From Home[r] to the Holodeck: New Media and the Humanities
by Henry Jenkins

I have a confession to make. Many of you may have been brought here under false pretenses.

The title of the talk I had intended to present today was "From Homer to the Holodeck," drawing its inspiration from one of the mottoes of MIT's new Master's Program in Comparative Media Studies. Instead, I logged onto the conference's website a few days ago to discover that you think I am giving a talk entitled "From Home to the Holodeck."

I'd like to use this miscommunication, somewhat opportunistically, as an object lesson for some of the points I am going to make over the next few moments. The new digital media enables communication and collaboration across once insurmountable distances. It allows us to send messages in the blink of an eye from Cambridge, MA, to Sydney, NSW, but it also allows us to misunderstand each other with the click of a keyboard.

We must be cautious that our words are understood in relation to their own particular local contexts. I am acutely aware at the moment that I am speaking to you from one context, bound-up with my own experiences as an American academic enmeshed in my country's political and cultural struggles, reflecting upon the resources and opportunities emerging in our economic situation. However, you are hearing my words in a very different context, shaped by Australia's own struggles with multiculturalism, globalism, and technological development.

I am reminded of Sandy Stone's observation that digital theory is "thoroughly experimental and subject for recall, for factory modification, at any time," recognizing that my ideas are provisional, awaiting word from you whether they make any sense from an Australian perspective. [1] If in part, to reflect upon the role which the humanities and social sciences will play in the 21st century, we need to be pretty clear where we are going and where we are coming from.

From Homer to the Holodeck

I had meant for the title, From Homer to the Holodeck to express a continuity across residual, dominant and emerging forms of media and thus my belief that even the most traditional forms of humanism have enormous contributions to make in response to our current era of media transformation. My MIT colleague, Janet Murray recently published a book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, which makes significant contributions to contemporary debates about the role of the humanities in the digital age. [2] In the course of her career, Murray has gone from being a scholar of Victorian women writers to being a research scientist working in a center for educational computing, and her book expresses the relationship she sees emerging between these two worlds. Digital media are increasingly central to all aspects of our modern life, as the computer has shifted from a calculation tool into a cornerstone of contemporary culture.

Murray regards this shift to be a cultural revolution on the same order of magnitude as the introduction of the printing-press or the emergence of modern mass media in the late 19th and early 20th century. This media transformation unleashes new artistic potentials, opens new spaces for storytelling and cultural expression, and introduces new models for representing social and cultural relations. Her book outlines the aesthetics of an art form which does not yet exist, an art form whose parameters are starting to emerge from the early efforts of game designers, webmasters, and computer programmers, as they explore what the computer can do and pave the way for the "cyberbards" who are to come.

The holodeck in her title refers to the futuristic interactive and immersive technologies imagined by Star Trek, which she feels offers the most compelling contemporary representation of this robust, new storytelling medium. Her phrasing, however, suggests that what is to come does not represent a profound break with the past. Shakespeare still matters in the world of the holodeck and the challenge is to find contemporary forms as complex and compelling on their own terms. Throughout her book, she explores earlier antecedents for interactive or nonlinear fiction, reassessing Tristram Shanty or the Bronte Sister's collaborative storytelling practices, suggesting that the new digital media may represent a fulfillment of dreams held by earlier generations of artists and storytellers.

The computer, she writes, "promises to reshape the spectrum of narrative expression, not by replacing the novel or the movie, but by continuing their timeless bardic work within another framework." She ends the book with a call to make sure that we get digital tools into the hands of our greatest contemporary storytellers, and insisting that humanists should not turn their back on technology.

From Home to the Holodeck

To me, the title, From Home to the Holodeck, suggests something very different -- placing greater emphasis upon discontinuity, radical change and uncertain futures, on a movement from a familiar place (the home) to an alien one (the holodeck). "From Home to the Holodeck" evokes the sort of oppositions between the domestic culture of books and the technological culture of computers, which run through Sven Birkerts' The Guttenberg Elegies, a work that I take to be emblematic of an alternative response which many humanists are taking towards contemporary computer culture.[3] Birkerts fears for the culture of the book, which he sees as foundational for the whole humanist tradition.

