U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The New Hieroglyphics

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.

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lora,

    Just to jump on your Reformation reference, when I think of the Reformation and the impact it had (whether beneficial or “dangerous,” as some see it), I immediately think of Luther penning 95 theses that were then distributed via the printing press. I think this quote of yours constitutes the “heart” of the issue: “To this day, the technology for producing or reading a written text remains simple, robust, and nearly universally accessible. . . . [A]t 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.”

    Your comment about the “tools for the production and dissemination of text-based knowledge” highlights, to me, the importance of keeping digital tools under the label: supplement. The “populist” feel of pen and paper is comforting to me; not as a sentimental security blanket, but as a genuine, sense of confidence that the significant and life-changing views repeatedly discussed in humanities-based courses will perpetually find its anchor in some paper-and-ink medium.

    Certainly, paper eventually deteriorates. However, since computers are created by humans, I always prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to devices shaped by the law of entropy (my old Chevy Cavalier that I drove while navigating the perils of early, adjunct-teaching in the D/FW area is a constant testament to me of this certainty), and the evidence of basic, daily malfunctioning by machines. I’m sure others might disagree about the Orwellian scenario possibly coming to pass, but I’m not quite sure that something like that—to loosely borrow Sinclair Lewis’s title—could not happen here. To me, having the ability to sit down, “argue,” and “wrestle” with a paper text (highlighting, writing notes, etc.) better fosters a critical spirit. Certainly I’m not arguing that people who read mainly from a computer screen are not critical. However, I think that a foundation for strong, well-informed views requires an intimate setting with another person’s views (mediated through a written text) that digital/electronic equipment cannot provide (in the long run).

    On a side note, I’ve been following this blog for the past year and hope to join soon. I’m afraid my living wages are still in the tank as an adjunct-history teacher here in Dallas.

  2. “Apologist” doesn’t seem like the correct appelation to describe the person who feel a kind of elation and schadenfreude for the “imminent” demise of the book. You are an apologist for the codex. Your “opponents,” on the other hand, appear to be more in the guise of prophets, missionaries, zealots, advocates, that sort of thing. They are not merely defending a position (and that is allo being an “apologist” means, to defend something); they are aggressively proselytizing.

    Nothing becomes obsolete as quickly as yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. And the champions of the digital humanities are certainly championing a vision of tomorrow. It’s always bad for historians, as you note, to get into the prediction business. So who knows what will happen. The digital humanities may just be another passing fad.

    But what are the digital humanities, anyway? They aren’t just the humanities in digital form. JSTOR is no one’s idea of digital humanities. There definitely seems to be a hope or expectation that they represent an epistemological and methodological shift in how the humanities are conceived, studied, and presented. Color me skeptical. For that kind of shift to happen, the results of digital humanities research would have to be presented in formats other than the usual. If you’re writing the typical journal articles and books using your statistical analyzes of those digitized archives and databases, what’s the big deal? So the cliometrics dog learned a new trick. Who cares?

    For the notion of “digital humanities” to be meaningful, it has to be more than the old wines in a new bottle. It has to be a new wine. New ways of doing old things are incredibly helpful. We all love things like JSTOR and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. They make our job a hell of a lot easier. But I’m dubious they make our job any different. Being a digital historian should mean that in some qualitative sense you’re a different kind of historian than a plain ol’ analog one. I like what the digital humanities have done for me, but I’m waiting to see that it’s anothing more than the latest trend that came along to change how historians do their job without changing their job a whit.

    I agree about your skepticism about electronic books and electronic readers, too. There is a fundamental difference between how we interact with printed pages and electrons on a screen. We work with them differently, too. I’d much rather have a pile of books and articles scattered about my desk than having six windows open on my computer screen. Analog works better in ways that digital can’t touch yet. I like the tactility, and that tactility is probably one of the biggest psychological and neurological differences between print and digital.

  3. So your argument about mediation is fine up to that point. The rest of it, though, betrays, to put it as kindly as I can, a naive, even Whiggish notion of the liberating power of print.

    There’s no necessary relationship between the the spread of print and democratization. Those are historically determined and contingent developments that took centuries to take the shape we now see. At the beginning print was like any new technology: cumbersome, unreliable, and limited to the hands of a few early adopters. Governments tried to monopolize print from the start, not entirely successfully. The rise of print was a great boon for Martin Luther. But what was great for him horrified a great many others, and official censorship regimes persisted for centuries.

    If you think about it, the press is a horrible engine for freedom of thought and expression because it was at first so large and cumbersome. And industrial print works still are. On the other hand, some guy with Twitter and Wi-Fi and the right software can get online from just about anywhere. How many people can have an actual press? How many people, thanks to modern technology, can be their own press?

