Humanities and the digital: a conversation with Filippomaria Pontani

Photo of Biblioteca Marciana of Venice

The large-scale spread of information technologies over the last quarter of a century has led to a radical rethinking of the methods and tools of scientific research and university teaching, even in the humanities. Handling software capable of generating concordances, word indexes and rhyming dictionaries, or programs for phono-morphological, syntactic and semantic research, and interrogating complex databases are some of the most common activities for scholars (and often students) in the humanities nowadays. The paradigm shift brought about by computer science has also affected the activity of those researchers who are less receptive to innovation (one only needs to think of a simple web search or the consultation of a volume on Google Books), up to a point where this ongoing transformation is often compared to the equally epoch-making transition from manuscripts to print culture. The metaphor is indeed stale and, in part, inappropriate, because Gutenberg’s revolution took place under the aegis of a humanistic culture, which, in the era of big data, is replaced by a dominance of techne. Nonetheless, the image effectively accounts for the epochal change we are witnessing, characterised first of all by immediate (and in many cases free) access to a prêt-à-porter knowledge made up of a boundless and undefined mass of constantly growing data.

Today, humanities experts rely on the web to carry out a wide range of activities, from literature reviews to the consultation of digitized texts and documents, down to the publication of their research output. These operations undoubtedly arouse the thrill of “possessing” knowledge that was completely inaccessible a few decades ago; however, past the initial inebriation of the technological revolution, it will not be difficult to identify some blunders and distortions that humanists must address to avoid becoming hostages of the new medium. First among these is the assumption that digital technologies must be a tool for the humanities, that is, a “means” for academic research and not its ultimate “end”. The risk – otherwise – is to carry out investigations just for the sake of technological advancement, and not for humanistic studies in themselves. From this point of view, the much-announced prise de pouvoir of machinery and the technologists who operate it is easily avoided by recalling that it is up to the man of letters (and to him alone, not to any technological device) to interpret critically and with discernment the provisional results provided by calculators. A mindful use of the new medium thus becomes the main antidote to a reductively technical approach taking over humanistic studies and becoming a substitute for critical thought. Our interview with Filippomaria Pontani, Full Professor of Classical Philology at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, is based on these principles, highlighting, on the one hand, the effect of technological transformations on humanistic research and teaching, and providing, on the other hand, some useful reflections and methodological advice on the use of digital technology for the humanists of today and tomorrow.

Professor Pontani, in recent years, even an area notoriously resistant to change such as humanistic knowledge has not been immune to the pervasive and ubiquitous diffusion of digital technologies, with radical changes in several aspects of teaching and academic research. The risks of a tendentious drift, however, are not so remote. In your opinion, what measures should be taken so that digital technology does not become an “autotelic phantasmagoria”, the ultimate “end” of research but rather a “means” to help them? Can you think of a specific case, within your field, in which this phenomenon can be seen with particular clarity?

What I fear most is the emergence of a “single thought” according to which the whole future is digital: whether in technological applications (where it is perhaps more natural), in didactics (we’ll come back to this in a moment), or in research in all its forms. The classic example are European projects (now, more and more, Italian projects as well). In a phase of temporary jobs, these have become practically the only sheet anchor for researchers to survive and publish a few more years, and perhaps obtain, in the future, a more or less stable position in a benevolent university. To obtain funding for a research project, one must specify in great detail the digital products that the project is meant to create, and even, if possible, the methodological advancement that it intends to promote in the field of digital technologies. In the humanities, if this second aim is (or should be) in my opinion completely alien to those who deal with modern history or Romance philology – except in rare, perhaps even meritorious cases of scholars particularly inclined to interdisciplinarity – the first – concerning the compulsory presence of digital products – is so nonsensical that it has resulted in much opportunistic behaviour. I have seen a number of absolutely traditional projects being furnished with the production of useless databases, or by sweet-scented collaborations with IT technicians, completely oblivious to the subject matter, who are in charge of inventing some contraption that could be passed off as cutting-edge. The effects are doubly humiliating. On the one hand, this kind of application often requires a significant part of the project’s general budget (to the detriment of more obvious but more indispensable materials: books, study trips, scientific collaborations, the very digitisation of documents that are obviously not part of the package). On the other hand, what comes out of it is almost always headed for an ephemeral life, because creating a well-made website from nothing and pouring into it the results of a research (which needs its own time) usually takes much longer than the 2-3 years granted by the project. Hence an “elephant cemetery” (not only in Italy, mind you) of websites started with great ambitions and then shipwrecked into disuse with time, most likely ready to become soon unreadable by upgraded browsers. (After all, hasn’t the same happened with the countless CDs produced in the past, and now practically incompatible with any operating system available? Thus, the problem of technical obsolescence is added to the issue of abandonment for lack of funds). I don’t like to rely on hearsay, and beside the endless complaints I collected over the years from friends and colleagues, I can say without fear of denial that the very ministerial project I won years ago jointly with colleagues from three Italian universities (which focused on the methods and forms of ancient interpretations of four great archaic and classical Greek poets) has given excellent results in terms of knowledge exchange, discussion of ideas, and related scientific publications, but despite the commitment of many of us (and of a friendly technologist who proved herself ready to help us from the very beginning), the site we were planning to build has foundered.