For Birkerts, the book embodies "knowledge, wisdom, tradition, cultivation and inwardness," the values he associates with Enlightenment humanism. Its displacement from the center of our culture represents an "erosion" of those core values which may be fatal to the humanist traditions he seeks to defend. He casts readers as members of an embattled minority, struggling to preserve the best of human culture from the chaos of the contemporary information society. He is horrified by the web, which he sees as a realm of disordered data and fragmented facts circulating outside of any predetermined context; the computer sets a pace for decision-making which denies any possibility of quiet contemplation.

For Birkerts, the book culture dwells within the home, the parlor and the library, while the computer represents an invading force which has taken possession of our lives and allows no time for human reflection. In many ways, Birkerts' critique of computers is ironic, since humanism rose to cultural prominence and institutional stability on the back of another communications revolution, the advent of print culture, but now casts itself against subsequent waves of technological change.

Murray and Birkerts represent two very different visions of how the humanities should respond to technological change. Murray proposes a vision of the humanities as empowered by emerging technologies, which allow us to fulfill long-standing missions and to move into new spaces, to go where no humanist has gone before. Birkerts offers us a vision of the humanities as embattled against emerging technologies which threaten to destroy core values and practices. Murray's vision is utopian; Birkerts' apocalyptic. Birkerts equates humanism with the culture of the book; Murray envisions humanism as transcending the book and taking new forms as the culture changes around it.

What is at stake in this exchange is whether the job of the humanist will be defined as that of being a custodian of the past or an inventor of the future, whether we will seize the opportunities offered by the digital revolution or whether we will sink beneath the waves of change. Another influential humanist, James J. O'Donnell, writes, "The genuine spirit of our culture is not expressed in applying small pieces of celotape to hold together the structure we have received, but in pitching in joyously to its ongoing reconstruction." [4]

Mapping Digital Revolutions

As the new millennium approaches, humanists around the world are engaged in some serious soul-searching. We are trying to understand how our field of study has been bound-up with the historical culture of the book, trying to imagine how we will respond to fundamental shifts in the base technologies of communication, education, and storytelling, and trying to decide what our mission should be in an increasing multicultural society, a growingly global culture and a rapidly changing economy. I want to identify at least seven models of the digital revolution which circulate in contemporary discourse:

  1. Technological Revolution - the transformation of atoms into bytes, in Nicholas Negroponte's terms, the convergence of all existing media into one single technology with enormous transformative and archival potentials.

  2. Social Revolution - the emergence of new forms of communities emerge in response to the collapse of traditional institutions, or the increased mobility of modern life (as in Howard Rheingold's arguments about The Virtual Community), or the development of new forms of identity as we construct personas free of biological determinants (as in the work of Sherry Turkle or Donna Haraway).

  3. Cultural Revolution - the free circulation of ideas in a realm where the traditional gatekeepers no longer hold power and personalized "first-choice" media displace the centralized "technology of tyrants" (as in George Gilder).

  4. Intellectual Revolution - the transformation of teaching and the creation of more learner-centered environments (as in the arguments advanced by Seymour Papert).

  5. Political Revolution - the creation of more democaratic forms of decision-making founded on the participatory qualities of interactive media technologies (as in the work of Lawrence Grossman).

  6. Global Revolution - the collapse of barriers between cultures and of the ideological logic behind the modern nation state due to increased communication potential of digital media (as in John Perry Barlow's Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace.)

  7. Economic Revolution - a shift towards home-based employment and telecommuting, towards a new economy in which smaller start-ups compete with massive corporations through e-commerce, in a phase defined by lower barriers of entry into the marketplace.

What this breakdown of different versions of the Digital Revolution suggests are the following points:

  1. Fantasies of radical change are surfacing on both the right and the left, as well as from writers like Barlow, whose politics don't really fit within classical ideological categories.

  2. The whole rhetoric of "revolutionary change" points towards some basic dissatisfactions with the state of contemporary life. The computer is posited as a utopian agent of transformation, capable of either restoring or renewing traditional social formations (the virtual community, the global village) or introducing new modes of interaction which respond to historic anxieties, frustrations, and desires (cyborg feminism).

  3. Hopes for digital transformation are closely linked to anxieties or dystopian dread about the direction change might take. The whole rhetoric of "revolution" encourages counter-revolutionaries who react against what they perceive to be a coming reign of terror, who feel so invested in traditional structures that they are threatened by the thought of their dissolution or transformation.

