- How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis by N. Katherine Hayles
Like most academics, I have watched the growth of the digital humanities in the last decade with interest. However, instead of venturing out into the unfamiliar terrain of codes and databases, I have remained content to shelter with my print-based kin. While foregrounding my position as a digital outsider might seem strange to begin a review of N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Think, it makes sense when one understands that one of the book’s many achievements is to persuade print-based scholars like me to start paying closer attention to the digital humanities. Avoiding the hyperventilating panic and breathless paeans that tend to accompany discourses of the digital, How We Think offers scholars and teachers a clear-eyed view of the landscape quickly unfolding before us. It is at once an account of the theoretical and technical development of the digital humanities, an argument for its symbiotic relationship to traditional, print-based scholarship, and a demonstration of how its analytical affordances can help us to think differently about texts, as well as the scholars who seek to interpret them. Led by the title, I first entered the book expecting to find a sustained commentary on the relationship between our technics and our—that is to say, human—cognition, but exited convinced that the titular “we” really means “humanities scholars.” Hayles opens the book with a call for a field of comparative media studies, which would “provide a rubric within which the interests of print-based and digital humanities scholars can come together to explore synergies between print and digital media” (p. 6). Positioned at the beginning rather than the end, Hayles’s proposal presents the book as an illustration of what research in that field might look like and, even more importantly, what implications it would have for the humanities in general.
How We Think is divided into three sections prefaced by three interludes, which provide the text with a nice conceptual cohesion. The first section maps the field of the digital humanities in its present state with commentary on contemporary digital culture and media, and includes a chapter with interviews with some of the leading scholars and a tour of the places in which they work. For those familiar with Hayles’s previous work, this move toward ethnography is unexpected, but it is a wise move, considering the chapter’s necessary work to define the field and the cultural moment in which it is developing. For this reason, this section is an essential read not only for those invested in the digital humanities, but also for those invested in disciplinary gate-keeping. To wit: these chapters should be required reading for anyone sitting on a tenure and promotion committee who remains skeptical about the scholarly merits of computational techniques in the humanities. [End Page 137]
How We Think is anchored by the concept of technogenesis, the idea that humans and technics have coevolved. Philosophers and anthropologists have long considered tool use as a definitional capacity that makes humans who we are; yet, tool use also has the power to make us what we are. The idea that our technics might have physical effects has generated concern to the point of panic, most vocally by critics like Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein, who have argued that digital media are making us dumber at the individual, social, and cultural levels. While Hayles does not deny that our use of digital technology is changing the way that we think (and the way we read—the subject of chapter 3), she challenges the claim that the physical, cognitive, social, and educational changes occasioned by contemporary technogenesis are necessarily for the worse. But neither are these changes necessarily for the better. Like evolution, technogenesis “is not about progress” and “offers no guarantees that the dynamic transformations taking place between humans and technics are moving in a positive direction” (p. 81). Likewise, the reading styles associated with different technical mediations...