    So it’s an exaggeration, a rather considerable one, to suggest that somehow the emergence of non-mechanical publishing technologies will lead to “de-democratizing knowledge.” You can only put those to ideas together because of two related but parallel and distinct historical developments that took a very long time to occur. There won’t be a new hieroglyphics if everyone has a Rosetta Stone. And this:

    “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?”

    As though none of this had been happening for the last five centuries since Guttenberg came along! Corporations have always been involved in the dissemination of knowledge, as publishers, as booksellers, etc. Governments have always been involved in trying to stamp out ideas they hated and promote ones they liked. Access to technology has always been controlled. In other words, everything you fear has always been there all along. And in overplaying the negative potential, you are making the exact same argument as the proselytes of digital technology, that print is fragile, imperiled, not long for the world, but from the opposite perspective.

    There’s always been mediation. That’s a given. But to me at least, there seem to be many more avenues to get around that mediation now than ever. Might new technology harm democracy? Possibly, though that harm may be overstated. Might new technology benefit democracy? Quite possibly, and those possibilities and benefits should not be forgotten. If more access to knowledge is good, more people have access now than ever. The print revolution goes on.

  4. @Anonymous,

    Thanks for the great comment. We seem to be on the same page, as it were — perhaps at the same institution? If you happen see me in the mailroom, feel free to say hello.

    If by “joining” you mean joining the blog — well, you just did. Wade in and have at it! If you mean joining the S-USIH, I’m not sure how the membership fees are structured. But I will find out.

  5. These two-word CAPTCHAs are an abomination. Ugh.

    Anyway, I think you’re making two distinct arguments which are only tangentially connected. There’s the argument about the nature of the digital humanities. Then there’s the argument about the possible deleterious effects of the technologization of knowledge. The first one stands well on its own. The second lacks the necessary historical perspective. Hopefully someone who knows this stuff will chime in. We need to get some book and print historians on this. I wonder if Elizabeth Eisenstein reads this blog.

  6. @Varad, you have made my day! Seriously. I have now been called a crappy writer and a Whiggish historian…on two different blog posts! Ladies and gentlemen, I have arrived.

    But for God’s sake, would somebody please point out one more deficiency in my contributions here — they are Legion. I would really like to pull off the hat trick before I hang up my blogging spurs for the night.

    In the meantime…

    Yes, you are absolutely correct that the printing press or print technology are not in themselves essentially liberating. But the reason that I invoked Ginzburg and Menocchio was to gesture towards the ways in which print technology can be (comparatively) easily subverted — how meanings not intended can be made, how epistemic doors that were not meant to be opened can be forced ajar by the (mis)use of a tangible material object, the book (or the broadside). A reader can become a creator and distributor of knowledge — no additional technology required.

    And yes, new technologies of publication inspire and sometimes enable new technologies of suppression and censorship, as Amazon.com’s Orwellian moment aptly illustrates. But when you can do your book-burning remotely, with a few keyboard strokes, rather than house by house — well, that’s extra creepy.

    My Whiggish and no doubt quaintly nostalgic defense for retaining the codex as a parallel means of distributing knowledge comes down to this: almost everyone has access to the technology required to read/misread/subvert a printed text. Literacy is not universal, but to engage with a printed text, literacy is all that is required.

    To engage with a digital text, much additional technology is required, and almost all of that technology remains beyond the control of the people who must use it to even have access to the text.

    Somewhere I have a copy of 1984. It is riddled with marginalia — my response to Orwell. Right now, I don’t need any technology to open that book to any page I wish. It is a physical act — no coding or decoding required. And if I wish, I can hand that paltry palimpsest over to another reader at any time, and Amazon.com will not be the wiser. They can’t insert themselves anywhere in that process of transmitting knowledge from one reader to another. My book is a material thing that I have the ability to open, to manipulate, to inscribe as I wish, and I can transfer that text to another person’s possession, and the reader who follows me can do the same.

    I do not wish to hand over that freedom, however limited it may be, to Amazon, or Google, or anyone else. And people who wax eloqutent about the superiority of digital access and digital texts seem to forget how easily and how abruptly that access can be revoked, how effortlessly those texts can be manipulated on a mass scale. Much harder to do with printed books.

    In some ways my (doubtless muddled) thinking on the importance of preserving the codex as a technology probably has to do with issues of class, but I have yet to sort that connection out. At this point, I just know that it’s there, and it’s an issue. I am concerned that replacing the book with the digital text is a way of closing a door that Gutenberg and Luther opened for Menocchio and all his kind — working-class people who somehow managed to stumble into knowledge that was never meant for them.