A meaningful humanistic response to this process must keep alive the myth of social, cultural, political, intellectual, and economic change embodied in the fantasy of a digital revolution. After all, utopian fantasy is an important element within any political movement. We need to be able to envision alternatives to the current situation in order to motivate change, and it is by envisioning alternatives that the inadequacies of the status quo become apparent. If, for example, we did not have an ideal of universal access to digital media, then the current barriers to access, which block certain groups from participating in cyberspace, would not be perceived as a serious flaw.

On the other hand, we need to maintain a critical perspective on change which allows us to measure the gap between the myths and the realities, which tests arguments about cyberdemocracy against the realities of racial inequality in access to digital technologies, which pits claims about a new cultural realm without gatekeepers against patterns of corporate consolidation and oligopoly. The best way to conduct such a conversation is by avoiding the either-or logic that the myth of a digital revolution encourages.

A recent collective statement, the Techno-realism Manifesto, advocates a middle-ground position where technological critics adopt a stance like that of a food critic or a film critic, debating the merits and limitations of specific local developments rather than getting bogged down in endless debates between extreme positions of technological utopianism and luddite reaction. After all, food critics aren't asked constantly to defend the existence of food or decide whether its overall impact is harmful or beneficial to society. Rather, they are allowed to make distinctions between a good meal and a bad one and to articulate standards by which one could reach such a judgment. What I am calling the New Humanism here, is intended in that same spirit.

Towards a New Humanism

We are at a vital moment in the history of our disciplines, which offers rich possibilities for expanding our public profile, broadening our intellectual mission, deepening our theoretical perspectives, forming alliances with both traditional humanists and technical experts at our own institutions, enabling new international collaborations, and enlarging the job market for our students. The public responds to these alternative visions of digital revolution with a mixture of fascination and fear, uncertain how to judge which scenario seems more likely or farfetched. They are susceptible to sensationalistic claims and shoddy research. Never before has there been such a great need for a new form of expertise which is alert to the social and cultural consequences of media technology, pragmatic in its response to the potentials and dangers of change and articulate enough to explain these processes to the general public.

For the moment, changes are being fueled by technological developments rather than being shaped by a serious consideration of what kind of new society we hope to create. When this happens, technological developments often lose touch with the shape of human life.

I like to make an analogy between the current development of digital media and the history of the doll industry in the United States. In the late 19th century, the toy industry faced a problem -- doll heads were most often made from china or ceramic bisque and were easily breakable. [5] The Edison corporation took this as a technological problem, seeking to develop a doll's head which would absolutely not break, drawing on new industrial materials. The result was the cast-iron baby doll.

But another response emerged from small female-run companies which often had on-grounds day-care facilities, so they were developing their products in a human context of everyday life. They drew on what they knew as wives and mothers about children's culture , and in the process, they explored the possibility of making dolls heads from Indian rubber -- a much more user-friendly material.

Today, the isolation of humanities and engineering results in the creation of the digital equivalent of the cast-iron baby doll as we rush to solve technological problems and exploit new materials without a grasp of the cultural and social contexts in which the products are being used. The best answers will come from breaking down this false separation between humanism and technology, so that technological questions are framed and answered in human terms, a theme that will resurface later in this talk.

If humanists respond to the digital revolution by offering ever more elaborate and impassioned defenses of our libraries, as if the emergence of a new media necessarily meant the death toll of the book, we will destroy our credibility and blunt our effectiveness as interpreters and critics of contemporary culture.

I want to propose an alternative model of humanism which does not see its future bound to a single technology or medium. This new humanism is defined through its flexibility and fluidity, its ability to think across media, and its willingness to pragmatically engage with the core issues shaping the modern era. This new humanism will be based on interdisciplinary collaborations which enable us to combine expertise to confront new problems rather than continuing the divide-and-conquer politics of academic turf wars, which direct our attention inward, when we should be assuming increased public roles.

For the past several years, the MIT Media in Transition Project has sponsored forums which bring together journalists and activists interested in the impact of digital media upon contemporary society with historians engaged in the study of earlier periods, when media underwent profound shifts. What has emerged from such conversations is a much more complex account of cultural and technological change. The potentials of a new medium are shaped by its introduction into specific social, cultural, legal, economic, and political contexts which partially determine both the ways it will be used and the effects it will have.

