Einstein_MorningFuture
Inspiring
Interview 12 April Apr 2021 1702 12 April 2021

Why tomorrow's professions will be increasingly scientific yet also more… humanistic.

Humanistic computing is still considered a 'niche' discipline, yet its breadth is pervasive. A prevailing misconception today when encouraging the acquisition of IT skills is that we only want to train technicians and programmers. Yet the real challenge lies in creating a new generation of versatile intellectuals

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Garbage in, garbage out. Often a simple expression is enough to explain a complex concept. This is how the Americans exemplify the need to have clear and correct premises for any problem, otherwise it may be badly handled: if what you take in is rubbish, then what you produce must also be rubbish. Here to explain this concept further is Guido Milanese, Professor of Latin, university lecturer in Milan, Brescia and Lugano, and 'humanistic computer scientist'. In other words, a scholar who has made technology not just a tool to complement his work, but a real method.

"There is a twin misconception in the humanities, as the majority see the computer as a way of doing the same things more easily, thereby overlooking the contribution that information technology can make to redefining the humanities. Office tools are used, but they do not improve writing, while all conceptual activities are left to memory," says Milanese. "Moreover, the humanities scholar tends to rely on technology in his relationship with the computer, under the delusion that the computer process is neutral and that, whatever technique is used, the research project remains the same".

This is not so, of course. So to call it 'digitisation of the humanities' would be reductive. While many sectors have a pervasive contribution from digital technology, such as the classic example of library science, a discipline that studies the organisation and functioning of a library, though more recent examples include data journalism and, more generally, sectors dealing with the construction of narratives of some kind, from videogames to the film industry, all too often the applications of digital technology in the humanities are "fluff", as Milanese puts it. Because they are using technological tools, yet they lack that certain 'leap' that digital technology delivers.

In its sequence of 0s and 1s, IT is precise and leaves nothing to chance. IT thus encodes the world, describing it, in other words, to a t. This, explains Milanese, is the very essence of humanistic computing, and what the humanities can (and must) gain from computing: acquiring the habit of describing problems with precision, and in so doing avoiding approximation. We're not dealing with simply using IT tools to carry out work in a more virtual and apparently sophisticated way, nor with dismissing the processes as something merely technical. "I do not consider it to be contamination, but a way of strengthening humanistic thinking through information technology", explains Milanese. "As I always tell my students, taking a plane is different from taking a carriage", says the professor.

This is the very essence of humanistic computing, and what the humanities can (and must) gain from computing: acquiring the habit of describing problems with precision, and in so doing avoiding approximation

In this very regard, the humanities can (and should) aim to empower themselves through digital. Beware, however: being empowering does not mean to accept being replaced. The great misunderstanding of our time is to think that focusing on digital means producing a flood of technicians and programmers, people who know how to produce the strings of code that the world needs today, just as mass-produced cars were needed yesterday. Once again, this is not the case.

"We are still biased in thinking that the labour market rewards practical and specialist-oriented degrees. Many companies, however, have people with philosophy degrees, especially at senior management level". This is no coincidence, explains Gino Roncaglia, author of the Wikilex project for developing IT and legal skills at the service of public administration, professor of humanistic informatics at the Roma Tre University and one of Italy's Internet pioneers. "Humanistic skills are very useful when dealing with the ability to construct syntheses of a somewhat higher level of abstraction. The transition from single operation to strategy synthesis is an operation often linked to a good command of language, logical competence and argumentation. Therefore, the humanities also play a role in business and finance".

A humanistic education at a certain level helps to deal with complexity. "Today we live in a fragmented reality, made up of user-generated content, digital craftsmanship made with very sophisticated tools, but in which everyone produces their own granular content. The level of organised collaboration and the use of artificial intelligence, on the other hand, are much richer and more complex. And this shift of the digital system towards complexity requires a higher sensitivity", explains Roncaglia.

It would therefore be foolish to work solely on the 'technical' direction of IT. In this regard, Milanese explains that "we must also aim to train humanists who can tell the difference between a computer and a coffee machine". Thus, computer education must become a full part of the humanities, but not only through learning about a certain technology or transmitting a certain programming language (which in themselves are naturally destined to evolve or become obsolete). "If we only think about technology generating more technology, we won't get far. Certainly, we need to know how to use applications for business purposes, yet that is no intellectual education, but rather training in operation-services", points out Milanese.

The point is to master the process and be able to look at it from above, with a vision and a plan. "We need humanists trained to think precisely, not in a frayed way; in other words, a humanism that is identified by an ability to describe problems", adds Milanese. This, the professor points out, does not mean renouncing intuition: "A comparison of Italy's creative ability in the 1960s and 1970s with our situation of dependency today would not hold up. This country needs people with vision and a serious and extensive knowledge of the structures that hold the world together. People representing the new Olivetti", says Milanese.

We need a humanism that is identified by an ability to describe problems

While practical applications of humanistic computing can easily include new forms of entrepreneurship (as is the case with many startups), other concrete examples include disciplines such as digital publishing or digital storytelling. Milanese even suggests some of the more futuristic applications, including "the creation of a comprehensive archive of all Italian cultural assets, which would have considerable repercussions worldwide" or "a database for sharing how subjects are studied, such as languages, at a European level, so that students from different countries can share the same basic study, and teachers can exchange materials" (a project on which the professor is currently working).

The application instances are potentially endless, and sometimes even problematic. "In the United States, there are cases where artificial intelligence is used to suggest sentences in the legal field. This also leads to a number of problems, because it involves proprietary software: If a judge rules based on a suggestion from a software, the ruling is based on algorithms that are not transparent but rather have systematic biases, e.g. racial prejudices", says Roncaglia. Again, knowing how to manoeuvre complexity is also of paramount importance for resolving ethical issues in technology.

Of course, changes and innovations on such a scale cannot happen overnight, and in many ways are still a long way off. Milanese nevertheless remains optimistic: as digital culture gradually unfolds, these tenets will become more prevalent, and a great deal of awareness may become internalised within a single generation.

In the meantime, according to Roncaglia, serious work on technology training should start at school. "Awareness on the type of tools would be very useful also at school level, indeed there is a lot of work to raise awareness on these issues. We must not, however, do the same as with distance learning, which has been used as an emergency measure in recent months. Instead, it should be a supplementary measure", he explains. "After that, it is not only in school that one must or can learn, but also in almost all areas of lifelong learning. Further training now covers areas where digital is essential. However, it is also important not to make training only instrumental, without reflecting on how this affects everything else, on how it is structured. Because otherwise, a need to learn something new will arise with every minor development".

Milanese believes that this is also the reason why certifications such as the computer licence issued by universities, or to some extent even coding taught to primary school children, are useless. "If you are taught monolingualism, you get more technique, but not more culture. Children should be taught how to describe a problem exactly and to describe the logical steps needed to solve that problem", says the professor. "In all honesty, I am very concerned about the loss of deductive geometry, where the Pythagorean theorem has to be proved rather than memorised, as well as the loss of historical teaching. For my own mental cleanliness, for example, I write computer programs. If everyone learned how to do that sort of cleaning, there would be a lot less fluff. Garbage in, garbage out".

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