The humane hack – a snippet of an argument

[this is the snippet of an argument, and all that I’ve managed to produce today for #AcWriMo. I kinda like it though and offer it up for consumption, rough edges, warts, and all.  It emerges out of something Shawn Anctil said recently about ‘the Laws of Cool‘ when we were talking about his comps which happen this Thursday. In an effort to get my head around what he said, I started to write. This might make it into a piece on some of my recent sound work. Alan Liu’s stuff is always wonderful to read because it turns my head inside out, and I make no warrant that I am doing justice to Alan’s ideas. It’s been a while since I last looked, and I realize I really need to block out several days to do this properly. Anyway, working in public, fail gloriously, etc etc, i give you a snippet of an argument:]

Alan Liu, in 2004, wondered what the role of the arts and humanities was in an age of knowledge work, of deliverables, of an historical event horizon that only goes back the last financial quarter.  He examined the idea of ‘knowledge work’ and teased out how much of the driving force behind it is in pursuit of the ‘cool’. Through a deft plumbing of the history of the early internet (and in particular, riffing on Netscape’s ‘what’s cool?’ page from 1996 and their inability to define it except to say that they’d know it when they saw it ), Liu argues that cool is ‘the aporia of information… cool is information designed to resist information [emphasis original]… information fed back into its own signal to create a standing interference pattern, a paradox pattern’ (Liu, 2004: 179).  The latest web design, the latest app, the latest R package for statistics, the latest acronym on Twitter where all the digital humanists play: cool, and dividing the world.

That is, Liu argued that ‘cool’ was amongst other things a politics of knowledge work, a practice and ethos. He wondered how we might ‘challenge knowledge work to open a space, as yet culturally sterile (coopted, jejune, anarchistic, terroristic), for a more humane hack of contemporary knowledge?’ (Liu 2004: 9). Liu goes on to discuss how the tensions of ‘cool’ in knowledge work (for us, read: digital archaeology) also intersects with an ethos of the unknown, that is, of knowledge workers who work nowhere else somehow manage to stand outside that system of knowledge production. (Is alt-ac ‘alt’ partially because it is the cool work?). This matters for us as archaeologists. There are many ‘cool’ things happening in digital archaeology that somehow do not penetrate into the mainstream (such as it is). The utilitarian dots-on-a-map were once cool, but are now pedestrian. The ‘cool’ things that could be, linger on the fringes. If they did not, they wouldn’t be cool, one supposes. They resist.

To get that more humane hack that Liu seeks, Liu suggests that the historical depth that the humanities provides counters the shallowness of cool:

“The humanities thus have an explanation for the new arts of the information age, whose inheritance of a frantic sequence of artistic modernisms, postmodernisms, and post-postmodernists is otherwise only a displaced encounter with the raw process of historicity. Inversely, the arts offer the humanities serious ways of engaging – both practically and theoretically- with “cool”. Together, the humanities and arts might be able to offer a persuasive argument for the humane arts in the age of knowledge work” 2004:381.

In which case, the emergence of digital archaeologists and historians in the last decade might be the loci of the humane hacks – if we move into that space where we engage the arts.

We need to be making art.