We have brought together urban designers with the developers of contemporary video games so that they could examine our emerging fantasies about urban and pastoral environments and compare notes on how we might design new environments to better suit human needs. We have invited historians of the press, such as Michael Schudson, to debate the ways that our concept of the "informed citizen" has been shaped by shifts in information technologies.

We have also asked contemporary science fiction writers, ranging from Octavia Butler to Bruce Sterling, to reflect upon the assumptions about media technologies which run through their fictions, recognizing science fiction's traditional responsibility to popularize debates about scientific discovery and technological change. We have sought, in this fashion, to shift the focus of the conversation away from interactive technologies and towards human interactions with technology.

These conversations suggest a series of core conclusions:

  1. New communications are consistently met by competing rhetorics of utopian promise and apocalyptic change. Such debates about the nature of new media force into question many of the core institutions and practices of a culture and thus, initiate a process of widespread change.

  2. Media change, however, is ultimately evolutionary rather than revolutionary, shaped less by a logic of technological determinism than through complex social and cultural negotiations. Often, the first uses of new technologies are fundamentally conservative, testing the potentials of the new technology against the achievements of previous media.

    Consider for a moment the Gutenberg Bible, that great artifact of the print revolution. It is significant that it is the Bible, a work which was central to the cultural economy of the scribal or manuscript culture, which preceded print. Second, it is a cultural hybrid which took almost two years to produce, with a combination of hand-illumination and printed type on almost every page. Third, the standards by which the Bible would have been judged, would have been those set for illuminated manuscripts. If it was not at least as beautiful an artifact as those produced at the monasteries, it would have been rejected as a failed experiment.[6]

  3. Often, the distribution of new media is uneven and gradual, blocked by other material and social factors. In the case of the print revolution, these factors would have included the initially high cost of paper and the slow and uneven spread of literacy.

  4. Our ideas about dramatic change often mask the existence of hybrid or alternative media which help to mediate between the old and new forms. For example, our contemporary discussions of the shift from orality to literacy often ignore the role of pictorial forms, which helped to mediate between the two cultural systems. The Bayeaux Tapestry, for example, served both the needs of the monks who were invested in the alphabetic culture and the needs of the peasants who were still dwelling within a predominantly oral culture.

Comparative Media Studies

What has emerged through these conversations is a new approach to media education which we call "Comparative Media Studies." [link to: TBA] Comparative Media Studies is understood as the humanistic and social scientific study of the cultural, social, political, economic, and aesthetic consequences of mediated communications.

Comparative Media Studies brings together scholars working on parallel tracks in art history, theatre studies, comparative literature, journalism, film and television studies, digital communications, and a range of other related fields, searching for common grounds, as well as, exporting modes of analysis from one medium to another. Forms of Comparative Media Studies are emerging at many American universities, taking different names or emphasis to reflect the reality of pre-existing institutional resources or local alliances.

The value of such a perspective becomes clear when we reconsider the way that the emergence of digital media is persistently framed as a potential threat to the survival of the book and its legacy in the humanities. Often arguments such as Birkerts' imply that the relations between media amounts to a zero-sum game, in which one medium always dominates and displaces the technologies which preceded it.

Each subsequent phase of media transformation has added new communication tools, new structures of media ownership, new forms of cultural power, but never fully displaced the forms of media which preceded it. Once introduced, media are remarkably resilient, shifting in and out of cultural centrality, acquiring or discarding different functions, transmitting alternative kinds of content, but rarely disappearing altogether. Even today, one can, for example, send a telegram, though telegraphy no longer has the centrality in our culture which it once had.

Radio, one of the earliest form of mass media, continues to have enormous political influence, as demonstrated by the powerful role played by conservative talk show hosts in organizing sustained opposition to the Clinton Administration, despite electoral victories, and the introduction of Realaudio technologies -- that is, of digital radio -- has the potential to transform radio yet again. I have students at MIT who use digital media to listen into radio broadcasts from their mother countries in Bosnia or Serbia, much as an earlier generation would have struggled to cut through the static and hear distant signals on their shortwave radios.

There are dead delivery technologies -- the old wax cylinders of the early phonograph, the 8-track tapes of the 1970s -- but there are no dead media. Despite a succession of different forms of transmission, we still maintain a medium of recorded sound which plays some central roles in our culture.

