The words "humanities" and "technology" seem to be inseparable of late. Digital resources for humanities scholars now burgeon on the Internet; scholars are busy exploring new ways to deploy databases and digitized texts to support research in history, literature, and other fields of humanistic study; online systems have become the new standard for providing students with evaluations, readings, assignments, correspondence, and, in growing numbers, instruction. Virtually every aspect of scholarly work bears the impact of new possibilities—and challenges—posed by recent innovations in technology.
These developments seem daunting and unprecedented in scope. At the same time, I see them as part of an issue of ongoing importance in Jewish Studies—namely, the attention that scholars working throughout this wide-ranging field pay to matters of mediation. These matters range from the relation between the oral and the written transmission of teachings, dating back to ancient times, to the ongoing role of translation in establishing and transforming Jewish literacy; from the interrelation between texts and images to the transformative impact of print culture on early modern Jewish thought and practice. And, of course, there is a growing number of scholars examining the role of photography, sound recording, film, broadcasting, video, or digital media in Jewish life. Almost every Jewish Studies scholar— working in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, and regardless of the time period, place, or phenomenon that is the focus of one's research—grapples with questions of how information is encoded, disseminated, and received. The current attention to humanities and technology, which may seem at first like an issue exclusively for scholars of contemporary culture or media studies, is, in fact, relevant for everyone in Jewish Studies. Indeed, this is in some way a familiar subject.
The lessons we have learned in Jewish Studies from attending to issues of mediation can inform how we address new technologies. For example, technological innovations are creating new possibilities for communication that can transform how ideas not only circulate but even how they are conceptualized. Digital publishing has the potential to revolutionize how scholarly writing is produced—notably, in challenging the peer-review process by allowing scholars to publish unvetted work on a platform that then invites feedback and enables authors' responses. New digital platforms for creating texts also foster collaborative writing and facilitate alternatives to linear expository narratives. Engaging these innovations can entail our looking back in time as well as forward. None of these developments is entirely new—indeed, they hearken back to ancient writing practices. At the same time, these changes are groundbreaking in how they challenge contemporary protocols of authoritative scholarly writing.
Innovations in communications technologies invariably come with unanticipated consequences. New media often seem to promise greater standardization and permanence in communication, but they can prove to be, if anything, more destabilizing. An error in a printed text can spread misinformation much more widely than a mistake in a handwritten manuscript; celluloid film stock, on which motion pictures were recorded for decades, turns out to be less mutable than the newer medium of videotape, which is, in turn, less vulnerable to corruption than the more recent digitized code on a DVD or stored on a server. The discovery of unanticipated consequences also extends to social practices around new media. Searching for books through online databases yields different kinds of serendipitous discoveries than does browsing the stacks of a library; querying an archivist or teacher in person is not the same as doing so on the telephone or via online exchanges.
Given the great diversity of Jewish Studies scholarship, it is not surprising that AJS members run the gamut in their interest in and facility with new media technologies. This is not simply a matter of generation or field of expertise (I have a colleague who teaches the sociology of communications who has long refused to establish an email account). Negotiating one's way through the wealth of available communications technologies is a task of modern life for everyone, and decisions of what to accept or reject (Smart phone? Tablet? Personal website? Blog? Facebook page? LinkedIn account? Twitter feed? Pinterest?) are often ultimately a matter of idiosyncratic sensibility. For scholars, employing new technologies in research or teaching also entails questions of investing time, money, personnel, or intellectual energy, as well as nagging concerns that what is state-of-the-art today will be out-of-date sooner than we dare think.
AJS is committed to addressing the cascade of questions that new technologies pose to scholars, starting with two important new events at our 2012 Annual Conference in Chicago. The conference opens on Sunday morning with THATCamp Jewish Studies. A project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, THATCamp (short for The Humanities And Technology Camp) is a model for convening open meetings in which "humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot." THATCamp's "unconference" format has no formal presentations or prepared lectures but enables anyone participating in the meeting to convene informal, impromptu conversations. This is a rare opportunity for AJS members to explore issues of special interest related to Jewish Studies, technology, and digital media, ranging from practical "how-to" questions to more theoretical topics.
During the conference, AJS will also hold a Digital Media Workshop, featuring 9 presentations of research and teaching tools in an informal and interactive setting. The workshop will enable conference goers to explore a wide range of new media projects created by AJS members and, moreover, to speak directly with them and other colleagues about innovative practices and ideas. (Digital media have not obviated the oldest of communications practices—face-to-face conversation.)
These two conference events are part of AJS's ongoing commitment to addressing new developments in scholarship. As technological innovations continue to pose new opportunities and challenges to Jewish Studies scholars, we will continue to consider how to engage these developments, and we look forward to hearing from AJS members—using whatever medium suits them best—with suggestions for how to move forward in this area of vital importance for us all.