One of the most interesting presentations I saw at the Digitorium conference was the plenary by Dr. David Lee Miller: “The Shapes of Text to Come: Textual Editing and Scholarly Publishing in the Age of Open Access.” The most interesting part of his talk, for me, was about the Spenser Archive and digital edition he was working on. He showed us how the digital edition of the Faerie Queen will work. Readers will be able to choose the views they want, seeing the text in modern or original spellings, making glosses and notes appear and disappear at will, and viewing the changes that editors have made to their copy text with one click. This is not all the digital text will do, but it was enough to sell me on the idea of a digital edition. I’m always a little bit skeptical about reading a long text onscreen. I seem to concentrate better and absorb more when I read in print, and I think many of us have had this experience. The digital scholarly edition, however, seems to have so many capabilities that the print one doesn’t. I’ve been reading Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays recently, and I find all the notes and glosses and symbols and alterations in the text so complicated and confusing (especially for King Lear) that it’s hard to concentrate on the text itself. I sometimes get distracted by notes that I don’t need or run into abbreviations or symbols that take me out of the reading or have to flip back to the introduction to reread a passage about the editing choices. The kind of digital edition Dr. Miller showed us could fix those problems. In fact, the features of his digital edition seemed so convenient that I can no longer consider reading a print edition more effective, for my own purposes, than an online one. I’m excited by these developments in the field of textual editing, and I hope that these kinds of digital editions will catch on sooner rather than later.
I think the readings for this week on linked data were a good way to end the class. Now that we know about some of the DH resources out there, and how those resources can make information more readily available, we’re learning about how all this information can be linked and connected. The creation of the “global data space” (1) that Bizer, Heath, and Berners-Lee are talking about is something I’ve never really thought about before. This project is so massive and involved that I’m not even sure you can really call it a project. The ultimate goal, according to the authors, is “being able to use the Web like a single global database” (17). It requires world-wide cooperation and overcoming the various research challenges that the authors outline. They state that “If the research challenges highlighted above can be adequately addressed, we expect that Linked Data will enable a significant evolutionary step in leading the Web to its full potential” (20). This seems to me like a very big “if.” They detail seven different challenges, all of which seem if not insurmountable, at least very difficult to accomplish. Maintaining the quality of this kind of global database, or even maintaining the database itself, seems particularly problematic. I also wonder about the scale of this project in terms of time. Are there specific goals, or rather, do the authors have specific expectations for what will be happening in five, ten, twenty, or fifty years? Perhaps I shouldn’t even think in terms of “project,” but rather in terms of progress toward an ideal that may never actually be achievable.
“If print culture foregrounds answers and pushes questions into the background, then perhaps data culture may do the opposite: it privileges queries and treats answers as if they are ephemeral.” In the slides we read for today, this was marked as an “interesting idea,” and I think it is interesting, not only for discussions about databases versus documents, but for the humanities as a whole. I ran into this idea recently in a different context while reading for the Shakespeare Performance class that many of us are in. We were assigned a 2008 essay called “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads” by Thomas Leitch, which reviewed the most recent scholarly work focusing on the adaptation and appropriation of literary texts. One of Leitch’s criticisms of undergraduate textbooks on the subject is that “they are limited not because they give incorrect answers to the questions they pose, but because those questions themselves are so limited in their general implications” (68). Leitch further asserts that sometimes “the question is more valuable than any answer” (75) and endorses textbooks that raise productive questions about adaptation studies even, or especially, when those questions are unanswerable.
It’s interesting that Leitch would raise some of the same issues as the DHSI slides, as he is largely dealing with the same kind of shift from print (books) to digital (movies). I think the privileging of questions rather than answers that Leitch and the DHSI lecture bring up is a productive approach to the humanities, and one that is sometimes itself underprivileged. Asking the right kinds of questions is always more important and more productive than definitively answering the wrong ones. And our answers to these questions often change over time anyway. In light of these observations, I’m not going to attempt a conclusion to this post; instead, here are some questions that might prove productive: How can or will databases change our modes of research? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these changes? How can we use quantitative data provided by databases within the framework of disciplines that focus on the “human,” or at least on things that we believe to be largely unquantifiable?
I have a lot of sympathy with Carr’s ideas in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Even as young as I am (22), I have seen my attention span shorten every year since the beginning of my teenage years. At the age of 15, I could read for nearly three uninterrupted hours. Now, even when I read for pleasure, I have to take a break at least every hour; the time is even less when I find a piece of writing less than riveting. The culprit? Probably my iPhone. Every five-minute wait, every ten-minute break, every short walk to class is occupied with checking email, skimming Facebook, listening to music, or being entertained by my phone in some way. As a result, both my attention span and my powers of concentration have diminished.
