By Amy Lifson
Will technology offer the human race more than just new ways to shop or catch up on gossip? Start-up dotcoms emerge every day with promises galore to improve our lives, but will they offer anything for the sustenance of the human soul? In this issue, Humanities looks at how the digital age is changing the creation and exchange of knowledge.
Gregory Crane, director of the Perseus project, suggests that the ultimate goal for humanists ought to be to “make accessible,both physically and intellectually, to every human being on this planet, the complete record of humanity.” A formidable task, certainly, but the Perseus project, like others, is taking it to heart. After making an enormous amount of information about ancient Greece available through its website, the project is now tackling materials on ancient Rome, ancient science, and the English Renaissance.
Benjamin Ray and his colleagues at the University of Virginia are following the lead of classicists, but turn their attention to a tumultuous event in the fledgling colonies in the New World. Ray explains the world ’s ongoing fascination with the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century and how technology puts primary sources into the hands of students. The site brings forth the compelling testimonies of the accused and the accusers and shows how scandal swept through neighborhoods and changed communities.
Not so far in the future, we will use our televisions like we already use the Internet. Through a new initiative with the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, NEH hopes to elevate the content of digital television programming. When the documentary about two pioneers, one white and one black, of open heart surgery airs on television it will include a wealth of learning possibilities and an entirely new way of watching television. Viewers will have the option of downloading film clips of civil rights demonstrations, reading biographies of other scientists, or performing virtual surgery. As one developer says, it becomes a “lean forward” instead of a “lean back” experience.
Visiting a museum takes on a whole new meaning at the Seattle Art Museum. From computer stations, students will be able to curate their own online exhibitions; choosing objects, themes, and labels to express their vision. Teachers will have instant resources to better prepare their classes for field trips to the museum; or if they are too far away to visit, the class can take a virtual tour of an archeological excavation, learn online about the museum’s collection, or interact with the Alaskan makers of Yup'ik masks.
Finally, an upcoming television series called Building Big looks at how earlier technological advances gave visionaries the means to create an environment that our ancestors could only imagine. In a time when chat rooms are virtual and answers are instant, it is healthy to remember the dreams that began in mortar, steel, and sweat.