As regular readers of this blog — and former readers of my (now mothballed) personal blog — are probably aware, I am profoundly ambivalent about the digital humanities. This ambivalence derives in part from unfamiliarity. When it comes to the digital humanities, I am not yet clear on exactly what they are (or can be), exactly what they do, and exactly what they mean or can mean for both the scholarly enterprise and the wider cultural work of people collectively making sense of the world.
I’m working on remedying my admitted ignorance of DH as an academic discipline, but I still have some homework to do. In the meantime, my colleagues who are digital humanists have been wonderfully patient about educating me. Indeed, I expect to learn a thing or two from comments on this post.*
As I understand them, most apologists for and practitioners of the digital humanities envision their discipline in a both/and kind of way. In other words, the digital humanities are not a replacement for pen-and-ink scholarship, but a vast expansion and extension of the possibilities of all kinds of scholarship, including scholarship based upon and ultimately aimed at producing good old-fashioned printed texts. I see nothing that is troubling and much that is promising about this approach.
Nevertheless, I have occasionally come across some apologists for the digital humanities who predict that print and print culture — in a word, the book — will eventually become obsolete, and who seem to think that this development is A Good Thing. Indeed, some of them would like to speed the process along.
This hoped-for obsolescence of the book strikes me as a Very Bad Idea.
Now, I’m a historian, so by definition and inclination I am decidedly not in the business of predicting the future. (“Not my table!”) But there’s something unsettling for me about some people’s hope for the demise of the codex. I call this unsettling something the “hieratic potential” embedded in digital texts: the possibility that written knowledge will once again become the exclusive property of (something like a postmodern secular version of) a priesthood. I’m not really thinking of the pre-Reformation priesthood; I’m thinking more along the lines of the ancient Egyptian priesthood.
As Carlo Ginzburg so deftly demonstrates in The Cheese and the Worms, during the Reformation, common people gained access to texts which had once been the purview of the privileged and the priests. People with no special training beyond the ability to read and write could (mis)read those texts in ways that expanded their mental, moral and material universes, making them a menace to the hierarchy.
Menocchio’s ability to acquire a book, read it, and pass it on to someone else serves as a stunning synecdoche summing up a profoundly transformative historical moment. The printing press — a proto-industrial technology — rendered written texts relatively cheap and suddenly, simply, widely accessible. Beyond literacy (no small thing), Menocchio and the readers of his time required no special tools to access the words on those newly available pages except sunlight, candle-light, or firelight. And sharing that knowledge was something they could accomplish with no technological mediation. It was a matter of placing a text into a new reader’s hands.
To this day, the technology for producing or reading a written text remains simple, robust, and nearly universally accessible. It’s nice if you own your own printing press — it sure came in handy for William Lloyd Garrison. But, at their simplest level, the tools for the production and dissemination of text-based knowledge are easily obtained and easily used. Paper, ink, a light source — that’s pretty much all you need to write with, or to read by.
This doesn’t mean that all readers or potential readers have universal access to knowledge. Economic advantage, advanced education, critical disciplinary training which has only been possible because we do not usually have to worry about where our next meal is coming from — these inequalities allow some of us access to the text — to its power — in ways that are not open to others. And many are the gatekeepers who want to keep things as they are.
One of the most admirable goals of activists in the digital humanities is the goal of open access: moving “the text” out from behind the iron gates and ivied walls and paywalls, detaching it from some of the protective structures which make it unavailable and therefore unassailable — the special collections room, the closed-stack library, the archive, the restricted-access database — and opening it up to the scrutiny of anyone who has the basic ability to read it on a screen.
On a screen.
That screen adds a subtle but significant layer of mediation between the reader and the text, something altogether different from and deeper than the distance between the reader and the hand-written or press-printed page.
Getting the texts from the library shelves to the ereader screen requires encoding them. They are translated into an inscrutable language — a type of writing decipherable only by computer scientists and software engineers who, thankfully, design these reading tools to also decode for us what has been encoded.
What I see happening here, though, is the development of an elite system of writing, a new kind of hieroglyphics. Knowledge is being preserved in a language which is illegible without access to highly specialized training and expensive equipment. We are embedding texts in a coded language inscribed on microchips, and encasing those microchips in a proprietary system which controls how and what we may read. Furthermore, the ability to get those texts from the servers on which they reside to our own screens — Kindle, Nook, laptop — depends upon how and under what conditions and by whose permission we can use the internet.
So what happens if we lose (or are denied) the ability to download and read the coded texts? What happens when someone decides that something you have downloaded onto your Kindle — say, 1984 or Animal Farm — is just not suitable reading material any more? Yes, Amazon.com zapped those downloads due to an apparent copyright infringement — a presumably legitimate reason for an astonishingly Orwellian demonstration of how easily digital knowledge can be “disappeared.”
After over five hundred years of widely accessible “open source” coding — Gutenberg’s cosmologically transformative gift, a fast and reliable process for producing and distributing words on a page — we are heading down a path that makes not just the production and distribution of texts, but their very reception, proprietary. We are de-democratizing knowledge, even as we talk about and advocate for increased access, because we are making that access dependent on the use of a proprietary coded language encased in manufactured products whose control remains in the hands of those who sold them, not those who bought them. And even if those manufactured products or distribution networks become so cheap as to be nearly ubiquitous — free internet for everyone, free ereaders for all — they will always be an inescapable mediating technology between the reader and the text, a technology that the reader cannot circumvent.
When there are no more printing presses — when the books are gone, when all old knowledge has been digitized, and all new knowledge is digitally distributed — then there will be only one way to access powerful and empowering knowledge, a way that is mediated (and monitored and limited) by corporations and governments who develop and control the proprietary delivery systems of all things digital. Who controls that technology? Who designs those tools? For whom will they be made available, and under what conditions? Who will guarantee texts a place on the grid, and who will guarantee us access to the grid as readers? And who will assure us that even if the grid goes dark, and stays dark for far too long, we can still access the knowledge embedded in those unreadable digital files?
Or will digital texts become the new hieroglyphics, faint scratchings on the pedestal of a vast colossal wreck of a culture that unwisely abandoned a well-worn instrument of liberation: printed words on a page, “portable property,” books simply — but not always safely — passed from one hand to another.
*Readers of my old blog might recognize some sections of this post, which is a substantial revision of remarks I had made there last year.