This is, without question, an infinite loss, but also probably an inevitable one. Should I give up the internet and my smartphone so that I can keep my ability to concentrate deeply for longer periods of time? Maybe. Am I going to? No. Is anyone going to? No. At this point, it would be more than impractical. But it’s also somewhat impractical to bemoan this loss (too much). Yes, the technological advances of the 21st century do involve some loss, maybe even great loss. But, as Carr points out, so did the spread of writing and the advent of the printing press. Though we can’t predict our own intellectual futures in the face of the vast network of information now available to us, I think we can be fairly confident that it’s at least not the end of human thought and development.
I do share Carr’s legitimate concerns about our diminishing ability to think deeply about all the information that we have access to. But I imagine that those who seek intellectual stimulation and growth will be able to find it through nearly any medium and those who don’t wouldn’t have found it anyway. At least, I hope that those of us who value deep thinking will not lose that ability, easily distracted though we may be.
Johanna Drucker’s article speaks to many of the concerns we had last week about the Digital Humanities Manifestos. Drucker’s apprehensions about the focuses of scholarly publishing are particularly relevant to our discussion: “The inventory of current solutions includes all kinds of work that really have little to do with scholarship, but instead crowdsource, crowd-please, entertain, blur the lines, and prep material for consumption. What matters most in scholarly publishing is scholarship.” But can’t we make scholarship entertaining and inclusive without sacrificing its quality? The focus of all academic writing should, of course, be producing good scholarship, which, as Drucker is right to point out, has no substitute. Hopefully, DH can provide us with opportunities both to enhance our scholarship and to make that scholarship appealing, potentially even to those outside the academy. I think we’ll find during the course of the semester that many DH projects are already doing this.
The far more relevant concern in Drucker’s article is, “If the humanities lose their cultural authority in the process of becoming digital, becoming managed quanta…then what is the point?” Drucker is right in saying that “we can’t rely on a purely technological salvation” to relay the value of the humanities to those who would seek to cut their programs and to a culture that devalues the arts and humanities in general. Demonstrating the relevance of the humanities requires more than touting their technological advances, because that’s not what the humanities are about. Certainly, DH can and should help us demonstrate the value of humanities and a humanities education, but that value lies not in DH itself, but in the humanities’ status as “the lifeblood of culture, its resounding connection to all that is human.” As far as DH aids that purpose, it is good and useful; when it obscures the humanities themselves, it becomes the fog of pixel dust that Drucker warns against.
Drucker is right. We should be worried about our own illusions in scholarly publishing. But I think we can also celebrate the things that simultaneously innovate and produce good scholarship. As long as we can recognize the difference.
I noticed that several of us have commented on the Digital Humanities Manifestos. While I found them both useful and engaging, I think they really only presented one side of the picture in the scholarly debate about DH. There are a lot of scholars who seem to have a problem with DH, and though I personally don’t agree, I think some of their concerns are valid. On this score, I found the Porsdam article to be very balanced and insightful. I agree with Fitzpatrick and Porsdam that “If humanities scholars do nothing, our disciplines will simply cease to be relevant…Unless we delve into mainstream digital culture, our voices will disappear under the flow of information constantly available online.” Admittedly, movement into the digital realm, like all technological advances, is not without its costs. Porsdam quotes Neil Postman on this point: “The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life.” While each of these technological innovations has come at a cost, I think many would argue that their benefits outweigh their costs—or at least balance their costs. In any case, as these examples would illustrate, trying to fight technological advances is like trying to stop an avalanche with a snow shovel. And ignoring the opportunities afforded by them is not only bullheaded but actually counter-productive. It is simply impractical to resist the inevitable rise of the digital, when time could be so much better spent in exploring the possibilities offered by it.
But, as Porsdam points out, I do think we have to be careful about our use of DH so that we don’t lose whatever it is that makes the humanities relevant—or rather, valuable—in the first place. This will require a lot of reflection not only on what the humanities actually are at their core but also on how digital means can be used to achieve the humanities’ ends. While DH is not “just a tool,” as Presner and Schnapp point out, I think it should always be used in service to the humanities, not merely in service to the digital. In other words, just because something is digital or connected to DH doesn’t make it inherently valuable. The goals of the humanities certainly can and have changed with the times, but I think it’s important to keep the uniqueness and ultimate ends of humanities disciplines in mind. We study culture, what it means to be human, and that study cannot be reduced to data points—though it can be aided by them.
(As a side-note, this William Powers quotation that Porsdam uses in her article seems to sum up the life of a graduate student pretty succinctly: “When you start wondering about your own busyness, pretty soon you’re pondering much deeper questions such as, Is this the kind of life I really want? From there it’s just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? And Who am I?” Anyone else feel this way?)