Computer Science, the Humanities, and Virtuality: Some Remarks concerning the Future of Academia

Andrzej Kocikowski


The purpose of this paper is to provide some arguments in support of the thesis that the Humanities in general, and the Studies of Culture in particular, are in urgent need of some help from Computer Science. In the academic world there seems to be a great amount of misunderstanding and misconception about Computer Science among the representatives in the Humanities. As a result, scholars reflecting on the various changes that occurred in our civilization as a result of the application of ICT express views and opinions, make diagnoses, and use terms that cannot be taken seriously from a strictly scientific point of view.

Scholars in the Humanities/Social Sciences (e.g., Heim, Castells, Kerckhove, Wallace) write with increasing frequency and boldness about the new social phenomena caused by the large-scale use of ICT. The fact that there is an interest in these issues is commendable; one should hope that it will lead to a better, fuller understanding and explanation of the world’s major problems. However, I could see for quite some time now a certain flow in many of the works these scholars were producing; namely, a stunning carelessness in the creation and application of terminology. A case in point: the adjective “virtual.” For more than a decade it has been used in combination with a variety of nouns in almost every work written within the Humanities and dealing with the use of computers and the Net. Virtual corporations, virtual communities, virtual groups and teams, virtual worlds, virtual objects, virtual museums and schools, virtual art, virtual life, virtual stores, virtual offices, virtual passions, virtual spaces – these are but some of these terms. In the last five years the use of the term “virtuality” in various, sometimes strange combinations, reached a dramatically high level. There are many indicators that this trend will continue.

If one would assume, following what the scholars in the Humanities seem to suggest, that the term “virtuality” came to the Humanities from the field of Computer Science, then there is a problem one has to wonder about. In Computer Science, there are exact, precisely defined technical terms, like virtual memory, virtual machine, virtual disc, virtual net. In the Humanities, on the other hand, although the term “virtual” is used in many more combinations, there are hardly any clear definitions. Moreover, one has the impression that scholars in these disciplines hardly think that there is any need to define the terms they use. Everyone, it seems, should know perfectly well what it means, e.g., “virtual passion,” or “virtual groups” – no need to explain. Yet, I heard Computer Scientists many times asking what does it mean “virtual society,” “virtual feeling,” “virtual community” and so on. I don’t know. I wonder about it myself.

This state of affairs does not help interdisciplinary communication. Moreover, it can easily breed suspicion regarding the scholastic value of certain kind of research.

The problem described above is really a continuation of the old debate on the epistemological status of the Humanities. Making some simplifying assumptions, one can interpret it today in the context of the controversy between scientism and postmodernism. It seems to me that the present situation in the Humanities has been adequately described by Jean Baudrillard in The Precession of Simulacra: the map precedes the territory. The Humanities are enchanted with – created by themselves and for themselves – simulacra. In short, the terms used for the description of social reality sound nice, are “in,” but they are not necessarily related to the reality which they are supposedly describing. There are many indicators that the Humanities lost – hopefully only for the time being – the ability to differentiate between literature (in the sense of fictional narrative) and scholarship. This is probably the reason why many representatives of the Humanities borrow so readily from Sci-Fi (Gibson) or from cyberpunk literature.

Doing so, however, the Humanities (including Social Sciences), do not fulfill satisfactorily their task of describing and analyzing social reality, thereby causing growing distrust not only among computer scientists, but scientists in general. This could be a contributing factor to the lowering of the prestige of the Humanities in the sense that the work of scholars in these disciplines will be seen as not matching properly the standards of rigorous research. This could further mean the marginalizing of the Humanities within academic structures; and this in turn could lead, among others, to more cuts in the financial support of these disciplines. Not necessarily a future to look forward to for someone who, like myself, works in the field of Humanities.

One way of regaining some of the credibility would be for the representatives of the Humanities to actually learn, truly understand, and properly use some of the terminology used in the field of Computer Science, e.g., words like computer (yes, computer), computer network, computer simulation, network service, virtual machine, virtual memory, and so on. Otherwise, they will continue to create their own visions, theories and diagnoses of social reality that are full of literary fantasy and fancy words – intriguing, but useless for the empirical study of the ICT-era reality. Their study becomes the study of a “(bad) map” instead of a “territory,” to recall Baudrillard once again. Of course, computer scientists should show understanding and should give as much assistance as needed by the scholars in the Humanities in solving of this problem. A friendly collaboration between both branches of Academia, and an interdisciplinary effort to create a good theory of social reality in the era of ICT is what I consider an important task for the next few years.