    I don’t know — I’m still sorting it out. That’s one of the reasons I blogged about it. So thanks for your comments, and keep them coming.

  7. LD,

    You and I are in concord re: the superiority of print for things like marginalia and being able to open a book to the right page right away. It can be easier to find things by thumbing through the pages than trying multiple variants of search terms because you can’t remember the exact wording of the phrase you’re looking for, but you know it was between page X and Y. By the way, did you see those NYT articles about how print books are killing footnotes and marginalia? I love marginalia. My books are covered in them. I’ll never give those up. And like you I love the tactility, the materiality of books. There’s something to having row on row and shelve on shelf of books, DVDs, CDs, that having them all in your pocket can never match.

    All that said, I do think you’re using an exceptional case, Menocchio, to argue for the democratizing potential of print. Mass literacy is a product of the industrial age, because only with industrialization was it possible to make enough books to reach everyone who was being educated by the new public school systems. Or something like that. Publishing was a great tool for the middle classes and the bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century and the nineteenth. But books were still expensive for the most part. That’s why Voltaire said it’s the book that costs a few ecus that would change minds, not the one that costs a few livres. (He made the remark about his Pocket Philosophical Dictionary versus the great Encyclopedie.)

    The democratizing potential of print that you’re describing is something that isn’t of recent vintage, per se, but it took a long time to get to the way it is now. Tim Blanning has a great discussion in his book The Culture of Power and the Power of Culure about the difference between intensive and extensive reading. In the days when people had only a handful of books (usually the Bible and other religious/devotional literature) they read those things until they new them by heart. Thus, intensive reading. But once more books were available, they read extensively, i.e., a lot of different books once or twice. But that was only in the eighteenth century, and again only for the educated middle classes. Print and knowledge have been trickling down for centuries. But if you leave Paris and other urban centers, you’ll find fewer books and more illiteracy.

    People probably underappreciate what a big deal paperbacks were when they were introduced in the 1930s. In that sense, Sir Allen Lane did more to bring print to the masses than just about anyone ever. Perhaps we need to clarify the difference between having access to something and actually having it. Menocchio didn’t have access to print (the means of production of it, anyway), but he did have print. But for a long time he was unusual. Very unusual. The potential access to print is infinitely larger now, but the universe of those who have print is infinitely larger even than that. And that’s all relatively new, say since the eighteenth century.

    “To engage with a digital text, much additional technology is required, and almost all of that technology remains beyond the control of the people who must use it to even have access to the text.”

    That’s absolutely true, but it was also absolutely true of print in the days before publishing and bookselling infrastructures. And again, few people have access to the technology itself. What matters is that they have access to its fruits. The orchards are much larger, with more people harvesting them, than ever. There are tradeoffs with digital textuality, as you point out. But there’s no reason they should go fallow from neglect merely because new orchards have been brought under cultivation.

  8. Anyway, I recommend you get ahold of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work. There’s a long version of her book and a short version. Her argument is that the transition from manuscript to printed books effected a profound transformation of European culture. Probably McLuhan is relevant here, too. I’m sure there are people drawing on them both to make sense of the rise of e-text.

  9. Varad, Tim Blanning’s argument is somewhat familiar to me via Cathy Davidson’s work on the history of the book in the Early Republic. She manages to problematize the intensive/extensive distinction in interesting ways. I will try to look at Eisenstein.

    I’m not making any aesthetic/sensory claims in this post about the pleasures of printed books, though those are real enough, and they are something we share in common with the anonymous commenter of earlier.

    What I’m claiming is that, once a printed book is in a reader’s hands, a reader has all the technology he needs to interact with that knowledge and/or pass it on to someone else. That is not the case with an eBook. The reader / user must continually renew the technological access required to read an eBook, whether that means recharging a battery or updating software or re-obtaining the permission of the eBook’s distributor to keep a copy on a proprietary eReader.

    The printed book is in the complete possession of its owner; the eBook remains in the possession of its distributor.

    Encoding knowledge in a format that is not legible to anyone with the basic ability to read, but only to those who have the extra “reading tools” — software, hardware, licensing permissions — necessary to open that text, is not what I would call progress.

    But I shouldn’t be looking for progress anyhow. My Whiggishness is showing!

  10. LD, the intensive/extensive distinction was formulated by someone called Rolf Engelsing. I know next to nothing about him beyond the citations in Blanning’s book. I heartily recommend it to you because it’s a great introduction to the cultural history of eighteenth-century Europe. It’s one of those “read this and you’ll get the gist of the main issues” books.

