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University of Basel

Against dichotomy

Text: Markus Krajewski

If a university should stand for anything, it is the ability to master complicated subject matter. A short paean to complexity.

Prof. Markus Krajewski. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Markus Krajewski. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

Day and night. Noise and silence. Migros and Coop. The world is divided. Thanks to digitization, it appears that almost everything can be expressed in binary terms. Despite the inevitable tendency to absorb what remains into the digital realm, there is still a gray area, an analog zone of pure phenomena and insights deserving of closer scrutiny; however, the danger is that they will be left behind in the current transition to digital. If we look more closely, this gap reveals a diverse landscape. From a technological perspective, the digital realm itself is anything but singularly or dually coded. Rather, the value ranges with which it operates are surprisingly wide. In electrical terms, a digital zero is not triggered by pure absence, but is represented in a TTL port by a variable voltage with tolerances and safety buffers between 0 and 0.8 volts (V). In literally the same way, the transistor stores the value 1 in the range between 2.4 and 5 V. The supposedly clear dichotomies in the digital realm collapse even at the material level of electrical engineering. “Search all scholarly literature from one convenient place,” Google Scholar promises grandly, failing to mention that most of the stored texts fall short of library minimum standards for data recording and bibliography. If a library catalog listed the titles it was supposed to record with only 99% accuracy, it would be impossible to locate as many as 100 out of every 10,000 texts. It is thus possible to give a precise figure for what will be left out if the library of the future no longer has books in hard copy. And what will art history studies look like in future if soon scholars are consulting only databases, rather than the originals?

What is the benefit of the “new” insights that big data is currently promising in the digital humanities, with its uninhibited data positivism – mainly in response to questions first posed back in the 1950s? It is no coincidence that the Jesuit Roberto Busa, who, from 1949 onwards, spent decades feeding punch cards into an IBM mainframe to create indexes, has been identified as the progenitor of this young “discipline”. This may not be quite right, as it erases a genealogy that we can trace back further, to Leibniz and baroque universalism. Leibniz deployed a clever theological argument to justify his calculation method using 0 and 1 – that God is everything and zero is nothing. From binary calculations of this kind, grounded in the distinction between God and nothing, a brand new digital world view came into being as early as 1696.

What underpins the almost transcendental hope of salvation associated with the digital humanities today? This attitude seems to be based, in part, on a deep-rooted sense of insecurity, on fear of being at the mercy of a digital opponent that can manifest itself in a variety of forms – as an input mask on a web form, as an error message during installation of an operating system, or as the feeling of helplessness that sets in when you are trying in vain to override a program default. What might provide assistance in the face of this conflict? The answer is to develop critical expertise in coding as part of cultural studies – to acquire, as a basic cultural technique alongside knowing how to read, write and think in academic terms, the ability to read software code critically and to understand, reject or continue it. Not all knowledge – indeed, only a tiny fraction – can be applied directly, never mind translated into ordered numerical values. How do you measure the impact of an academic? Who is more productive, the colleague who publishes 10 seven-page articles, co-authored with seven other people, in “triple-A-rated journals” each year, or the one who writes a single 700-page text once a decade for a prestigious traditional publisher? No prizes for picking the winner – 10 to one odds on the person whose unwritten books will still be languishing unread on the virtualized book shelves in 100 years’ time. The half-life of knowledge increases as the number of pages falls.

And herein lies the real “asset” – to use the jargon – of institutions such as universities, which will always be fundamentally different from businesses. Universities understand that knowledge is for the long term and takes time to produce. They can remain detached from passing fashions, take delight in challenging mainstream thinking, and defy the call to limit their research to subjects with an immediate practical application. This is the true potential of a “universitas”: to be a community of more than just two cultures. However, universality is not necessarily something that can be attained within the span of a standard degree course. Above all, it is not something that can be transposed to the outside world in simple economic terms as soon as someone completes their bachelor’s.

What can help us along? Anyone who reads more than a couple of pages of Heidegger’s Being and Time will soon uncover a complex web of relationships. This is comparable to the discovery of a new software API for code development, where the concentrated, globally distributed mental effort of 50 full-time equivalents is laid out for you in condensed form. What we need is systematic intensification of complexity, not simplification or the erasure of difference – precisely calibrated language and increased abstraction, not reduction to the lowest common denominator. If there is one skill university graduates can apply profitably, it is the ability to master complex subject matter.

Perhaps universities should take pride in the fact that they aim to develop this sort of commitment to diversity and going against the flow, to favor more complex solutions, as opposed to the black-and-white distinction between God and nothing, and to heighten awareness of the analog intermediate stages in the gray zone between bright light and darkness, where whole worlds concealed by dichotomous simplification open up and await discovery.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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