So far, if we look at three primary institutions of literary culture (the book, the letter, the newspaper), the results are far more complicated. On-line bookstores, such as, are extending the circulation of books of all kinds into regions which previously had little or no access to good bookstores, and in the process, providing forums for the discussion of books, offering opportunities for readers to exchange their evaluations with each other, creating intelligent agents which can help us locate books which meet our needs, but which we would not have discovered otherwise, and linking critical commentary about books from multiple intellectual and ideological perspectives with access to the books themselves.

The growing fascination of the young with the digital realm represents a return to a more literate culture, a world where one's ability to express oneself clearly through written language is valued as central to the process of courtship or to one's status within peer culture. The letter, which had been largely a moribund form in the middle part of the 20th century, is re-emerging as central to our processes of social connectivity. Much as with the print revolution, the growth of the Internet depends upon the expansion of literacy skills.

The impact of digital media upon that other key institution of print culture, the newspaper, is apt to be more complicated. A decade ago, many had predicted that the newspaper might well have outlived its usefulness, having become essentially the information institution of choice only for aging baby-boomers and losing its ability to connect with younger readers. Jon Katz has noted that the average American, below the age of 35, gets the bulk of their information about the world around them from nontraditional sources, from the net and the web, from rap songs and music videos, from topical sitcoms and stand-up routines on late night television. [7] In short, the realm of news, entertainment, information and popular culture becomes increasingly difficult to separate from each other.

In the initial excitement about the digital revolution, some proclaimed a world where "information must be free," and all citizens would have direct access to the information necessary for making their own decisions about key governmental institutions. Increasingly, however, there has emerged a new respect for the fact-gathering and processing structures of traditional journalism. While the Net is enabling many new voices to be heard and providing a forum for challenging traditional journalism's representations of the world, it may also result in a renewed respect for the political and cultural productivity of journalism as a system for ordering information. The language and structure of journalism may shift, as occurred, for example, with the rise of the telegraph, which introduced the concept of the inverted pyramid and the lead paragraph. But the long-term viability and centrality of professional journalism remains clear.

Some visionaries are talking about a realm of personalized newspapers, which only offer us information that we have programmed our agents to seek out, but such a world would be a later-day Babel where we could not communicate with each other because our personal newspapers did not construct for us comparable social and cultural realities. We depend upon journalists to force onto our agendas questions, issues, political structures, individuals, and geographic locations we did not previously know we cared about, and we will depend all the more on this agenda-setting role in a world of ever-expanding information flows.

Newspapers, however, are discovering new audiences as they move on-line. One of the first publications to create its own website, the San Jose Mercury, has found that it has gained new status as a national or even international news source competing alongside national newspapers such as the New York Times or USA Today. At first, publishers imagined that the primary interest in web-based versions of their publications would lie in college students who wanted to maintain some links to their home towns, but they are discovering a far broader array of people are drawn to their sites.

As a result, they are reassessing what the mission of the local newspaper is and how they might position themselves in response to a broader national or even international readership. One new model might be the development of niche-oriented sections in their publications which build upon the pre-existing strengths of their reporters and their regional identifications. In the North American contexts, one can imagine a world where we read educational news in the Boston Globe, political news in the Washington Post, entertainment news in the LA Times, and economic news in the Wall Street Journal.

Cross-media ownership, sparked by shifts in media regulation in the United States, is giving rise to a situation where journalists are increasingly thinking across media, looking for ways to present information which fully exploit the diverse potentials of television, print, and web based reporting. The computer has not destroyed the newspaper, but rather it has shifted its functions and its relationship to its core constituencies.

Digital media will not simply displace existing communications technologies; television, film, radio, recorded music, publishing will continue to co-exist with emerging forms of media and will play a central role in defining the functions digital media plays in our lives.

Technological and Cultural Convergence

Our traditional disciplines have often been defined around a single dominant media technology -- literature around books, journalism around print, cinema studies around motion pictures, and so forth. What is required for the new humanism, however, is the ability to train students to think across media, to recognize that there has never been a point in human history when a single medium operated in isolation.

Many of the wilder claims made about digital media have emerged from a refusal to examine closely the existing configuration of media, to understand the likely future interactions between broadcast networks and the Internet, for example. Media are converging at the site of production and at the site of reception. At the present, one of the central questions we need to confront is the relationship between centralized broadcast media, like television, and grassroots, participatory media, like the Internet.

