Blog Post

How Digital Humanists Can Lead Us to National Digital Literacy

Here’s the entrance exam question for 21st century literacy:


            QUESTION:   If SOPA/PIPA had been passed into U.S. law in 2002, would Wikipedia exist today?  If either law had passed in 2012,  would Wikipedia exist in 2022?  Why or why not?  Discuss.



            If you cannot answer that question, you are not literate nor are you in control of your life—even if you think you are.  Taking the lead from Wikipedia on January 17, 2012,  several Internet giants went dark or engaged in some form of protest to indicate how drastically those two poorly worded bills could have curtailed the World Wide Web as we know it.   The actions were successful.    8 million people looked up their Representatives’ names, 4 million actually signed petitions to protest the bills.   By morning, support for SOPA/PIPA had dwindled so drastically in Congress that the proposals died.   Will they next time?  Everyone knows that some kinds of copyright and piracy regulation is needed but it is not easy, even for honest and scrupulous lawyers, to come up with protections that don't prohibit.  What will the next legislation look like?  Will we understand its consequences?  Will Wikipedia exist a decade from now?   That is up to us.


            And most of us don’t know the answer to that question.   Why?  Because we learn and teach in institutions that were designed to train citizens for the Industrial Age.   From compulsory public schooling for K-12, to the birth of the research university, virtually all of the apparatus of “school” was designed to retrain farmers and artisans to the Industrial mode of work—division of labor, separation of work into discrete specialized tasks, the divorce of production from consumption, and the careful creation of “the consumer” (through advertising, media, and education).  Prestige came through credentials, with some warranting more prestige (and remuneration) than others, and the whole process of education, from pre-school onward, trained toward the 1% who would thrive in the most elite fields in the most elite institutions.  The ways we learn, the ways we test, what we value as specialized expertise, and how we separate the two cultures (the human, social, and aesthetic from the technological and scientific) are all parts of what Frederick Taylor called “scientific labor management” and what, in education, becomes what I call “scientific learning management.”   We are inheritors and perpetrators of that system.


            Unless you happen to be a Digital Humanist.  At HASTAC, we define that very, very broadly and inclusively, by participation not partitions one field to another, academy versus the workplace, humanities versus technology.  We embrace a diversity in every way ("difference is our operating system not our deficit") is one of our mottos, and by "digital humanities" we mean learning about, with, and through technology--making it, thinking about it, including it in pedagogy and institutional transformation.   Defined in these broad strokes, Digital Humanities is inclusive--and that is pretty rare in higher education. It's rare in the academy to find any association that crosses the division of labor, the separation of work into discrete specialized tasks,  the divorcing of production from consumption.   Digital Humanists tend to be dedicated to open access and the public component of knowledge and participation.  You theorize, you make.  You understand the principles that drive the World Wide Web and you even know how to remix, customize, mash-up, and make.   You understand that the SOPA/PIPA threat was as much about domain names and servers as it was about intellectual property and copyright.  And you understand how all of that—the design of the technology, the software and the hardware, the laws, politics, human rights, social arrangements, economics, business, and social goods—are intertwined.  Changing any one changes all the rest. 


            In a nutshell, that is digital literacy.


            We all need it. I mean all.  From preschool on,  kids should be learning basic programming, Webcraft, basic skills--not so they call all grow up to be programmers, but because, if you have these skills, you can have more control over the technology that, more and more, we're letting corporations control for us.  (Why, really, why, do we have our most beautiful, user-friendly technologies--they tend to have an Apple on them--be so much about consumption and not about participation, contribution, and our own interactive production on line?)   We all need to learn this, to absorb this lesson.  Digital Humanists need to start "at home," of course, with transforming higher education and ensuring that digital literacy is pervasive, intrinsic, and basic to what every college graduate knows and does.


        Digital literacy means not rote learning but experimentation, process, creativity, not just technology but multimedia imagination, expression--and principles too.  It means  learning why we don't have to just be consumers of technology but also active participants in its flourishing.  Digital literacy helps us to  believe in and fight for the Web.  That's crucial, as we saw on January 17, in order to keep the Web as free as possible, for your future and beyond.   


            If we are going to remake the institutions of learning to help us thrive in the 21st century, we need leaders to show the way, to show how it can happen.  Digital literacy isn’t an add on but a necessity.  We learned that on January 17.   But where to begin?   Digital Humanities are the ideal place to start a major transformation in our institutions of learning.


            Not only do Digital Humanists have the skillset and the intellectual commitment to help us decide the wisest and most efficient ways to reform education for the 21st century,  Digital Humanists, I would argue, have the responsibility to do so.     We’re not just a “hot field” right now.  We are in a position where we have been “learning the future together” (as the HASTAC motto would have it), in this unique, blended, interdisciplinary way longer than anyone else.   We have had to deal with the key issues in our organizations, in our modes of publishing, in our systems of credentialing across boundaries (multimedia, theoretical, humanistic, aesthetic, computational, digital) that the rest of the academy is just coming to terms with.   


