As we shall see, the future limits of this technology are not in the hardware but in our minds . . . the issue of whether machines can become intelligent is less important than learning to deal with a device that can become whatever we clearly imagine it to be.
—Howard Rheingold, Tools for Thought, 1985
Sleepwalking into surveillance capitalism, which is evolving into data and computation driven authoritarianism, one cool service at a time.
— Zeynep Tufekci, @zeynep on Twitter, April 26, 2017
One doesn’t have to be a technophobe to recognize that digital technologies are posing profound challenges to the preservation and advancement of human freedom, equality, and human wellbeing. In the past several years, a string of highly-publicized scandals—from Edward Snowden’s revelations of the global surveillance program in 2013, the fake news controversy of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal reported on in 2018—have tempered early enthusiasm that networked digital technology would powerfully democratize knowledge, politics, and culture. To this list of high profile issues, scholars and critics have drawn attention to the way forms of exploitation, censorship, racism, sexism, and public manipulation are often exasperated by these technologies and their parent companies. Technology, it seems, is too important to be left to the technologists.
Despite these challenging realities, the promise of digital technology’s potential still holds strong. In this spirit, numerous organizations and activists have offered possibilities on how to “save the web” with some even speculating as to whether higher education might play a key role. The success of such a strategy, however, does not depend simply on our technological choices but, as Ted Nelson suggests, on our ability to imagine technological practices that better suit our diverse social, political, economic, and cultural interests. We are excited about the ways that the arts and humanities might contribute to this task of the imagination, and the critical role that students might have in this endeavor. As Chris Gilliard writes, “If higher education is to ‘save the web,’ we need to let students envision that something else is possible, and we need to enact those practices in classrooms.”
Imagining and enacting new technological practices is never simple—especially within the context of higher education—but such will be the charge of the KNIT R&D, a pilot humanities student group inaugurated in the Fall of 2018 at UC San Diego. As a group, we will commit to reading, discussing, and blogging about these issues on a bi-weekly basis with the aim of imagining how our digital commons KNIT might be developed and governed to respond to them. We will pay particular attention to how digital technologies shape the circulation and production of the arts and humanities (both within the university and more broadly) and how, in turn, the arts and humanities might meaningfully contribute to the development of digital technology and practices. At the end of the academic term, we will use our blog posts to create an advisory report for developing and governing our digital commons and consider next steps for our group.