Author: David Beyea

The War of the STEM and the Human

STEM and Humanities majors, engaging in brutal warfare

There is a war currently being waged between STEM and humanities
majors. This is not a violent conflict, no blood has yet been shed;the only casualties are those who become polluted into thinking that
either field is inherently better than the other.

The common perception is that STEM majors are intelligent but rigid, unappreciative of art and unable to see the “human” factor. This is contrary to the humanities major, who is wise and thoughtful
but so focused in on their particular niche they lose sight of what can be truly useful to society. Such toxic mentalities are rampant in college circles, as students stick to their clustered cliques, tut-tutting the other side for just not getting it.

Into this open vacuum of stuffy jingoism comes this strange little class: the Digital Humanities. And into this strange little class came a student who has long held the belief that those STEM majors just don’t get it. He had heard of this strange little class with its oxymoronic title and he just had to check it out. So this poor student, who has always held a certain degree of contempt for those STEM majors and their stupid intelligence, finds himself learning that the reason he has access to all of his beloved media, his art, his literature, is because of a few lines of code and some strips of a metal he probably couldn’t even pronounce the name of.

That poor student, being me of course, finds himself in an awkward position when at the end of the course he actually thinks that all of these technical STEM things are all of the stuff he always thought was monopolized by the humanities. Languages are just issues of communication solved through the grouping of symbols and sounds. Every time a writer goes back and edits their existing material, trimming away the lines that don’t work, they are engaging in the same behavior as the scientist or mathematician or computer technician that is solving a complicated set of code, or discovering a black hole. What is in our books? A rigid structure of chapter>page>paragraph>sentence>word>letter. It’s just the same as in coding or mathematics. Librarians, those brave guardians of the humanities, use coding and mathematical processes of data collection, as we learned in “Metadata”. So… I guess problem solving isn’t just in the realm of the STEM majors.

Towards the beginning of this class, we discussed what the study of humanities was, and it’s a question I keep returning to even as we trudge into the muck of html and source code. What we do in class, picking through backchannels on networking websites and adding brackets to couplets of letters, that is part of the humanities. It could also be considered part of the STEM field. This class helped to dispel the notion that there is a binary existence of art on one side and math on the other, only separated by a thin de-militarized zone where business majors eke out some sort of meager existence. Rather, it is a nebulous field where both exist, borrowing elements most think belong to the other and transforming them into what we recognize as its pure form. I guess “Digital Humanities” isn’t such an oxymoron.

Whatever I say, I’ve still got my eye on you, STEM majors.

Technology: the Terrifying Tool?

Image from Chungkong Art
“Three billion human lives ended on August 29, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the Machines.”

 

It begins, as always, with video games.

Back in 2003, on my fifth birthday, my parents got me a small gaming device called a “Gameboy”, a product that has since become somewhat defunct due to those “cell-phones” everyone seems to carry around. Poor five-year-old David was absolutely terrified of the thing. I remember just staring at that vapid black screen three-inch screen, the empty blackness unsettling me. Strange that I didn’t view TVs the same way, which were far larger and more imposing in their emptiness. Perhaps it was my role as an active agent in the life of Mario, or Sonic, or whichever gaming mascot populated the gaming cartridge that concerned me so. TV was just TV, something you watched. But being launched into a virtual world where I controlled what happened to that jolly Italian plumber in red and blue? Far too anxiety-inducing for me. I refused to touch the device for months, out of fear that Mario would die for good, or, even worse, that it would explode in my hands! Since then, I’ve maintained a healthy distance from any technology whatsoever, out of fear of its spontaneous combustion in my hands.

… Is that the future we face with “technology”?

Of course it sounds ridiculous to retroactively compare the worries of an anxiety-ridden child to fifteen years down the line, when technology has become such an intrinsic part of my own daily routine. Wake up, use the facilities, check email. Second on my to-do list. I’m sure this is replicated by the vast majority of the college campus. We need to be connected because everyone else is connected, and if you aren’t connected, then you’re going to get behind, you’re going to miss out on opportunities. Keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening on campus and beyond has allowed me to stay in touch with our ever-changing world. As a humanities major with a vested interest in pop culture, it’s of vital importance. Our technology has become a massive fruit tree, where you can reach out and pluck whatever glob of knowledge you’d like to.

My knowledge of computer functions has always been of a fairly moderate level. I can usually cruise through a series of systems directories and find a file, or solve some basic computer issues (it usually helps to just turn it off and on again). I’d like to learn the mechanical aspects of my computers as well as how it functions in the humanities.

My computer has always been the device through which I experience whatever sort of medium I want. It’s a vessel that carries me from a place of ignorance to a place of knowledge. I discovered ambient and post-rock music because I was trying to find something that wasn’t distracting while I studied; I’ve found strange or off-kilter films from talking on discussion forums with people across the continent; I’ve connected with absolute strangers thanks to our mutual interests, sometimes those connections forming into long-lasting friendships.

I’ve grown somewhat attached to my past computers over the years. I like to view them as that friend who constantly supplies you with fun new materials or topics that pique your interest. So, of course, I give them all names (it makes it much harder to scrap the tech once it slows down). Russell, my weather-beaten, warhorse of a laptop, has saved me from however many sticky situations in my college career. I don’t view it (him?) as just a tool; it seems nobler than that, more elevated.

Sometimes, people say that we shouldn’t give names to our technology, that it’s only just a piece of metal and machinery. Well, yes of course it’s just a piece of technology; but so is a car, a house, a spatula, a microwave, even a book. We ought to be more appreciative of the things that we vitally rely on, to consider the amount of time, effort, and resources that was put into things that we take for granted. I took a class with the unmatched Dr. Ken Cooper last semester (the excellent “Conversations: Renewable Futures”) that discussed at length our inability to fully respect the things we consume. After all, our first instinct after we consume something is not “What happens to it now?” but “What will I get next?” Computers don’t really seem to be going anywhere, so perhaps it’s time to stop being so blasé in how we produce and consume them.

I was afraid of the Gameboy because I didn’t understand it; it was something unfamiliar, something that required self-assertion and independence to run. People are afraid of technology because it’s something that offers the possibility of human interaction without the flesh and blood involved, it’s something alien. But I don’t want to sit around and be afraid of a three-inch screen anymore. If this is going to be a part of our world, then I’d like to know how to use it, I’d like to teach other people that it isn’t just something to be afraid of, but something to embrace, to study, to realize the opportunities it gives us.

So guess you could say I like to maintain my respect for technology. After all, you never know when it will explode.