Technological Empowerment in a Human World

TyAnna Herrington

the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems; a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge new technologies for information storage

a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially :  a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Technology is an implement for humanistic enterprises, noted for its impact even in prehistory. Denise Schmandt-Besserat discovered that clay “tokens,” which represented quantities of livestock, foodstuffs, or other commodities, enabled trade and the development of societal interaction. Walter Ong demonstrated that humans progressing from oral to literate cultures used writing technology to advance cultural interactions through travel and commerce and to enable evolutionary human thought processes.

Students gain ability to interact in the world successfully when they use knowledge in functional processes so they not only know information, but they also know how to question it […] build from it to create something […] .

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution were no less cognizant of the impact of technology for building humanistic interests. Influenced by the Enlightenment’s focus on independent thought—made possible by the technology of the printing press—they created an intellectual property clause that provides scaffolding for the country’s most important humanistic goals: to encourage self-actualization and creative development by ensuring egalitarian access to society’s embodiment in information as a means to participate in a democratic process of self-governance (U.S. Const, art. 1, § 8, cl. 8.).

Access to intellectual products has constricted in this century because license holders fear the expansive reach of digital technology that allows exact and complete copy and dissemination of creative products. As a tool for expression and interaction, digitization has expanded our humanistic potential, and creators are able to legally bypass a more constrained system of product production and marketing to engage instead in individual publication. Just as the printing press allowed individuals access to informed means to think independently in the process of breaking from automatic acceptance of authoritarians’ prescribed knowledge, digital tools enhance the potential for unrestricted thinking, invention, and influence by enabling individuals to publish in text, video, visual, and mixed media expressions with nearly unlimited geographic and temporal reach.

The same powerful technological tools that can support humanistic effort may also be used to inhibit it, since it is not the tools but the human users who determine technology’s function. A user’s epistemological grounding drives whether technology may hinder or support the humanistic enterprise. Objective knowledge may be contained and controlled by those who impose its authority, facilitated by technology that provides a database of answers to be replicated; in contrast, humanistic knowledge development requires transactional processes that are supported by technologies that require interaction with others in synthesizing information, pursuing argument, and asserting opinion as a way to influence society and support new aspirations.

Constitutional language begs for interaction that leads to creative expansion based on past knowledge. It contains this functional demand, deriving from transactional epistemology rather than technology, inasmuch as technology is merely a tool to enable epistemic ends. Since the constitutional goal is to advance learning—knowledge, information, and innovation—the provision creates a natural connection to considerations for teaching. The Constitution sets humanistic growth at its core. As one of my intellectual property law students, A. Kallarackal, put it, “I think the Constitution wants us to question.” And one of digital technology’s greatest attributes is that it enables the practical interactions necessary for the kind of intellectual investigation that the Constitution demands.

Inherent in the Constitution’s intellectual property clause is a demand not to hoard knowledge, but to do something with it, to make it accessible, and to build on it. Students gain ability to interact in the world successfully when they use knowledge in functional processes so they not only know information, but they also know how to question it, use it, and to build from it to create something that is useful to the greater society. And when they are able to accomplish this step, they are well on their way to their own successful self-actualization, based on well-considered, meaningful, contextually adaptive creation.

I have the privilege of observing my students as they gather information, learn to analyze it, and build something new that reflects analytical considerations derived from their own new insights. They excel when my courses focus on student interests, efforts, and interactions rather than my own—when I provide only a bare necessary base in content, and concentrate instead on helping students succeed in their more independent, transactionally influenced processes of using foundational content to create their own new discoveries. Their use of technology makes these processes possible.

In intellectual property law classes, students have used multi-track remix technology to examine music samples for potential of substantial similarity as a way to discuss the elements of copyright violation or excuse; another produced a 3D printed model of a figurine to demonstrate how a derivative work based on original might be transformative enough to excuse the unlicensed use of another’s base model; and another student created digital multimedia art with multiple visual and aural representations of music, photographic imagery, and trademark logos that could be mixed and separated to demonstrate how the potential for copyright fair use, or violation, could rise and fall with higher and lower levels of remix and differing combinations of uses (a police car with a blaring siren would appear when there was potential for violation).

My students in cross-cultural communication classes analyze global problems by connecting online with other students for discussion. And they survey and interview respondents in other countries to understand differing cultural perspectives for analysis, product development, and usability testing. For 10 years, students in my Global Classroom Project shared classroom space online with Russian students at the European University in St Petersburg and created jointly developed proposals, analyses, and formal reports. Without technology, this form of humanistic interaction would not have been possible.

For our students and for their professors, academic undertakings allow us to engage in humanistic pursuits by reaching for answers, building knowledge, and developing useful responses on the bases of our findings. Technology can help us expand that possibility. Ultimately, though, it is a human choice whether to take advantage of technological tools to support humanistic goals or to defeat them.

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