We might understand this distinction in terms of two famous political slogans of the 1960s, both drawn from the American context. First is the Gil Scott Herron song, "The Revolution will not be Televised." Herron's point was that a corporate controlled, narrow pipeline media-like network television is unlikely to embrace the currents of social, cultural and political change. But ask yourself whether the revolution will be digitized and the answer is rather different. Fringe groups of all kinds are among the first to go on-line and to exploit the Net's participatory potential to get out messages which cannot circulate through broadcast media.

On the other hand, student protesters during the 1968 Chicago riots chanted to the network news trucks that, "the whole world is watching," secure in the knowledge that if their experiences were televised, they would reach viewers around the world and that they would be outraged by the police's behavior. Ask yourself if there is any place on the web where one can say that the whole world is watching. We have gained access to a broad-based participatory media at the expense of being able to direct the attention of the larger public or to get our ideas onto the national/international agenda.

My own prediction is a future in which the broadcast media continue to function as agenda setters, sparking a range of popular responses which are communicated via the Net, while the Net will be the place where new, controversial or innovative ideas surface and gain their most dramatic impact when they are embraced and recirculated through mainstream broadcast media.

Contemporary discussions of technological convergence, that is, the integration of existing communications technologies into a single mega-system, need to be framed in relation to what I call "cultural convergence." Anyone who wants to see what convergence looks like should visit my house and watch my adolescent son, sprawled on the living room rug, watching a baseball game on our big-screen television, listening to techno on his cd-player, and writing e-mail to his friends or doing homework on his laptop. At the moment, the technologies aren't talking to each other. They're on different sides of the room. But, it doesn't really matter very much in cultural terms, since, as consumers, we are already using different media and their contents in relation to each other.

Sociologists are starting to refer to the "N Generation," the "Net Generation," or "Gen.Com", children who have come of age in relation to interactive technologies and digital media and who operate under the rather bold assumption that they can be active participants shaping, creating, critiquing and circulating popular culture.

Cultural convergence refers to the process by which people in their everyday life use media in relation to each other, form evaluations about which media best serves specific purposes, assemble information across multiple channels of communication, and embrace artworks which depend upon appropriation and remixing of cultural materials or upon the archiving and recirculating of previous media texts. My argument is that in order to predict the effects of our current moment of technological convergence of media delivery systems, we need to look closely at the patterns of media consumption which have preceded technological changes and created a public appetite for a more flexible interaction with media technologies.

Corporate Humanism and Vernacular Theory

Computer scientist Langdon Winner has called for computer professionals to take responsibility for their own actions and to help enlarge public debates surrounding the design and implementation of new communications and information technologies: "Right now it's anyone's guess what sorts of personalities, styles of discourse, and social norms will ultimately flourish in these new settings...We can predict, though, that American society will continue to exclude ordinary citizens from key choices about the design and development of new technologies, including information systems. Industrial leaders present as fait accomplis what otherwise might have been choices open for diverse public imaginings, investigations and debates.... People doing research on computing and the future could have a positive influence in these matters.

If we're asking people to change their lives to adapt to new information systems, it seems responsible to solicit broad participation in deliberation, planning, decision making, prototyping, testing, evaluation and the like." [8]

Such a conversation necessarily involves more than engineers or industrialists since it cuts to core questions about culture, community, and democracy, questions which are at the heart of the historic mission of the humanities.

In addressing such questions, however, we must break free from the tendency towards professionalization, which has griped the humanities in recent years. I recognize that in Australia, there has remained a strong tradition of academic engagement in debates about social and cultural policy, but in the American context, there has been a tendency of humanism to frame its arguments in ever more specialized language, largely free of any responsibility to translate what it has discovered about contemporary culture into a language more widely accessible to popular audiences. We have lost sight of our historic roles as "paraphrasers" or "translators" who open up intellectual debates to larger communities, who act as bridges between different communities or diverse bodies of knowledge.

As Winner's comments suggest, the process of theorizing digital media is occurring outside, as well as, inside the university and these conversations (and the subsequent decisions which grow out of them) will occur with or without our input.

Thomas McLaughlin has offered the term "vernacular theory" to refer to theorizing outside the academy, offering compelling case studies of the different modes of theory-formation among school teachers, advertising executives, fans, media activists or new age visionaries. [9] McLaughlin understands theory to be any attempt to make meaningful generalizations for interpreting or evaluating local experiences and practices. Vernacular theory abounds in the digital realm.