Aided by some aggressive, technocentric propaganda by various public and private bodies (ministries, on the one hand, and tech companies on the other), the absence of IT in the field of education is seen nowadays as an aporia. This has led to stuffing classrooms with tablets and offering some courses in blended mode even when it was not strictly necessary, in compliance with current trends. How can we encourage a conscious use of digital technology in schools, so that it really represents an added value for teaching?

I still believe that schools (and I am talking mainly about compulsory schooling, but also about further education) should provide learners with an anti-cyclical paradigm, a wealth of notions and mental attitudes that they would hardly acquire elsewhere. In other words, I see a great danger in homologating teaching to the “outside” world in terms of methods, practices and customs – not, mind you, in what concerns the reality principle, because it is quite clear that schools must also teach children how to navigate the present and even understand it better. In this sense, young people who spend a good part of their day glued to a small screen should be educated to live without it for a few hours and discover the pros and cons of a different model of cultivation. In this sense, I fully agree with Marco Gui’s arguments in Il digitale a scuola (Il Mulino, 2019), which are especially relevant in the era of Coronavirus. I loathe those who hypocritically pretend that Wikipedia is not the first port of call for all of us to obtain specific information, and those who are scandalized by the more or less malicious errors that punctuate the (historical, linguistic, philosophical, political…) notions available online. These are clearly epochal and irreversible changes, and useful, also, in many respects; nor do I think it is a matter of eradicating smartphones and tablets (or what will take their place) from the minds and fingers of young people; the point is, rather, ensuring that they know how to use them in a mindful way. This aim – with which I think many agree, and which is in the background of the recent Critica della ragione digitale by Ermanno Bencivenga (Feltrinelli, 2020) – can be achieved in two ways. One is thinking that schools must teach the good use of digital technology, and therefore basically focus on the technology itself to indicate its uses and abuses, employing it for any purpose (the latest PowerPoint to explain the First World War, aggressive apps to verify learning 24 hours a day, tutorials to encourage the assimilation of a living or dead language as a spoken idiom…). The other is thinking that school education should provide frameworks (data, dates, historical developments, philosophical ideas, paradigms and tables…) that have no direct contact with IT, that is, that are presented and learned in the classroom in a “traditional” way, thus favouring two essential processes: memory and the development of critical thinking. Everything that comes from the digital world induces naturaliter a strong passivity: placing it in dialogue with a doctrine learned from books and mediated by teachers (who must maintain their unique and unrepeatable professionalism and arouse curiosity and debate, not limit themselves to reciting the iPhone’s user manual), allows students to acquire a different point of view and develop critical skills otherwise precluded. On the other hand, as old-fashioned as it sounds, memory is the most admirably out-of-date and useful thing nowadays. Those who can tell at a glance – without fiddling around – where Kuwait is, whether Constantine or Justinian comes first, or where the stress falls in dormitat, have an infinitely shorter reaction time in front of any question or problem, and above all end up quickly earning special respect and consideration. Letting all this become the heritage of a chosen few, perhaps educated in “excellence” schools made as they once were, while in the second half of the 20th century a great deal has been done to bring the notions to everyone, I would find it criminal.

Critica della ragione digitale

Ermanno Bencivenga
Milano, Feltrinelli, 2020, pp. 144

New technologies are changing our identity and our “posture” in the world: what attitude should we adopt towards the novelty of digital civilization? Ermanno Bencinvenga talks about it in this book, presenting a history of Western thought from Plato to Kant.

A similar issue concerns academic research, which sees the proliferation of funding and projects imbued (sometimes inappropriately) with “digital” tools, even where a traditional approach would have been more useful as well as preferable. Can there be a satisfactory meeting point in terms of digital technology between the practices encouraged by the European Framework Programmes and the real needs of single research initiatives?

