If the Sawyer Seminar has had a central theme so far, it has taught that, paraphrasing Jeremy Dean, our latest speaker, "humanities need tech, but tech needs humanities." Dean, who works as the Director of Education at Hypothes.is, visited Rice on January 14th, to share his vision of annotations attached to all information. He prefaced his presentation with a brief history of his work as a high school teacher, where he instructed his students to use Rap Genius – now Genius – to annotate works like The Great Gatsby. His success with this project led to a job as the education director at Genius, but he explained that the company's for-profit model was at odds with his goals for the site, leading to his current position at Hypothesi.is.
Dean's decision to leave Genius helps illustrate the point about the need for humanities even in Silicon Valley. Genius, for all its entertainment value, relies on a model of free labor on the part of its users and the unpaid usage of song lyrics, to the benefit of its creators. That's not to say they haven't worked hard to create and maintain their platform, but that if we are looking for genuine solutions to problems in the world, from education to social justice, it won't be based on this model.
Dean explained that Hypothes.is, which is not driven by the need for profit, has the prime objective of empowering people to approach all digital texts analytically and engage in critical conversation with others. I think he correctly acknowledges the benefits and limits of a platform like Hypothes.is. Its form of social annotation, as some attendees noted, doesn't really work well as a tool for academics, nor does it radically rethink ideas like authorship. It does work well, however, for the narrower goals that Dean stated.
Although Dean is quite ambitious in wanting the entire internet annotated, I think that success for this project can be defined on a smaller scale. If students learn the power of critical analysis in thinking through complicated issues, or some tiny fraction of internet users are motivated to participate in real discussion about what they have read as a result of Hyptothes.is, then I would say it has been a worthwhile effort. I'm admittedly skeptical about the quality of communication that takes place in anonymous online communities, but I find it inspiring that in a profit-driven world like Silicon Valley, where technology is so often created and used thoughtlessly or manipulatively, a platform like Hypothes.is exists and has found a small-but-growing niche.