26 October 2009

Books, Redundancy: Getting Past our Future, and On With Our Present

Publishing is on the verge of becoming an interactivity involving the author, the publisher, and the reader.
//Frank Urbanowski

New technology is never enough. To bring it into common use and gain from it, society must change. The university presses have the know-how to gain from technological advances, but are waiting for scholars to incorporate the new technology into the way their research is presented to the reader.
// Colin Day

Any historian who has done long stints of research knows the frustration over his or her inability to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past. If only my reader could have a look inside this box, you say to yourself, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could follow that trail in my text just as I pursued it through the dossiers, when I felt free to take detours leading away from my main subject. If only I could show how themes crisscross outside my narrative and extend far beyond the boundaries of my book. Not that books should be exempt from the imperative of trimming a narrative down to a graceful shape. But instead of using an argument to close a case, they could open up new ways of making sense of the evidence, new possibilities of making available the raw material embedded in the story, a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.

I am not advocating the sheer accumulation of data, or arguing for links to databanks—so-called hyperlinks. These can amount to little more than an elaborate form of footnoting. Instead of bloating the electronic book, I think it possible to structure it in layers arranged like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but rather as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly of different kinds, each set off by interpretative essays. A fourth layer might be theoretical or historiographical, with selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion and a model syllabus. And a sixth layer could contain readers' reports, exchanges between the author and the editor, and letters from readers, who could provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different groups of readers.

A new book of this kind would elicit a new kind of reading. Some readers might be satisfied with a study of the upper narrative. Others might also want to read vertically, pursuing certain themes deeper and deeper into the supporting essays and documentation. Still others might navigate in unanticipated directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own.
//Robert Darnton

What do all these quotes have in common?

They were written in 1999, a full decade ago.

Not only are we still on the verge (the verge, the edge, pushed and pulled over the cliff -- perhaps floating, by now? have we taken off, or fallen?); not only are we still waiting for the scholars to use new technologies (there's something eerie in that quote -- waiting for the scholars to die out is what one thinks Day wished to say); not only can I think of no solid examples of Darnton's imagined multimedia "book" (or, for that matter, Vannevar Bush's Memex) . . . but our very rhetoric remains stuck in the same old mud of prediction and prophecy.

I'm frustrated. You can tell. Let me start again.

We've done a lot of looking forward, looking to the future -- the future of the humanities, the future of the digital humanities, the future of the future and its various futurologies. We've been doing this for a long time now. At least a decade, as these quotes attest. It's beginning to be redundant, as in redundāns, flowing back, overflowing, a word denoting both the structure of hyperstasis and the predictability of the everyday.

Or, redundant (adj.): having excess or duplicate parts that can continue to perform in the event of malfunction of some of the parts (of a device, circuit, computer system, etc.).

I've been researching digital scholarship (i.e. not research using digital tools, but original scholarship born digital) and am numbed by the flood of sameness. Page through any library sciences or publisher's journal and you find articles that could have been plucked right from 1999. Take, for instance,the October 2009 issue of Learned Publishing, the journal of Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers: "Making journals accessible to the visually impaired: the future is near"; "A decline to nothing? The tenuous existence of the small journal"; and the much more blunt, "We need publishing sets for data sets and data tables" (no trouble finding Toby Green's thesis!).

What decade are we in?

Am I being glib? Take another journal, the most recent issue of Library Hi Tech, in which the reader can bone up on "Archiving in the networked world: betting on the future"; or "Virtual research environments: Issues and opportunities for librarians"; or "On-demand virtual research environments and the changing roles of librarians." The future, its opportunities, its tenuous existence; our changing roles; it's enough to make one want to the goddamn roles to just change already, so we can get on shaping the opportunities of our future futures, which getting past the futurity (futureness?) of some futures seem ever further away.

I'm worried this ship won't sail. Am I being cranky?

My issue is not with these articles themselves; in fact, these authors are, on the whole, quite right. It is an inevitable and unavoidable fact that the future hasn't come, that opportunities for serious digital scholarship remain fleeting, and that the roles of libraries and digital humanities are and will continue to change. I'm cranky, rather, because I'm feeling the weight and burden of saying something new, something fresh, using words that have, after a decade, grown stale. More than feeling the burden personally, I'm frustrated at how disciplined the discipline has become already. While Johanna Drucker makes some seriously questionable statements about the state of digital humanities in her most recent book, Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, I share her fundamental desire to "le[t] go of the positivist underpinnings of the Anglo-analytic mode of epistemological inquiry," to spin off into something new, something fresh, playful, imaginative -- to do a kind of détournement of e-scholarship.

Darnton's imagined book (like so many other imagined books -- the books of Mallarmé, of Leibniz, of Llull) remains purely imaginative, a potential unfulfilled even by Darnton himself, who this very month released a good old-fashioned book on the future books, entitled (what else?) The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. When I saw him talk at MIT last year, Darnton indicated his next book would incorporate some kind of wiki or user talk-back component. This, had he implemented it, would still be a far cry from his structured pyramid scheme (others have done similar forms of digital publishing with some success -- see, for instance, Chris Kelty's Two Bits or Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks.) Nevertheless, it would be something. Surely Darnton isn't in fear of the tenure committee -- surely he, of all people, has the freedom to realize the book's new potentials. Infrastructural barriers wouldn't impede him. I wonder what happened.

I'm eager for experimentation. I'm eager to get past the future, and on with the present.


Brett Bobley said...

Very interesting post -- thank you. The pace of technology-driven change is an interesting topic in itself. Remarkable to think that the Web only went mainstream about 19 years ago. A lot has happened since then. I wonder if this rush of technology-driven change sometimes makes other changes appear to be slower than they really are?

It is interesting to see which habits change quickly (how you read newspapers) and which more slowly (how you read books).

Anonymous said...

Yes, less talking around digital texts and more work producing them. You've obviously done this with your MA Thesis (which is excellent, very Arcades Project).

There are technologically modest yet effective projects popping up like Paul Gehl's Humanism for Sale. Technology seems to be used here for very practical reasons (to reach the fairly small target audience interested in Renaissance publishing and school books in particular, and to publish many quality images without great expense, while also forging a community of students and scholars in the process.)

The imaginations of cultural producers are still bogged down by the expectations of print culture which I think still weighs heavily upon audiences in certain areas. This is especially true within the realms of literature, scholarly reading (and citing), and working with "primary" sources (virtual or otherwise). Perhaps we need generational changes to occur first, but I still wish I was seeing more projects to reflect on (yes, and ones that aren't ten years old, e.g. blakearchive.org, etc.)

Whitney said...

Brett! Hi! Thanks for the comment.

And John, thanks also for the comment; it's led me to your wonderful blog, now duly added to my reader. I worry most that the conversation has circumscribed certain potentials already -- that it is now all about collaboration, resources, building community. (All worthy things for digital humanists to do, but surely those aren't the *only* things that can or should count as "digital humanities.") Some of the limitations are implicitly being imposed by what and how the NEH funds.