This post by Maha Bali (selected as an Editors’ Choice piece for Digital Humanities Now) expresses something I’ve thought about before but have rarely seen discussed. At a time when some people are calling for everyone to learn to code, Bali asks the important question, “Why is all the focus on teaching lay people how to code, and not teaching computer scientists and people who work in tech companies to center empathy and humanity in their work?” Bali writes:
As a former computer scientist (I left the code behind many years ago), it bothers me how there is such a direction for humanists to learn to code, and very little in the way of working with software engineers and programmers to help them think in more humane and ethical ways about what they’re designing, to be more critical and aware of the underlying politics of what they do. Yes, non-programmers can become more critical citizens when they understand how their (digital) lives are influenced by algorithms, but more importantly, shouldn’t we care about the critical citizenship of the programmers? After all, it is highly unlikely that an amateur coder will be asked to design the next big neural network; as unlikely as someone with a casual interest in medicine, or who studied holistic medicine, will be called on to perform life-threatening surgery.
This is an important point that is often lost in discussions about children, college students, or humanists learning to code. I see the work of digital humanists (both digital projects and theoretical work) as necessary in the wider project of “humanizing” the digital, so I am in no way calling on digital humanists to stop learning to code, but the goal of centering humanity and ethics in the digital is something best approached from all sides. For this reason, I agree with Bali’s argument that, “[T]here should be an element of infusing discussions of ethics, humanity and social consequences into computer science curricula.” Bali does not make this specific point, but I often think about how digital humanities courses could serve this purpose, how they would benefit computer science students as well as English or history majors. Working in the digital humanities forces you to think about ethics and social justice in the context of data and algorithms. I hope to see more digital humanities courses being used this way. Until then, Bali’s post gives me hope that there are others who want to see “the humanity in the computer science curriculum.”
See the original Editors’ Choice piece here.