The Changing Nature of Awe: Melding the Humanities with Technology

By brookemorrison

It’s undeniable that technological skills are highly prioritized in our current world, and that schools seek to maintain relevancy in their lessons while new hardware and software are being produced at an exceedingly rapid speed—laptops and iPads have been introduced into everyday lessons, across many different subjects; students are participating in online, class-related discussion and blogging; websites like RapGenius are pushing the boundaries of how students perform literary analysis and annotation; “educational” computer games like Civilization are often used as supplementary learning materials. [1]

How does this influx of technology actually affect the humanities? Parents continue to express interest in science, “communications”, and math skills being emphasized in the classroom—arts, however, are often overlooked, or even considered unimportant. [2] This problem aligns ideologically with the mission of museums and specialized arts institutions like Poets House to increase outreach and engagement with their respective art forms. Is the answer to both, in fact, to include more of the technology lauded by the general public in these traditionally analog arts environments? Perhaps.

There are many ways that one can combine art and technology. The popular arts nonprofit and New Museum-affiliate Rhizome has created a series called Seven on Seven, where seven artists are matched with seven technologists and charged with the task of creating something new within the span of one day. [3] This kind of program encourages the combination of two different backgrounds— but even in this instance, art and technology are being viewed as separate. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be such a distinction— after all electronic music has been around for years, and the creation of simple illustration programs like Paint have brought about classes like Advanced Digital Painting, which was recently introduced into the curriculum at RISD.[4]

The advances for technology in the study of poetry are still rather rudimentary, but strides are being made with RapGenius’s offshoots of PoetryGenius and LitGenius. But are these websites more or less effective than physical manifestations of outreach programs? Poets House has developed the Poetry in the Branches program with the intention to raise awareness and engagement with the art form in public libraries, and other environments highly trafficked by children, like zoos. This analog approach to outreach has the Poets House staff physically present in order to train the librarians participating in the program. PitB itself also relies heavily on the implementation of in-person interactions with poems and poetry via guest speakers, workshops, reading series, etc., all with the aim to increase public engagement.[5] The physical presence of poetry is also emphasized—Marsha Howard, the PitB coordinator (interestingly, a former NYPL librarian), is quoted as saying “Poetry is most successful when your patrons hear it, see it, hear about it, bump into it, in as many ways as possible…It will be unavoidable if you do a good job.”[6]

This is true enough; as with any skill or knowledge, constant contact with the subject matter leads to learning, and often there are learning by-products of a particular educational activity  (à la Mr. Miyagi’s wax-on, wax-off lessons in Karate Kid). For example, English majors are often celebrated for their general ability to think critically and for their writing skills— by-products of close-reading and a myriad of writing assignments.[7] However, is this the initial aim of the English major? In most cases, certainly not—a love for literature, reading, or writing is usually at the heart of this choice. It just so happens that repeated engagement with the written word leads to a better understanding of language structure and use. (The same arguments can be made in the case of studying Philosophy, Art History, and others, of course.)

What if, along with the “by-product” of critical thinking skills, students of the humanities also gained skills in technology? And if this were to be the case, then programs like Poetry in the Branches would be immensely helpful in fostering an initial love for poetry, leading (ideally) to an elevated study of poetry, and the subsequent gains in critical thinking and technology skills. Perhaps the introduction of more technology-based humanities engagement would lead to more a well-rounded, tech-savvy (read: obviously employable) breed of humanities scholars. Furthermore, this change in tech-implementation could quell the fears of humanities students in graduating without marketable skills (and the fears of parents whose children arrive home for holidays having declared themselves a Fine Arts major).

In today’s world, higher education has taken the unfortunate turn towards vocational schooling— the aim is to find a career, and to gain applicable skill-sets rather than to stimulate the mind into growing, and creating new synapses and modes of thinking. The humanities seem to have developed a reputation as an academic inside-joke where the punchline is unemployment—but why? It didn’t used to be so. As Amory Blaine laments in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, “I may turn out an intellectual, but I’ll never write anything but mediocre poetry.”[8] True appreciation for art is noble, and to be gifted at it is rare. That potential poets and other artists might be discouraged due to a lack of employment marketability is quite sad, and ultimately detrimental to the future of humanity.

Rather than segregating art, science, and technology, let us continue to integrate them and encourage the crossing of intellectual borders; let’s make our poets write in zeros and ones, and have our scientists write sonnets about their discoveries. After all, as Socrates claims: the unexamined life is not worth living, and as celebrated programmer and activist Aaron Swartz said: “Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.”[9] The pursuit of information and data can yield wonderfully creative means of expression, and artistic, often beautiful results. For example, the LinkedJazz Project has created a visual diagram of connections between jazz musicians, resulting in a mesmerizing chart:

Screenshot of LinkedJazz Project's Network Visualization Tool

Screenshot of LinkedJazz Project’s Network Visualization Tool

The poet Kenneth Goldsmith also incorporates the Internet frequently into his work. In his project Printing out the Internet (which he dedicated to Schwartz), Goldsmith encouraged the public to print pages of the Internet and send them to a gallery in Mexico City. [11]


Image from Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Printing out the Internet.”

These are just two projects out of countless possibilities. The acknowledgement of technology and the Internet in artistic forms is an imperative if these art forms are going to survive in an increasingly technological world (or, at least, if they are going to continue to receive funding). We need creative people interested in the arts to be allowed to unabashedly pursue their interests, for the good of art, technology, and humanity.



  1. Klopfer, Eric; Osterweil, Scot; Groff, Jennifer; Haas, Jason, “Using the Technology of Today in the Classroom Today: The Instructional Power of Digital Games, Social Networking Simulations, and How Teachers Can Leverage Them.” The Education Arcade. MIT: 2009. Web. Accessed on 13 Dec 2015. <>
  2. Sara Kehaulani Goo, “The skills Americans say kids need to succeed in life,” Pew Research Center, 19 February 2015. Accessed on 14 Dec 2015. <>
  3. Rhizome, “Seven on Seven.” Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015. <>
  4. RISD, “Fall 2015 Illustration Courses.” Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015. <>
  5. Poets House, “Poetry in the Branches.” Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  6. Howard, Marsha, as quoted by Marcella Veneziale in “Poets House National Institute Aims to Boost Poetry in Public Libraries.” Library Journal. 8 April 2010. Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  7. Lewin, Tamar. “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” New York Times. 30 Oct 2013. Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  8. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. Scribner, 1920. Google Books. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.
  9. Schwartz, Aaron, as quoted in Silvia Puglisi’s preface to RESTful Rails Development: Building Open Applications and Services. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2015. Google Books. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.
  10. LinkedJazz Project Visual Network. <>
  11. Kenneth Goldsmith. Printing Out The Internet Tumblr. <>


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