Ricoeur, Ricoeur Everywhere and not a Drop of Significance

That’s the problem with reading about hermeneutics, as soon as you start, everything in your life becomes a piece of some gargantuan puzzle. That must be why so few people study hermeneutics—admirable self-denial. Or maybe it’s because they’re too busy watching a cat in a Kleenex box on YouTube.

I just finished reading Michael Wesch’s essay on learning in new media environments and there was a part that really startled me, because I was just referring to the perlocutionary act.  While I was looking at different mediums, the “classroom medium” that Wesch so tellingly describes is also heavy with perlocutionary statement:

The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.”

In the classes I’ve taught, I’ve focused on systems-based explanations for history, as much out of necessity (It’s hard to integrate environmental systems into historical study unless you systematize the latter) as out of training (You can’t create digital historical media unless you reduce the historical data to systems-compatible units) or theoretical support. Testing this method of teaching is not so easy but I’ve found that by giving the students two points in a historical system and asking them to connect these points and give examples for their connections, they end up demonstrating a high level of theoretical understanding grounded in fact.

Wesch hits on another point that confronts the academy every day:

Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education. In some ways these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely. With total and constant access to their entire network of friends, we might as well be walking into the food court in the student union and trying to hold their attention. On the other hand, if we work with students to find and address problems that are real and significant to them, they can then leverage the networked information environment in ways that will help them achieve the “knowledge-ability” we hope for them.”

I think there’s a systemic bias whenever we create software or databases and its roots are in the object-oriented nature of the knowledge as it appears once we’ve transformed it into code or database entry. In a sense, there doesn’t need to be a Free Software Movement, because all data points are equal in the eyes of the machine. The Wikipedia page on episode 213 of the Simpsons is, from the created external standpoint of the software processing and presenting the data on-screen, fundamentally the same as the Wikipedia page on, say, Frederick Douglass, even though we would all agree (I hope) that the latter is actually more significant than the former. Likewise, in my own work using databases to track Medieval Chinese political geography, the entry for the capital of the empire is fundamentally the same as the entry for the smallest market-town. Without ever acknowledging this foundational aspect of digital information (And especially web-based digital information) we see it reflected on our browsers every day. Given that every website is the same in that one is not required to read it, it becomes evaluated in a consumerist manner, with an emphasis on interactivity and aesthetics.  It’s the true marketplace of ideas, and all of us are forced to admit that even the finest digital humanities projects don’t have the interactive or aesthetic value of the top sites on the Internet or, when they do, they have wrestled the most important parts of the genie back into the bottle (With expected results), so that students prefer to spend their time in university on Facebook rather than browsing the demographic records of Darbyshire.

So, because professors aren’t as comfortable with the digital medium as they are with the textual, they grapple with the distracting bane presented by the ubiquitous laptop (With expected results).  The real damage is when these same students enter post-graduate life and realize they need to scramble to learn a host of digital tools that only exist, when they do, as end products in their undergraduate existence.  The good news for scholars is that the dialectic continues and, assumably, once data literacy catches up with textual literacy among humanities scholars, there

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