The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Amani Albedah (Deputy Director General for Support Programs and Functions, Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, Kuwait)

Amani Albedah. Photo by Mohammad Albedah.

This contribution offers a preliminary perspective on the state of the humanities today, as knowledge production takes an unprecedented turn in human history. The argument is sketched in two steps: The first is an attempt to define some of the main characteristics of knowledge production in the current historical moment, which I shall call the Digital Information Exchange (DIE). The second step defines the challenges posed to the humanities by DIE both in terms of the substantive questions it needs to address and the methodological approaches it needs to perfect. I then relate these challenges to the humanities in the Arab world by stating two observations about the particularity of the Arab context. I make assertions in each section that remain in need of deeper analyses, the reader is advised that this is a sketch of a work in progress.

Knowledge Production in Digital Information Exchange

The visible character of the 21st century is the rate and extent at which information is produced and exchanged. The use of the term ‘information’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is intentional to signal a break with a traditional knowledge production cycle that differentiated previous times. I will provide a characterization of DIE from an epistemic stance, as the knower today is far more removed from ‘the world of things’ than our ancestors were.[1] Knowing is by definition mediated by the knower’s faculties, their biases and limitations, and the language and medium in which knowledge is produced. In today’s world, this mediation is layered over several more complex mediators, the coding languages on top of the scientific languages; the reinterpretation of factual content according to the limitations of the technology layered over the interpretation of ‘empirical input’ by the experimental apparatus; and the technology on which we rely to display and present information layered on top of the salient academic practice code and perceptual limitations of the individual recipient. I will refer to this characteristic as compounded epistemic distance.

In place of scientific authority, meticulous citations, peer-reviews and academic rigor, algorithms now decide for the knower not only what turns up in their search for information but also what questions to pose. Both question and answer are no longer connected to the ‘fact of the matter,’ empirical rigor or theoretical superiority, but is tied to the number of knowers who have found them relevant. This relevance is not necessarily based on overt reasoning or self-reflective debate, it is more typically dependent on immediate and transient thoughts and needs. Rather than being a higher form of intersubjective corroboration, agreement, in this case, is more akin to a random vote in a marketing campaign, because information is clustered around schemes of monetary returns rather than its epistemic value. I will refer to this voting assignment of epistemic value as the inductive error. It is inductive because it generalizes from past experience to future, and it is an error because it mindlessly repeats that choice irrespective of the biases that permeate it.[2]

The DIE is also characterized by the supremacy of algorithms that are devised to herd knowers in a certain direction, fully supported with image, sound and text. In this context, it seems that the ability of the individual knower to validate or corroborate information has become more taxing and complex than the average knower cares to pursue. The human mind is not hardwired to imagine the size and diversity of information sources that exist at its fingertips today, nor does it have the capacity to entertain the probabilities of the singular truth claims that come its way every second. Historically, our evolutionary apparatus created social norms that establish trust connections in a social group to enable the individual to accept truth claims made by others when these claims are vastly detailed, specialized or removed from their immediate experience. As a response to information overload in the age of DIE, these trust connections seem to operate to promote extremely polarized belief groups. While each of these groups has access to vast and highly detailed and specialized information that is posed as ‘knowledge,’ they seem to cluster around belief systems with little visible recourse to epistemic norms that lend themselves to rational debate. I shall refer to this characteristic as the closed belief groups.[3]

The last characteristic of DIE is the exponential growth of competition for attention and the shrewdness with which marketeers utilize the findings of behavioral psychology to perfect their ability to capture attention. As a result, the age of DIE is visibly characterized by the lack of quiet time, leisure or opportunity for introspective self-reflection. While socialization is a natural part of human groups, the rate at which the individual knower receives directed, targeted messaging is unprecedented in human history. I shall refer to this characteristic as constant exposure.

Compounded epistemic distance, inductive error, closed belief groups and constant exposure, thus, are proposed as the main characteristics of the 21st century as the DIE age. If the reader accepts these, DIE poses two types of challenges to the humanities in the 21st century: One is substantive, the other methodological.

Challenges Posed to the Humanities by Digital Information Exchange

The most obvious substantive challenge to the humanities is to break away from the self-reflective moment and grapple with the challenges of the DIE. The marginalization of the humanities is often justified by their inability to parallel the relevance of natural sciences and technology. This is translated in the humanities’ temporal lag after the phenomena in question, the disciplinary preoccupation with proving the value of the humanities over the provision of analyses and theoretical frameworks for the questions of the times, and the disproportionate attention to writing for other scholars rather than audiences that may benefit from the outcomes of research (such as policy makers, educators, social investors or digital platform designers).

Substantive questions with which the humanities should engage could be concrete issues, such as political polarization, engineered revolutions, deculturation of traditional societies as a result of constant digital exposure or surprising responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The humanities may also take on questions pertaining to its theoretical grounding, such as reimagining reliability and trust in knowledge production, and how human rationality, including the justification of belief, evidential basis of decision-making, and other reflective moments, may evolve as a result of the priority of the algorithm over the thinking process. The breadth of concrete and theoretical issues that DIE suggests for the humanities is vast, but they should not be taken on without careful consideration of the methodological and epistemic pitfalls.