Academic and vernacular theory carry different degrees of prestige, speak different languages, ask different questions, and address different audiences, though the line between them is rapidly breaking down. For example, when someone like Nicholas Negroponte, the head of the MIT Media Lab, writes a regular column in Wired, does he write as an academic or a vernacular theorist? Is his status fundamentally different from the provocative political journalist, John Heilman, who has also published in Wired, but has no university affiliation? Even some of early works of digital theory, such as Vannever Bush's influential "As We May Think," first published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945, appeared not in scholarly journals but in mass-market magazines.

Theory has become central to how businesses operate, how politicians plan their campaigns, and how consumers make choices. In many cases, scientists and engineers are addressing humanistic concerns. We need to make sure this remains a multi-directional exchange with humanists speaking with greater comfort and authority about technological topics.

In a period of prolonged change, digital theory is more than an academic exercise. Digital media impacts all aspects of western society, from education to politics, from business to the arts. Journalists, science-fiction writers, ideologues, entrepreneurs, activists, classroom teachers, rock stars, judges, government regulators are both consumers and producers of digital theory. For many, theorizing restores predictability and stability to a world rocked by radical change, while, for others, theory fuels change, directing the energies unleashed by the digital revolution towards altering the nature of political life or personal identity.

Humanists have the potential to play an active role in shaping these public conversations about the role media plays in modern life and framing the agenda for the next phase of technological change. Discussions within the communications industry are shifting from the problems of developing hardware, software and information infrastructure to trying to figure out how those media are going to be used and what functions they are going to play within the lives of consumers.

Alright, we have umpteen hundred channels of cable; we have the Net and the Web; we have the massive processing power of today's computers; and we have cd-rom drives. How are they going to be used? What stories, histories, lessons will they tell? How will they be used to convey knowledge and information? How will they enhance learning, knit communities together, preserve cultural traditions or create new works of art which express what it means to be human in the 21st century? In short, what is going to be their content?

That's one place where the humanists enter the conversation. We have long traditions of thinking about storytelling, entertainment, and teaching, about how the specific properties of a medium shape what messages can best be conveyed. We have thought about how to organize fields of knowledge, so that they don't get tangled up together or pull us in too many different directions at once.

Corporate and governmental leaders are also confronting issues of context -- how can we make meaningful predictions about future courses of action when shifting media technologies are reshaping core institutions and practices before our eyes. The social sciences might be thought of as the school of context, where issues of culture and community, of politics and society, and the study of how we lead our everyday lives are part of a long-standing tradition of intellectual inquiry. If you listen closely to statements being made by industrial leaders like Disney's Bran Ferren or Purple Moon's Brenda Laurel, you will find they are speaking our language.

One significant consequence of the digital revolution has been the breaking down of a traditional separation between the humanities and more technical fields. In his recent book, Interface Culture, Steve Johnson writes, "This book is extended as an attempt to think about the object-world of technology, as though it belonged to the world of culture, or as though these two worlds were united. For the truth is, they have been united all along. Was the original cave painter an artist or an engineer? She was both, of course, like most artists and engineers since. But we have a habit -- long cultivated -- of imagining them as separate, the two great tributaries rolling steadily to the sea of modernity, and dividing everyone in their path into two camps: those that dwell on the shores of technology and those that dwell on the shores of culture." [10] For Johnson, the digital era will represent a new interrelationship between scientists and humanists.

This new fusion of the humanities and engineering reflects the shifting nature of the technologies themselves, what Bruce Sterling describes as the change from the "steam-snorting wonders" and massive dam projects of the early 20th century, to "technologies that stick to the skin," and become intimate parts of everyday life.[11] (1996) As Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz argue, "The technological is not so easily distinguished from the 'human,' since it is within (medical technologies, processed foods), beside (telephones) and outside (satellites). Sometimes we inhabit it (the climate-controlled office space), or it inhabits us (a pacemaker). Sometimes it seems to be an appendage or prosthetic (a pair of eyeglasses); at other times, human-beings appear to serve as the appendages (as in an assembly line)." [12]

Cultural critics often act as if their importance lay in dethroning the scientific community's entrenched power. Yet, the best digital theory emerges when the lines between the scientist/engineer and humanist/artist are less clearly demarked, when engineers integrate cultural theory into their design principles, when humanists learn how to program, and when digital artists theorize their own creative processes. Consider some examples:

  • Much important work on interactive fiction, for example, has come from people like Stuart Moulthrope, Michael Joyce, and Shelley Jackson, who are also key hypertext authors.

