By Rishi Jaitly and Sylvester Johnson
How might you describe that feeling when stepping into a centuries-old structure where history was made or attending a live concert that takes your breath away or experiencing a new technological wonder for the first time?
October is National Arts and Humanities Month, the largest annual celebration for the arts and humanities in the nation. During this time, it’s worth recalling — and rejoicing in — the shared sense of awe, wonder and purpose the arts, humanities — and technology — trigger in all of us.
While often understood separately and distinctly, these fields and pursuits share much in common as well: in particular, their ability to generate joy. In fact, among the multiple ways one might recognize the similarities among arts, humanities and technology, perhaps the most significant is their ability to evoke within any of us a visceral experience of wonder — and a sense of possibility. And, in a world increasingly fragmented, it’s this unifying sensibility that has so often proved a starting point for bringing people together in common cause.
Experiencing joy is a treasured dimension of human experience. This is not synonymous with a desire for steady-state happiness, an aspiration many thoughtful experts have cautioned against pursuing; indeed, it is perfectly ordinary for a life to embody the ups and downs of satisfaction and disappointment, excitement and sadness. Rather, what we have in mind here are those special, almost elusive, moments that we encounter from time to time. We might find joy by listening to a soulful performance of music. Or when we are overcome with bliss as we absorb the culmination of a beautiful film. Joy is that feeling that bubbles up inside us as we contemplate and reflect on art, an idea or a loved one.
We are familiar with associating joy with experiences in the arts and humanities. But what about technology? How might we understand the joy that technology can evoke? Many readers might recall the Polaroid “instant” camera, a handheld camera first developed in 1947 that created — and printed — black-and-white photographs on the spot. By the 1970s, the Polaroid company had perfected the full-color version and, at the press of a button, a square piece of photographic paper rolled out of the camera.
Within about a minute, the paper’s white surface would slowly transform into ghost-like images in faded colors that, as if by magic, grew more vivid by the second until you were staring at a beautiful photograph rendered in rich detail. No need for a trip, usually to a drug store, to have the film developed by experts. Even those who had used the camera many times seemed never to tire of watching with effusive delight as their Polaroid photograph came to life right before their eyes, capturing special moments with family and friends.
Indeed, all of our first encounters with technology, no matter how big or small, are at their essence life changing, marking moments in time after which we know our world — and, sometimes, the world — will forever be different. It’s why, still today, Apple Computer Founder Steve Jobs’ 2007 keynote address unveiling the iPhone, and in turn a new era of mobile computing, is among the most-watched technology events on YouTube.
Whether our awe stems from Polaroids or Picasso, literary allegory or lucid algorithms, we ought to be reminded of our ability as humans to not just experience but to create that which inspires joyful wonder. In these instances, we reconnect with something that is basic and integral to our humanity: as our senses translate the artifice before us into the numinous, we lift beyond our baseline state of mind into primal clouds of joy. And it is through these experiences that we transcend the everyday flow of life and are enraptured by experiences that are treasured and, well, enjoyed by people throughout our world.
The intrinsic value of joy, whether prompted by an endeavor in the arts or the sciences, is worth centering ourselves in these days – and this month — particularly during a precarious age for so many around the world. As nations throughout the globe experience displacement, war, disease, and natural disasters, it is more important than ever that we celebrate — and, indeed, spread — the joyful moments that can and do light up human life. We should treasure the fact that joy can shine upon us as we allow ourselves that most human experience of art, humanities, and technology. And, when confronted with difference and despair, in industry and institutions, we should seek out the common ground that is joy, awe and wonder as we advance understanding, goodwill and positive change.
Indeed, when these seemingly disparate fields are understood together, two truths surface: that the arts, humanities and technology are endemic to the human spirit; and that all of us, in at least a basic sense, are artists, humanists and technologists ourselves — as we have been since time immemorial.
Jaitly and Johnson are both members of the board of directors of Virginia Humanities, Virginia’s state humanities council (VirginiaHumanities.org). Johnson also directs the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech, where Jaitly is professor of practice and a distinguished humanities fellow.