Humanities & Technology: Defining Terms and the Complexity of STS

Classes, Humanities, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

Today marks the end of the first week back to class for South Dakota Mines, and the STS faculty are hard at work in their classes and enjoying meeting students! We are teaching classes on Environmental Ethics & STEM (HUM 250 with me), Computers in Society (HUM 375 with Dr. Erica Haugtvedt), E-sports (HUM 376 with Dr. John Dreyer), History and Philosophy of Science (PHIL 335 with Dr. Michael Hudgens), Terror & Horror (ENGL 392 with Dr. Laura Kremmel), and Licit and Illicit Drugs (SOC 411 with Dr. Kayla Pritchard) – plus many others! As this list of courses indicates, STS covers a lot of ground. It needs to, given its promise to study science, technology, and society, and there are countless ways to approach the field and the topics it includes.

In addition to Environmental Ethics & STEM (mentioned above), I am also teaching Connections: Humanities & Technology (HUM 200) this semester, which is a great illustration of what the STS major is all about. Since the course description and title are pretty broad, I’ve narrowed things down to focus on the following big questions:

1. How do we communicate with each other?
2. How do we design and build the places we live?

In response to these questions we will explore communication technologies from paper and books to social media, film, and robots, and we will consider urban design issues like curb cuts and plumbing, historical and contemporary ideas about what a home looks like, and what the city of the future could look like.

Ecological City. Image by Vincent Callibaut

This first week I’ve asked students to start defining terms. The course claims to explore the relationship between technology and the humanities, but what are these things? What are the humanities? What is technology? Our initial discussion in class tentatively defined the humanities as expressing human experiences, analyzing and interpreting the way humans interact with the world and with one another, and – more broadly – including anything to do with humanity and what we’ve done. We also tentatively defined technology as tools that help us do things more easily or expand our abilities beyond “nature” or evolution; these tools might be tangible (e.g., an axe or a boat) or more conceptual or systemic (e.g., agriculture).

What I love about this conversation is how complicated it all becomes. For instance, if the humanities address what humans create, doesn’t technology fall under that umbrella? And if technology includes more conceptual or systemic tools, then why wouldn’t that include creative works that shift our culture or ways of thinking?

Ultimately, as this exercise reveals, the two are not so separate. The humanities shape the technologies we create by providing visions of what the world could be, and technology shapes the humanities by providing tools to express and share those visions. Further, as I pointed out to the class, inventing a new technology is most certainly a creative act, too. Think of the level of creativity required to come up with a whole new way of interacting with the world around us, the imagination required to show that things could be otherwise!

STS more broadly – the study of the relationships between science, technology, and society – is just as complex and just as rewarding. This field asks students to acknowledge, study, and come to understand the connections between arenas we often see as separate (humanities and technology, in this instance) and it also provides them with the tools to imagine the world differently – and hopefully better.

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