  • Eastgate Systems, not only markets such pioneering works, but also shapes their reception context, distributing theoretical and critical works, hosting conferences and seminars, publishing bibliographies.

  • Marsha Kinder has translated her ideas about the needs to "deconstruct" race, sex, and gender into a computer game, Runaways.

  • Digital composer Tod Makover has created and performed a musical work, Brain Opera, based on Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind.

  • Brenda Laurel works in Silicone Valley, not only theorizing the gendering of computer technology, but also creating new games for girls which put her ideas into practice.

  • Microsoft's Linda Stone describes herself as a "corporate humanist," heading a research team of psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, exploring how digital media can be used to enhance or supplement real world communities.

Such centers for corporate humanism represent alternative career opportunities for our students who look at an increasingly bleak academic job market, and we need to be more alert to identifying such openings if we want to maintain the viability of the Humanities during a phase of prolonged retrenchment in higher education.

Often, such conversations reveal strange and unexpected common interests, as in the discussions surrounding the development of "girl's games," where feminist academics interested in insuring girl's early access to the technology and female entrepreneurs interested in broadening the software market found they might work together. [14] The current state of the technology reflected the unexamined goals of male game designers who developed product as that reflected their own tastes and interests and, as a result, game systems facilitated the faster reaction time necessary for fighting games, but did not enable the memory necessary to establish more complex character relationships.

Both groups wanted to rethink what a computer game might look like and what kinds of pleasures it might address, and they drew on similar intellectual perspectives to address those shared questions. The female game executives were themselves versed in feminist theory, often had liberal arts backgrounds and did quantitative and qualitative research mapping girls' preferences and playing styles. Academic feminists, who sought more precise understandings of the gendering of game genres, sometimes found themselves consulting with the games companies.


Academic theorists have historically responded to static, if not moribund, media. Printed texts existed for centuries, before there was an academic discipline focused around the study of literature. Film studies arose only at the moment when the Hollywood cinema's influence, as a central cultural institution, was giving way to television. Television studies gained academic respectability at the moment when the dominance of network broadcasting was challenged by new delivery technologies, such as cable or videotape. As Marshall McLuhan has noted, "media are often put out before they are thought out," and the lag time can be enormous.

Digital theory is responding to the process of change, describing and analyzing a medium (or cluster of media) still being born. But the opportunities for humanism to play a more central role in our culture are so great that it would be criminal to squander them.

The public is demanding leadership to help them understand and adjust to the process of change. The institutions and practices which we study are being transformed by the introduction of digital technologies. Our students will be entering a job market where a mastery of those technologies and the ability to think systematically across media are essential to remain competitive.

The only question is whether our institutions will allow us the flexibility to change with the times and whether we will define ourselves as custodians of the past or inventors of the future, whether we will be ready to leave behind the comforts of home and the familiarity of Homer to venture into the unexplored, yet tantalizing, new terrain of the holodeck.


[1] Allucquere Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (MIT Press, 1995). return

[2] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (MIT Press, 1998). return

[3] Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies : The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Fawcett, 1995). return

[4] James J. O'Donnell, "The Pragmatics of The New: Trithemius, McCluhan, Cassiodorus" in Geoffrey Nunberg (Ed.) The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1995). return

[5] Miriam Formanek-Brunnel, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930 (Yale University Press, 1993). return

[6] Steven Cooks, "Technological Revolutions and the Gutenberg Myth," in Mark Stefik (Ed.) Internet Dreams (MIT Press, 1996). return

[7] Jon Katz, "Media Rants: Postpolitics in the Digital Nation" (Hotwired, 1997) return

[8] Langdon Winner, "Who Will We Be in Cyberspace?" (The Network Observer, 2,9, September 1995). return

[9] Thomas McLaughlin, Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). return

[10]Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (Harper Collins, 1997). return

[11] Bruce Sterling (Ed.) Mirrorshades: A Cyberpunk Anthology (Ace, 1987). return

[12] Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz, "On Cultural Studies, Science and Technology." in Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinsons and Michael Menser (Eds.) Technoscience and Cyberculture (Routledge, 1996). return