I have already talked about this above: here I will add a more specific consideration to my general scepticism. It is quite clear that digital technologies are indispensable in humanistic research: none of us Greek scholars now studies as we did before the advent of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, which allows us to find in a click those notions that were previously accumulated in decades of study. The same goes for a series of other tools that have become our daily bread and that have also helped us overcome difficult times like the recent lockdown. I would like to point out, however, that these are largely databases that can be interrogated in various ways, collections of texts, studies, images, bibliographies; resources that it is certainly very convenient to have available in this new form instead of having to compile lots of paper files or leaf through volumes dispersed in ten different libraries, but do not in themselves bring any progress in our knowledge. They are, I mean, instruments that change the way we study (mostly for the better), and as such it is only right that they should be produced, maintained, expanded and conceived by a group of technologists in close contact with the future users, who are the researchers of today and tomorrow. However, only a traditional training and aptitude for research will allow us to use these instruments in a careful and mindful way. We may have in front of us all the occurrences of a term in Greek literature, or in Middle Latin literature, but this will be completely useless if one is not aware of a) the limits of the technological medium (which obviously can never be perfect or all-inclusive), b) the linguistic and literary contexts in which the term in question appears (which require multiple notions of history, literature, grammar, linguistics…), c) the meaning of the occurrences in the more general framework of literary and cultural history, in order to establish their reciprocal dependencies, “poetic” uses, catachreses and neologisms, ancillary or substantial peculiarities. The risk is that, as we have already seen happening for years, dissertations (and then books) will be filled with a rudis indigestaque moles of parallel passages which have not been previously considered one by one – and which, if well used, would often be illuminating.

The advent of the digital medium has led to a renewal of the tools available for schools, academic teaching, and scientific research. In your opinion, has the revolution only affected the medium or is it extending its influence also on content, for example by favouring certain themes or aspects that seem more suitable for the new medium?

This is precisely what I hinted at earlier, and in my opinion the question deserves to be considered from a double point of view. First of all, the migration of research topics towards the digital realm. There has been much discussion over the years about “scholarly digital editions” and the related new possibilities for research teams to finally produce reliable editions of texts whose tradition is too numerous or complex to be handled with current techniques. Well, I have noticed that this sudden popularity of digital editions has often been the result of the orientation (in my opinion perverse, as I said above) of funding programmes, rather than a need capable of orienting them. Which also means that – at the current state of the art – very rarely more significant progress is made with digital methods than with traditional methods, and when this happens it most often translates into a concept of “fluidity” and “instability” that risks becoming discouraging. In other words: I don’t think – everyone will agree on that – one can leave it to a computer to decide on the quality of one variant compared to another, or on the meaning and causes of the greater or lesser frequency of one variant compared to another. In particularly long texts, it can be useful to let the machine count the concordances between the various manuscripts in a highly contaminated situation (but after all, the West tables were already doing their job several decades ago). So, if the advantage of digital technologies lies not so much in the research method, but in the medium that allows a richer presentation of the text, I see two dangers. On the one hand, this presentation (through hypertext links and the potentially infinite accumulation of information) could end up being more and more similar to a map 1:1. It would thus exempt the publisher from applying his iudicium and propose a text stratified in a thousand versions, which would lack a somewhat “original” form that most of the time – certainly not always, but most of the time – it is reasonable to assume has existed. On the other hand, we risk again to forget that the digital element is a means rather than a scientific acquisition of any kind. As such, it can be left to those involved in programming, in tandem and in dialogue, of course, with philologists; it must not become a branch in itself (and also a very aggressive one) of humanistic studies. I say this, I repeat, not because I have any kind of prejudice against the digital, but because I see a risk in researchers who are not deeply involved in their disciplines, but who are well armoured in the (ephemeral) digital technology: these, for the most part, will not advance our knowledge. I say this because I believe – I reaffirm – that digital technologies are very important for the humanities; but, precisely because they must first of all be a tool, I think they should be handled by a few dedicated research groups and should not become the common and transversal asset of every single Department of Humanistic Studies. The same – and worse – is true for the speculation regarding the right and wrong of digital technologies, a sort of meta-discipline that is also gaining more and more ground and which, again, I think should be practiced by a few people and in particular contexts, not become the benchmark of all scholarly communities.