The most obvious methodological challenge is to appropriate the tools of DIE with sufficient methodological rigor to neutralize the inherent DIE characteristics. What is today known as the digital humanities, for example, is evolving in centers of excellence and gaining increasing esteem and excitement. It is not clear, however, that there is a parallel evolution in the debate regarding the methodological rigor of its products. Noting the pervasiveness of compounded epistemic distance and inductive error, the products of the digital humanities should undergo meticulous methodological examination. From the establishment of historical simulations to the calculation of probabilities of successful court rulings, to the digitization of day-to-day cultural experiences, the humanities need to investigate rather than assume the epistemic viability of digital tools. Certain corrective measures may prove useful to ensure that the digital turn in the humanities does not contribute to epistemic and ethical drift. These measures may be instituting educational courses for students of the humanities to ensure their digital aptitude, establishing best practice norms by regulative bodies or assigning priority to research funding for the interdisciplinary scholarship of DIE.

Two Observations about the Humanities in the Arab World

Relating these challenges to the Arab world may benefit from two observations. The first is that the humanities receive much less attention in terms of planning and funding than do science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in the Arab world in general. This has been well documented in previous studies about knowledge production in the Arab world, and has taken a turn for the worse in the last decade or so.[4] This neglect is a post-colonial legacy fed by the overwhelming sentiment that progress is connected to the rise of science and technology to the exclusion of humanities. It is also fed by the problematic relationship between the inherently controversial subject matter of the humanities and the slim margin for scholarly freedom to tackle such subject matter. The second observation is that governments in the Arab world turn to private, professional, mostly foreign, consultants rather than scholars in most matters of social life. It is my claim that there is an inverse relationship between expenditure on the humanities and expenditure on studies conducted by consultancy houses. In the GCC countries, for example, the consulting market has witnessed an unprecedented 10 % growth in 2019, reaching $ 3.3 billion.[5] While most of this expenditure is a result of economic diversification programs, digital transformation programs, and aligning the institutional set up in these countries with the requirements of market change, there seems to be a decline in investment in the humanities.[6] It is not surprising that the prevalent advice Arab countries receive is to improve general education and increase expenditure on science, technology and innovation. While this is sound advice, it remains largely uncontextualized, because those most capable of relating them to their own societies, namely scholars in the humanities, continue to be marginalized. We can see a clear indicator of this marginalization of local talent in the GCC consulting market analysis in 2020 cited above. The analysis reports that client maturity, defined as their ability to become less reliant on the consultancies, does not yet pose a danger on market share, despite the fact that the trend has been on the rise since 2013.[7] These two observations call for scholarly attention and quantification, as they seem to be the gateway to understanding the challenges of DIE for the Arab world in its diversity and particularities. It is not sufficient to address the issue of funding research, interdisciplinarity or regulative boundaries in order for the Arab world to tackle the challenges of DIE. It seems necessary to start a dialogue about the relevance of the humanities to the future of the region, create opportunities to widen the margin of freedom to conduct relevant research and embrace cross-cultural programs that address these priorities.

[1] I shall use terms like ‘world of things,’ ‘fact of the matter’ and ‘objectivity’ in a very loose way to indicate first order knowledge, without delving into the epistemology that underlie this thinking.

[2] For examples of research on the inductive error in hiring, see Ifeoma Ajunwa, “The Paradox of Automation as Anti-Bias Intervention”, Cardozo Law Review 41, 2020, 1671-1742, DOI:10.2139/ssrn.2746078. For an example of inductive error generated by the use of algorithms in the American criminal justice system, see Alex Rosenblat et al., “Data & Civil Rights: Criminal Justice Primer”, Data & Civil Rights Conference, 30 October, 2014 [accessed: 01.05.2021].

[3] Polarization is hardly a new phenomenon, but the claim here is that the extent and course it has taken in DIE is significant.

[4] See for example, Ahmad Dallal, “The Crisis of the Academic Humanities in the Arab World”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37/1, 2017, 134-141.

[5] Source Global Research, The GCC Consulting Market in 2020: Market Trends Programme. Report Extract, March 2020, 18.

[6] Due to lack of accurate and detailed expenditure data, the author relies on the data analysis provided by Dallal, “The Crisis”.

[7] The report then shares the advice that “consultants need to be committed to adding value to ensure they aren’t cut out of the equation”. Source Global Research, The GCC Consulting Market, 18.

Amani Albedah (أماني البداح) holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Science from Vanderbilt University, USA (2000). She was an assistant professor at Kuwait University, a teaching university, focusing on the methodological aspects of the sciences (hermeneutics of natural and social sciences), the social aspects of scientific communities (the cultural and socioeconomic underpinnings of scientific thinking) and building critical thinking skills in students of various specializations. Amani Albedah is a strong believer in the practical relevance of the humanities for decision-making from everyday life to national strategies and has dedicated her career to institutionally transformative projects. The practical role of philosophy in informing decision-making aligned with her career move from Kuwait University to the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences in 2014, and she is currently the Deputy Director General for Support Programs and Functions.

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Citation: Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 01.07.2021

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 1. Juli). The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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