From the Editor

Townhouse Notes

More of a Comment Than a Question

L. Renato Grigoli | Jan 11, 2023

The AHA TownhouseIn The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a novel set on a distant future planet where the concept of gender does not exist, Ursula K. Le Guin imagined a group of fortune tellers called “the Answerers.” Through long practice, the Answerers could perform a Foretelling, a ritual that, as its name suggests, could provide the correct answer to any question asked about the future.

A Foretelling, as you may suspect, is not the boon it seems. Stories have long cautioned those who might substitute prophecy for truth. Oedipus accepts that he will kill his father and marry his mother, missing the truth of the events that will unfold. Macbeth, perhaps learning from the classics, interprets his prophecy metaphorically. Alas for him, it was meant literally—the timbers of Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane; Macduff was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”—and he, too, does not expect the true course of the future. The rules of tragedy ensure a rigged game; the play can only end when everyone marked for death dies.

The information age has answers everywhere. Miracle of miracles, you can, with a few clicks and from the comfort of your bed, find an answer to almost any question you wish to ask. Of course, the internet falls short of a Foretelling: it can’t speak to the future, and it does not guarantee a correct answer. No one really expects the former, and the latter has received a great deal of attention. Much ink has been spilled (and many bytes devoted) to how social media and search algorithms promote falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Sensible people agree that this is Not Good, and many find themselves shocked, simply shocked, that the slow defunding of the humanities (for a mere 60 years!) has left a majority of Americans without the ability to critically analyze information. Sifting truth from falsehoods is a key tenet of humanistic study; one trained in the art can find correct answers better than one who is not. Fewer have, however, questioned two positivistic assumptions at the core of this vision of the modern humanities: (1) that most people ever had such skills and (2) that the problem lies with the capacity to discriminate between pieces of information, and, as a consequence, that one can find the correct answer if they are sufficiently learned.

Fifty-four years ago, Le Guin offered a critique of that assumption. When her protagonist, Genly Ai, arrives at the Answerers in dire need of their aid, he is stunned that such power—what could omniscience not accomplish?—is treated as a mere curio, a novelty intended for those with more money than wisdom. In fact, Genly finds that the Answerers don’t want answers at all. Instead, they see the value of Foretelling as simply pedagogical: it allows them to demonstrate “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

Many tragic figures could have benefited from the warning that embracing the first correct answer they find is useless, if they don’t first take care to ensure that they are asking the right question—or even that the answer actually answers their question. Oedipus, for example, does not have the question whose answer he truly needs to know—who are his parents?—or the intuition that he should ask it. He has therefore confused having the correct answer with knowing the truth, with a result that is not so much useless as it is blindingly catastrophic.

If the digital world has made finding correct answers more difficult, it has made asking the right question almost impossible. The constant translation of qualitative information into quantitative data sets every query in a nebulous mass of assumption. When combined with the digital sphere’s near-universal reliance on opaque algorithms, we cannot even be sure what question we are really asking—a problem that has become ever more pointed as the digital humanities have matured and evolved. The question for humanists, then, is how, within all these difficulties and constraints, we find the truth in a sea of correct answers. Or is it?

L. Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.

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