As director of the National Endowment of the Humanities, William “Bro” Adams sees firsthand the numerous potentials and pitfalls of the digital age.
On the one hand, the NEH has funded some of the most cutting-edge projects in the emerging field known as digital humanities, from software that can analyze every word in all of Shakespeare’s works to Emory University’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which documents 36,000 voyages that brought slaves from Africa to North and South America between the 16th and 19th centuries.
“We talk a lot about the ways that digital tools have completely transformed the way humanists can do their scholarship,” Adams said recently from his Washington, D.C., office.
On the other hand, “there’s a big question about how digital technology affects our daily lives, the irony of how it seems to connect us in new ways and seems to disconnect us,” Adams said.
Adams and a panel of artists and writers will discuss this topic Monday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Bale-Boone Symposium: “Paying Attention and the Way We Live Now.”
The idea for the panel came from two UK colleagues, Stuart Horodner and Phil Harling, who found themselves talking one day about how little focus anyone has these days.
As the directors of the UK Art Museum and the Gaines Center for the Humanities, respectively, this topic had real relevance to art, reading, teaching and learning. Horodner was also in the middle of reading “Reclaiming Conversation,” a book by MIT researcher Sherry Turkle about the growing lack of connectedness amidst society’s hyper-connectivity.
“We got to thinking, we need to showcase this because we acknowledge it, but ironically, we don’t give ourselves time to chew on it,” Harling said.
Horodner had some ideas for participants, starting with Adams; Mira Schor, an artist, writer and teacher; and Michael David Murphy and Alyson West, Atlanta-based artists who created “We are the 15 percent,” a crowd-sourced collection of interracial families that was inspired by a Cheerios ad. A small show of Schor’s work will be hung in the Art Museum next week.
The panelists will make 10-minute presentations, followed by a discussion moderated by Horodner.
“We wanted to see a broad range of opinions that can be both critical and analytic,” Horodner said. “The topic has so many ramifications for how we look and see and teach and learn.”
On Wednesday, the symposium will feature the documentary “The Destruction of Memory,” a film about increasing cultural destruction all over the world. On Oct. 13, artist and graphic designer Michael Rock will present “Attention Disruption, Disorder,” a talk about design challenges amid a constant battle for attention in a distracted world.
“What we’re hoping to highlight are various ways in which folks examine this contemporary phenomenon,” Harling said. “What are things to worry about but what are the opportunities to build community, and what does community even mean at a time, when it seems to be not as relevant as it was a generation ago?”
Adams noted that in the world of the humanities — which at one time meant many long hours parsing long texts — there is “much for humanists to ponder.”
“What is the experience of the world we have now in the presence of all this technology?” he said. “What does it make possible and what does it make impossible? I think the changes are profound, and I don’t think we understand them all yet.”
If you go
The Gaines Center Bale Boone Symposium in the Humanties
Monday, Oct. 3, UK Memorial Hall, 7-8:30 p.m.: “Paying Attention and the Way We Live Now”
Wednesday, Oct. 5, Gatton College’s Kincaid Auditorium, 6:30 p.m.: Screening of “The Destruction of Memory”
Thursday, Oct. 13, Classroom Building, Room 106, 6 p.m.: “Attention Disruption, Disorder” by graphic designer Michael Rock
All events are free and open to the public.