprisings in 2011 and so-called “Facebook Revolution”, technology has found its way into politics impacting state-society relations in a variety of ways. Not only has technology enabled people and political leaders alike to engage via social media. It has also provided marginalised communities silenced by despotism with a voice and a safe ‘haven’ to deliberate and criticise pressing political, economic, environmental and even social and cultural issues. Twitter and Facebook in particular, have become pivotal venues of mediation in state-society relations worldwide. In October 2017, the ‘Me Too’ movement, which was originally founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, gained worldwide traction when it was shared as a hashtag on social media to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment in society. Since then, #MeToo has turned into a worldwide campaign that exposed some of the biggest names in the film and music industries in the U.S. In the first 10 days since it first appeared on social media, #MeToo has netted 1.7 million tweets in 85 different countries (Strum, 2017) prompting survivors of sexual violence worldwide to share their stories and to name their perpetrators, possibly after years of silence. The movement soon transcended the virtual with a sharp rise in the number of rape and sexual assault charges worldwide (Bowcott, 2019). In response to the #MeToo movement, Jeanne Ponte, a French-accredited parliamentary assistant, led an online campaign and blog (#MeTooEP) to share testimonies of victims of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence in the European Parliament forcing it to respond to these allegations (Fallert, 2019).

In addition, a better understanding of these off- and online social dynamics will permit scholars and policymakers to channel technology to act in the interest of the many, not the few. Already today, technology has provided policymakers and political leaders with the means to create new opportunities for marginalised or vulnerable groups. It created new and innovative employment opportunities, for example the gig economy, as part of the Future of Work agenda (see the Global Commission Report on the Future of Work), and provided these communities with the means to acquire new skills and knowledge through online learning. Evidence demonstrates that the gig economy, in which companies develop online platform to bring together workers and purchasers of their services, is quickly taking root in countries hosting masses of vulnerable forcibly displaced communities, as in the case of Jordan – despite challenges around digital access, jurisdiction, worker protections and safety (see the 2017 report by Hunt, Samman and Mansour-Ille on the gig economy and its potential for Syrian refugee women in Jordan). The operating model of the gig economy includes ‘crowd work’, which refers to ‘gigs’ commissioned and carried out via the internet using workers located anywhere in the world, and ‘on-demand’ work, which refers to work carried out locally assuming close physical proximity between service provider and purchaser (Hunt et al., 2018). The latter, which includes work for companies like Uber and Deliveroo, has  provided migrants with work opportunities in otherwise challenging economic conditions (see for example, Markham, 2018). At the same time, reports confirm that the lack of work regulations around gig work has resulted in the exploitation of vulnerable migrants and other vulnerable workers (see for example, Alderman, 2019). This development promoted Transport for London (TfL) to challenge Uber’s license over lack of corporate responsibility (see Butler and Topham, 2017) – a legal challenge which the company recently survived (Topham, 2019).

Technologies can also be transformative tools used in peacebuilding and for enhancing sustainable human development. Known as PeaceTech, the intersection between technology and peacebuilding offers new ways for those affected by violence to engage in peacebuilding processes. Technologies in fragile and conflict affected states (FCAS) also offer important tools that could foster collaboration, transform attitudes, minimise the risk of an outbreak of violence, and build national capacities to manage, prevent and address conflict and the underlying root causes and dynamics of violence (Kahl and Larrauri, 2013). Yet, technology is not neutral. In the context of fragility, the evidence on best practice for evaluating the impact of technology tools on peacebuilding remains limited, partly due to challenges around data collection and data storage (Faith, 2019).

Despite the benefits and opportunities created by technology in the context of governance, development and peacebuilding, the negative consequences and challenges of technological tools cannot be ignored. These include: providing radical and extremist groups with a voice and the space to spread their ideology; providing political leaders, interest groups and others with the tools to spread ‘fake news’ for political gain; exploiting vulnerable workers, as demonstrated earlier, and providing governments, industries and other non-state actors with the enabling tools to engage in cyberwarfare through participating in offensive as well as defensive operations pertaining to the threat of cyberattacks, espionage and sabotage (see Mansour-Ille, 2019, forthcoming paper on human rights in the digital age).


Dr Sebastian Ille, Senior Lecturer in Economics at New College of the Humanities and Editor-in-Chief of the International Social Science Journal
Dr Dina Mansour-Ille, Senior Research Officer, Politics and Governance programme at the Overseas Development Institute and Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism

Republished from Wiley Humanities Fest 2019

Sebastian Ille

Senior Lecturer in Economics