The so-called textual studies do not easily lend themselves to description in binary code, “0” and “1”, yes and no. There is possibility, probability, doubt, uncertainty: to convey this dimension, discourse is needed. The interest in new forms of data representation cannot be denied; the doubt is whether, by these means, our knowledge of the text is immediately increased, or hermeneutical abilities are strengthened.” name=”Pasquale Stoppelli” subtitle=”La filologia assistita dal computer, in Strumenti vecchi e nuovi per lo studio della letteratura italiana, a cura di Raffaele Ruggiero, Lecce, Pensa, p. 43″]

In the age of the pandemic, what role have digital media played, or are playing, in academia? What, in your opinion, may be the long-term effects of this “revolution” in teaching methodology, warranted by the impossibility to meet in a physical classroom, on university teaching (and learning) as a system?

The so-called “distance learning” had various negative consequences in its application to secondary education: unreliable connections, listless students, often inadequately equipped (the question of the digital divide has been carefully pondered in France, much less so in Italy), and objectively deprived of the dimension of social exchange which is always the salt of the learning process. But among other negative aspects there has been, in my opinion, an explosive one: evaluation. Leaving aside the often contradictory ministerial messages (first “pass all”, then “fail students with caution”, and so on), it became immediately clear that it was practically impossible for teachers to evaluate written productions of any kind, from WeSchool tests to essays sent by email or WhatsApp (this also happened). The reason was that they could have been (and in fact often were: we saw extremely high level of interference by families in their children’s teaching) written with the help of other people, or at least with a massive recourse to web content (the triumph of Wikipedia, or rather – since Wikipedia is often verbose and too difficult – Scuola.net or the like). On the other hand, it is not at all easy to set up all tests as oral evaluations, either when equations must be solved or ancient languages translated, since these exercises require time, silence and concentration in an environment protected from any external intervention and from any temptation to “copy”. I made these initial points at length because I believe that universities are basically suffering from similar problems. Even more acute, if possible, is the lack of what was for us all the profound sense of being at university, that is, the constant exchange with colleagues and friends (as well as with teachers), the use of common areas such as canteens and study rooms, the discoveries in the library, etc. (not to mention the workshops, or seminar teaching, which are powerfully inhibited by the digital medium). But equally difficult is the evaluation practice, because remote oral examinations are sometimes a painful substitute for face-to-face interviews, and above all because written tests (which  have a very important function in universities, too) are almost impossible without complex surveillance mechanisms. These require complementary watchdogs or, worse, proctoring systems that violate the most basic privacy rules and seem to configure orwellian eyes ready to seize the students’ sensitive data not just for the test but also for future use. Let’s be clear: in the extreme situations we experienced, these dynamics were partly inevitable (even if, in my opinion, it was not necessary to infiltrate proctoring systems in the students’ computers). It must remain clear, however, that this is not the teaching we want, and it is not at all – as I hear from different sides, often with opportunistic enthusiasm – a chance to modernize our teaching methods: loin de là.

The web is proving to be an increasingly popular means to disseminate academic research and, in general, democratise knowledge, as evidenced by the proliferation of open access works and digital libraries such as Wikisource. In a recent volume (Editing Duemila. Per una filologia dei testi letterari (Salerno Editrice, 2020), Paola Italia pointed out how this has led to a substantial lowering of the quality of the research (as savings were made on editing and reviewing) and of the texts themselves (often transcribed from obsolete or unreliable editions). As a result, the average user reads incorrect texts online, while the most advanced research products are confined to remote libraries, difficult to consult, or digital editions not indexed by search engines. In your opinion, could or should philologists do more to ensure wide access to reliable literary texts? And if so, how?

Much comes from one of the usual dynamics of unregulated capitalism: the tendency towards monopoly. Even in our field there are now very few publishing houses capable of disseminating worldwide, who therefore (in Italy and abroad) “are worth” double or triple or a hundredfold in terms of research evaluation. Those very publishing houses often charge very high prices for open access, and take care to promote their journals or monographs on the databases that count, from Scopus to Web of Science (WoS). These publishers – with rare exceptions – can also, paradoxically, devote little attention to editing, and give out largely imperfect products (and indeed, this happens more often than you might think). It is a fact, however, that these texts will hardly be less well-edited than those coming from nineteenth-century transcriptions or directly from Migne’s Patrology, to cite but one; as you rightly point out, they are very popular on the net because they are free (just as free, and mostly unreliable, are many others made available to scholars by mavericks in search of glory, frustrated provincial departments, likeable amateurs). One solution is to break the monopoly of big publishers or at least force them to give up a part of their profits by giving wide access to their publications. This is not within the reach of researchers, but of political decision-makers – so I harbour no hope that things will really change in the short run. The battlefront should, in my opinion, be the fight to keep study and consultation libraries alive and well. Increasingly threatened by mass digitisation, they are struggling to reclaim spaces that someone would rather allocate to other, more profitable activities, and we have already seen – even here in Venice – some materials considered “dispensable” or “rarely consulted” being buried into remote, inconvenient warehouses, from which they can only emerge in rare, special collections. Well, in my opinion this evolution is deleterious, not only because being in contact with the book as an object – and especially with a plurality of books, as it is typical of all researchers’ desks – is unavoidable for those who hope to discover something new (if only for serendipity), but also because libraries must continue to be, as they have been for many centuries, the physical space of cultural tradition in our cities. It is no coincidence that they, or rather the librarians who run and open them every day, are those who evaluate and determine the relevance and rank of the volumes, and thus provide landmarks and a form of digestion (always subject to revision, of course) for a knowledge that otherwise, if left to the immateriality of the web alone, risks liquidity, disintegration, indistinction.

