The useful uselessness of the humanities

I studied political science and English at college, and frequently had to deal with people asking me, “but what use is it?” I never had a particularly pithy answer until I read a recent essay by Ian Bogost — the cofounder of Water Cooler Games, a blog devoted to video games as social commentary — over at the International Game Developers’ Association site. He’s writing about “The Muse of the Video Game,” and explaining why the social sciences are useful not just in designing games, but in life:

My colleague John McCumber, a professor with whom I taught at UCLA, has an effective response to the charge that the humanities are “useless”. Fields like business, medicine, and computer science seem “practical” because they are predictably useful. That is to say, we can know in advance how to reap immediate gain from them. By contrast, the humanities are unpredictably useful; we cannot know in advance how they might serve us. As the name suggests, the humanities help us understand what it means to be human, no matter the contingencies of profession, economics, or current affairs. The humanities offer insights into human experience that we need when industries, militaries, governments, game engines, middleware and all else fails. This is the knowledge that helps us recover from heartbreak, to make sense of 9/11, to understand betrayal. It is this unpredictable usefulness, this postponed fungibility in the humanities that is so often mistaken for uselessness.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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