Present and future of the humanities (II): between digitisation and artificial intelligence

Josep M. Vilalta - GUNi Director and Executive Secretary at ACUP

We humans have entered a technological scenario in which, for the first time in history, we have the ability to capture almost all the events in our lives and we have sufficient machines and computing power to examine them (Cortés).

Article originally published at ​UniversidadSi (30th October 2020)

In my previous article (Present and future of the humanities (I): Beyond catastrophism and protectionism), I presented the extensive work carried out by the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) and the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) to analyse the role of the humanities in education and scientific research. I performed my analysis from the concept of the unity of human knowledge, the need for interdisciplinary training and the synergies between science, technology and humanities.

As I said in the article, the work did not only seek to analyse these issues. It also raised proposals to strengthen the humanities in the highly complex, interconnected and technified world in which we live. In this post, I summarise some of the substantive issues that, along these lines, we analyse both in the Reflection Cycle ‘Sense and value of the humanities in the 21st century‘ (Palau Macaya de Barcelona) and in the World Report ‘Humanities and Higher Education: Synergies between Science, Technology and Humanities‘ (7th GUNi Higher Education in the World).

A new technological scenario

We humans have entered a technological scenario in which, for the first time in history, we have the ability to capture almost all the events in our lives and we have sufficient machines and computing power to examine them (Cortés).

Here, artificial intelligence is putting into question certain values ​​of classical humanism, i.e. trust in the value and power of individuals, whose main goal is the search for knowledge and continuous learning; the conviction that education is the key element for improving society; and, the appreciation of the Aristotelian idea of ​​physics as the scientific observation of reality.

Recognising and redefining our humanitas

According to Joan Manuel del Pozo, “humanities in the 21st century can only make sense if our humanitas (clearly evolved on itself, old and new at the same time) is recognised and redefined in its current complexity, induced by intense changes that are happening at an increasingly faster pace, the result of scientific, technological, cultural and social advances.”

Del Pozo, referring to automation as useful transformation of the machine condition, not the human condition, recalls Garrigasait in saying that “only from the genealogies of culture and by overcoming stereotypes shall we be able to deautomatise ourselves.” And he goes on to affirm that “the automation of machines (however great and efficient this might be) replaces our capacity and responsibility to decide.”

He also warns of the enormous influence on our lives of the Internet and the new economy “that could limit and even eliminate such values as individual freedom, the right to beauty and democracy itself.” This is where the humanities come to the rescue, because of their ability to balance, according to Genís Roca, two critical elements: on the one hand, “the defence of the American market criterion against the authoritarian centralisation criterion of the Chinese with regard to digital usage, big data, etc.; and on the other, “the defence of human rights as a fundamental ethical criterion.”

Del Pozo concludes that a “critical or free view of the future insistently calls upon us to review education: first, as suggested by Argullol, setting it in a new framework that is less anthropocentric and more biocentric and cosmocentric; although recognising, like Marina Garcés, that “anthropocentrism requires the self-correction that arises from knowing one’s own limits (…)” and the humanities avoid the “danger of human one-dimensionality.”

Rights and duties of the information

In this regard, and again in agreement with Roca, modern technology is once again calling for the modification of key aspects of the dominant social contract brought about by a change in the way people relate to information.

Modern technology is raising a new debate around the rights and duties associated to the same.

Such worrying issues as fake news and disinformation, the mass extraction of personal data and its impact on privacy, surveillance, ideological manipulation and the creation of false comfort zones, the closure of websites, the disclosure of state secrets, the discovery of sensitive information about public offices, etc. are the order of the day.

In this debate, where everything has yet to be defined and which will involve several generations over the next few decades, certain persons are going to have to be ready to step forward. Serious personal risks will need to be taken for the good of the group. We therefore face the pressing need to shift towards a digital humanism, where the extensive European tradition should serve as a reference: from classical humanities to the modern day, passing through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

This is what the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism is saying by calling upon us to describe and analyse. But we must not forget that the most important thing is to influence the complex interaction between technology and humanity, for the sake of better life and society, in full respect of universal human rights.

 

About the author

Josep M. Vilalta is Executive Secretary of the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP), association formed by the universities of Barcelona (UB), Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Girona (UdG), Lleida (UdL), Rovira i Virgili (URV) and Oberta de Catalunya (UOC).

Before he held the following positions and responsibilities: Deputy Director General for Research of the Government of Catalonia, Head of the Evaluation, Studies and University Cooperation of the Government of Catalonia, Head of the Strategic Planning Unit of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair for University Management, Deputy Director of Management of the Laboratori d’Enginyeria Marítima (Ocean Engineering Laboratory) (UPC) and Executive Secretary of the International Centre for Coast Resources. He has lectured in the fields of public management, public policy and university and research management in different universities and centres. He also promoted and coordinated a Master in University Management and Policy.

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