    “The printed book is in the complete possession of its owner; the eBook remains in the possession of its distributor.”

    Yeah, that’s a big issue, not only culturally but legally. It’s one of the main reasons people still embrace physical media; you can own it in ways you may not own a digital copy. But even physical copies of digital media are not “owned,” say the distributors, merely licensed. It’s a huge controversy which will have to be resolved one way or another. It was one of the underlying issues in the SOPA kerfuffle a few weeks ago. So I agree, that’s an important concern. That book is “mine.” But that aggregation of 0s and 1s perhaps isn’t, even though I paid for it.

    “What I’m claiming is that, once a printed book is in a reader’s hands, a reader has all the technology he needs to interact with that knowledge and/or pass it on to someone else. That is not the case with an eBook. The reader / user must continually renew the technological access required to read an eBook, whether that means recharging a battery or updating software or re-obtaining the permission of the eBook’s distributor to keep a copy on a proprietary eReader.”

    It took a while, but I think that’s the essence of your argument, and that part I can’t really cavil with.

    “But I shouldn’t be looking for progress anyhow. My Whiggishness is showing!”

    Believing in progress isn’t Whiggish. It’s how one things of progress that can be. I say that as a firm believer in progress. But is that because I believe in progress or because I believe that human minds are essentially programmed to view the world in progressive terms? That I can’t say.

  11. I want to point out that the driving impetus behind quite a bit of digital humanities work is just the concern about unavailability and central control that you’re describing here. DH is intensely, productively concerned with finding ways to keep gatekeepers from controlling access to texts. Many–most?–hate proprietary ebooks on principle. (Though they probably use them more, it’s true). Indeed, I think it’s a common grumble in DH that most historians too easily abandon open standards for prestige in publication. No one that I know celebrates the end of the book (the monograph, maybe); rather, they are actively engaged in trying to find ways to keep the freedoms we have in print culture while also being willing to criticize it where appropriate. Doing that means keeping clear the distinction between corporate DRM and open standards like those we usually use to read texts.

    You say in the post “the technology for producing or reading a written text remains simple, robust, and nearly universally accessible”; while this is an important point about reading, it couldn’t be farther from the truth about producing printed text. The books we read haven’t been produced using movable type for decades; the major difference between a webserver and a modern printing press is not technological complexity; it’s the access to capital required to get one. A single person can host a web site, but getting access to a printing press requires the intermediation of just the powerful forces you’re worried about.

    And that’s not even to make the most obvious point, which stems from the fact that screens are not actually digital. While concerns about preservation are huge for born-digital primary and secondary sources, when it comes to straight text, readers have an easy out. Most us, most of the time, do find monitors of some sort the easiest way to mediate interaction with digital texts. But there’s another (and older) way to bring digital texts into the human-readable world: the printer.

    I know that might sound snide, but it’s actually pretty germaine to digital humanities work. People like Bill Turkel are immensely interested in the possibilities of 3d printing; a lot of the discussion on the Digital Public Library of America list-serve in the last few months has been about print-on-demand stations that would let patrons in libraries buy or borrow-and-return otherwise inaccessible texts, in just a few minutes. They care about this because what’s most exciting about digitization is the idea is that it lets you do whatever you want with your sources. That might also mean algorithmic manipulation, or hypertext editions, or whatever; but everything that makes those things possible also makes it far easier and cheaper than before to print out a copy that will last centuries.

  12. Ben, I just now found your comment languishing in the blogger spam queue. Sorry about that. It’s up now. And thanks for your thoughtful post over at your own blog.

    As I said in my comment over there, my comments about the technology of print were not meant to suggest that printing presses were/are cheap/accessible. I should have done a better job of emphasizing the material relationship of the reader to the object. As you pointed out in your post there, all the labor required to produce a book is instantiated in the text. The technology is as well, such that the text comes with all the requisite tools required to access it built right on to the page.

    There is something regrettable, it seems to me, about giving people texts without tools, or tools without texts. The codex does an outstanding job of seamlessly joining the two, and placing both at the disposal of the reader. Until there is another technology that does this job as well, I think we would do well to maintain a prominent place in the digital age for the codex. Your discussion of print on demand points toward one possible future for the book as material object.

  13. Yes, I realized I misread that point on accessibility of technology in my comment here, and I tried to moderate it down a bit in the post on my blog. Feel free to delete that comment, and leave just a link to the post it turned into.

    I do want to emphasize again that computers allow not just print on demand, but printers in general; to keep up my little marxisant outburst, the difference between a stack of A4 paper and a codex is fetish-value to a far greater degree than use-value. It still lasts forever, you can still write on it, etc. It’s a bit clumsier, sure; but ensuring digital copies of everything has other benefits. (Searchability being probably the most notable).