            That’s the challenge.  That’s the opportunity.  This is not to say that Digital Humanists (broadly defined) are the only ones who can lead this charge.  Many are dedicating themselves to the challenge already, but not enough of them are in higher education.  The "call to arms" that I am making asks us to take seriously the responsibility of our chosen "field" (again, broadly construed).    Digital Humanists can help lead us to the digital literacy our society needs now and demands. If we do not, we are not taking on our work as educators as responsibly as we should.


          That leads to one more question: How will we lead this challenge?




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]


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My scientific friends like to joke about SLA's--Six Letter Acronyms.   We came up with the unwieldy acronym (everyone just says "haystack":  thank goodness!) at a meeting at the National Science Foundation that brought together, you guessed it, Humanists, Artists, Scientists (social, natural, biological, computational), and Technologists in what started as an Academic Collaboratory until we realized about one-third of us were not academics in the conventional sense (i.e. entrepreneurs, programmers, librarians, K-12 teachers, community activists, multimedia innovators) so then we went with a familiar NSF designation:  Advanced Collaboratory.   A mouthful.   But we've always been happy to be that flexible, to let participation be open to anyone who respects our community values and who participates constructively and creatively.   And we've been happy to be called "Digital Humanists" or not.   It's the most widely used term these days (even by my old boss Stanley Fish who, to my knowledge, doesn't even much use email and certainly not much else "digital") . . . but all of the above is about, of course, the HASTAC version of "digital humanities."


HASTAC has two cherished mottoes:   "Difference is our operating system, not our deficit."   And our goal is "Learning the Future Together."   If you like that, come join us!   The community makes the community.


Here's more about HASTAC from our "About" page:   


The challenge:

What would our research, technology design, and thinking look like if we took seriously the momentous opportunities and challenges for learning posed by our digital era?  What happens when we stop privileging traditional ways of organizing knowledge (by fields, disciplines, and majors or minors) and turn attention instead to alternative modes of creating, innovating, and critiquing that better address the interconnected, interactive global nature of knowledge today, both in the classroom and beyond?

The response:

HASTAC ("haystack") is a network of individuals and institutions inspired by the possibilities that new technologies offer us for shaping how we learn, teach, communicate, create, and organize our local and global communities.  We are motivated by the conviction that the digital era provides rich opportunities for informal and formal learning and for collaborative, networked research that extends across traditional disciplines, across the boundaries of academe and community, across the "two cultures" of humanism and technology, across the divide of thinking versus making, and across social strata and national borders.

The solution:

You.  HASTAC is open to anyone.  One joins simply by registering on the HASTAC website.  Once registered, you can contribute to the community by sharing your work and ideas with others in the HASTAC community, by hosting HASTAC events online or in your region, by initiating conversations, or by working collaboratively with others in the HASTAC network.  HASTAC is, in effect, what you make us and change is our byword.  HASTAC's scope and mission are fluid, constantly changing to meet the opportunities and challenges presented by the ever-shifting terrain of today's digital world and morphing with the needs and goals of our network members.

Many of our members are academics or others affiliated with universities at any stage of their careers, from students to senior professors.  Other HASTAC community members are public intellectuals, artists, citizen journalists and scholars, educators, software or hardware designers, scientists specializing in human-computer interfaces, gamers, programmers, librarians, museum curators, IT specialists, publishers, social and political organizers and interested others who use the potential of the Internet and mobile technologies for new forms of communication and social action.

Specializations include the full range of the humanities and social sciences, the arts, music, new media arts, journalism, communications, digital humanities, cultural studies, race, gender, and sexuality studies, and global studies, as well as all computational fields, visualization and auditory sciences, information science, and engineering, plus those interested in intellectual property issues, and those concerned with social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and public policy on a local or global scale.


HASTAC: Learning the Future Together

HASTAC administers the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition, an annual program that mobilizes emerging leaders, educators, and innovators to create the digital technologies that change the way we learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Since 2008, we have awarded $6 million to 72 of the most inovative digital media and learning projects in the U.S. and internationally.

Every year institutions from around the world support graduate and undergraduate students as HASTAC Scholars with small scholarships. HASTAC Scholars and Digital Media and Learning Competition winners share, collaborate, and learn together through forums, blogs, original projects, research, conferences, unconferences, webcasts, interviews, and social media, combining theory with practice, learning with doing, both virtually and face-to-face.

HASTAC was founded in 2002 by Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University) and David Theo Goldberg (Director, UCHRI), who were soon joined by leaders in the world of academe, techonology, digital humanities, and the arts and humanities. & the HASTAC Network

  • 8400 HASTAC members
  • 365 HASTAC Scholars between 2008-2011
  • Over 120 institutions have nominated HASTAC Scholars, including Rowan University in South Jersey, Dartmouth, University of Iowa, Case Western Reserve University, North Carolina Central University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.
  • 26 HASTAC Scholar Forums on topics such as Grading 2.0: Evaluation in a Digital Age; Democratizing Knowledge; Critical Code Studies; Race, Ethnicity, and Diaspora in a Digital Age; and Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces.
  • 350,000 unique visitors to the ten HASTAC Scholars Forums since September of 2009
  • Outreach databases reaching over 1,000,000 people, including those working on learning through social networks, digital games, Augmented Reality Games, open standards, programming, STEM, digital humanities, peer-to-peer pedagogy, and much more.