With its impressive digitisation work, Google Books has become the most extensive library available on the net, despite some important threats and drawbacks due to its being a private firm and to its weak selection criteria of the scanned volumes. This attitude is in fact indicative of a broader trend that focuses on the “document” itself rather than the “text” it witnesses. It can also be seen in documentary editions and in the renewed interest in including a reproduction of the manuscript in digital scholarly editions. In your opinion, in giving (perhaps excessive) importance to the witness itself, is there not a risk that the edition of a literary text becomes an exercise of paraphilologism, in which the philologist is deprived of his critical role in favour of a mere textual transcription?

This is what I was saying before, in other words: paradoxically, the interest in documents, and their sometimes unwise valorisation, has ended up exempting the philologist from what should be his responsibilities and choices. Let us be clear, I do not want to be Lachmann’s lawyer nor believe that for every gnomologium (collection of sentences and proverbs) or every lexicon there has been a single integral and original form to reconstruct. But I do know that the long-standing controversy around “New Philology” (heavily influenced by now obsolete deconstructionist instances) against the harshness and mechanicality of Lachmannism has welded together with the digital medium to give the impression that each text is a “plurality of texts”, more or less all on the same level, and that the very idea of an archetype (in the broad or narrow sense) is to be avoided as simplifying and absurd. When I took part in a research group in Sweden, with the promising name of “Ars Edendi”, over long critical discussions my colleagues and I had first-hand experience of the size and dangers of this drift. We sometimes ended up – working mainly on Middle Latin texts with a rich and complex tradition – preferring the reproduction of a recent print or a particularly popular manuscript and correcting its text here and there with the help of other witnesses: a peculiar posthumous triumph of Bédier, with the help of Google BooksDigital Bodleian (to mention one) and the Internet Archive. Having said that, however, I would like to dissociate myself from the preconceived polemic against platforms that make digitisation of ancient books available. They may certainly follow questionable and sometimes insane criteria, but in fact they have played and are playing a decisive role in democratising knowledge and facilitating worldwide research; once again, it is up to us to ensure that these resources are put to good use.

Many are familiar with the (more or less real) gap between the sciences and the humanities, up to a point where a very reductive antithesis has emerged between “hard sciences” and “soft sciences” – where terminology could also imply a subtle qualitative judgement. In this sense, could the “digital fingerprint” play a role in overcoming these antinomies and giving back to the humanities a not only ancillary but proactive function, aimed at understanding contemporary culture and social phenomena? And if so, in what way?

I don’t think so. Thinking that we can save humanistic culture from the triumph of technology (even more than from “hard” sciences, which in their most theoretical side are themselves often threatened) through nuptials promoted by the digital pronubus, is a losing move. My friend Lorenzo Tomasin showed it very well in his book L’impronta digitale (Carocci, 2017), where, as an expert linguist, he also faces another great danger of this vision, namely the reduction of all communication tools to the triumph of a subspecies of English. Ever since the dawn of the world, humanistic culture, humanae litterae, or paideia in the broadest sense, proceed iuxta propria principia. Of course everything can be proposed in various ways at a pedagogical level, and – I repeat – digital tools can prove really useful in making possible some research that was, until now, very difficult, or in placing results within reach of a much wider audience than before (albeit with all the limitations we listed above). But I am really reluctant to think that humaniora must find in digital means their new essence, their new proprium, and receive from it that pedigree of scientificity that they could not otherwise boast. Humanistic culture serves an understanding of the world, of our history, of what we are: it has its own discourse and its own intrinsic justification, more recessive in public debate today, perhaps sparkling again tomorrow. It must not mistake this discourse and this justification for others, which would inevitably come out to be ephemeral and false.

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