    Also, just because I happened to stumble upon it right now and think it’s interesting, another random point. You can publish an ebook to a transitory screen or to a piece of paper, as I said earlier; but you can also ‘publish’ to Braille or through a microphone. That seems to me another fairly compelling reason that we should have all books electronically available; by turning readers into producers, they can create forms that work better for them.

  14. Interesting! I would count “a stack of A4 paper” as an unbound codex. Easier to leaf out and recombine if it’s not bound — though readers of earlier eras never let a little bookbinding get in the way of the idiosyncratic arrangement of previously unassociated texts. Either way, a stack of paper gives you a “page-turner,” which seems to be the basic technological revolution separating codices from scrolls, clay tablets, etc. “Portable property,” neatly (di)visible in pages.

    Publishing to Braille brings to mind “The Book of Eli,” and — oddly — the connection between ideas and embodiment that Ben explores in his post of yesterday.

    So I think I can buy in to the Digital Humanities as a way of expanding technologies for the material production of texts, but not as a way of permanently dematerializing them. This messy muddle of marxianism and idealism is my way of contending for the right of the humblest laborer to hold the wealth of ages in his calloused hands, make it his own by reading it, and add to that store by writing in the margins.

    Ugh. I’m afraid this is my day to wax elegiac about All Things Historical. I really need to get this purple prose out of my system.

  15. L.D.,
    I share many of your reservation about the conversion to digital humanities. For me it is about the preservation of scholarly work. I know the USIHS is considering using a digital publication format for any new publication that it would put out. I express some of my concerns about digital preservation in that debate (for example, web host stability would be a major issue).
    I’m posting a link that deals with the topic of digital curation:
    But another issue I see with the advent of digital humanities is the speed with which the subject changes. Just on this blog, in this response, how many people will read it, just a mere 4 days after the original post (kudos to everyone who does)? But there have already been four more post to the blog since yours. This is a sign of an active thriving community, but I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the reading and all the responses. I wonder if a slower pace would lead to longer discussions. It is not just this blog but the entire web that has this issue. Is the pace of digital humanities and the push to get something, anything really, published, in any format, affecting the quality of scholarship (is this possible evidence for the early discussion about the quality of academic historians)?

  16. Rhett,

    Thanks for weighing in.

    I can’t speak for my fellow bloggers, but in terms of my own contributions here, I think the speed/perceived ephemerality of the medium affects how and what I write.

    If this post were a section from my dissertation, you can bet it would be more carefully, thoroughly, and clearly argued — if not on the first draft, then certainly on the revisions. Saying to myself “it’s a blog” allows me some freedom to toss an idea or two around without giving in to the perfectionism or performance anxiety of having to “get it right” on the first go.

    The rapid-fire back-and-forth of the comments may not always be deep, but it does tend to be multi-directional, and that can be a helpful tonic against my seeing things in the particular way in which I am accustomed to view them.

    Of course, even though I say to myself, “It’s just a blog,” I know that The Internet Is Forever. Who knows what search string on Google will call this thread up when all of us have moved along to other discussions? And when I hit the job market — fall 2014? spring 2015? fall 2015? — every search committee is going to be able to google every half-formed or malformed harebrained idea I was brave or foolish enough to regale upon our readers here.

    This is another reason I would like to avoid flame wars — on the off chance that I haven’t already rendered myself utterly unemployable. I have yet to go full Garrison on anything. But the day is young…

  17. A belated coda to this conversation…

    I was having dinner with some colleagues last night, and one of my friends took this big, brand new, perfect-bound book out of his bag and plopped it down onto the table. It was a 400 page text published in the early 19th century. He had ordered it print-on-demand from Google books for $25.

    Now, I have printed out several Google books myself, including more than a few of 300 pp or more. Just think of all those loose sheets held together with massive clips or 3-hole punched and stashed in binders. And all that toner.

    Think of the convenience and the cost savings to me of ordering some of those books print-on-demand from Google. That’s a win.

    And think of the long-term profit opportunity for Google. They are scanning millions of volumes in partnership with great university libraries around the world, including several public institutions. All that intellectual / cultural capital, collected and curated through grants and gifts and fees and funds. They scan a book once — a laborious task, and one that requires some investment in technology. But the digital copy is theirs to sell.

    I can look at this as a win-win — they do a huge service to scholars everywhere by opening up the closed stacks of the great libraries, so it’s only fair that the company should be allowed to make a reasonable profit.


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