The Difference Digital Makes

This is my own response to the current discussion being held by the Digital Humanities On-line Seminar:

> It strikes me that both the ongoing discussion about what difference digital makes and McCarty’s wonderment about Grafton and company really are two facets of the same jewel at which we all seem to keep staring, mistaking it, if I may continue the metaphor for just a moment more, for the light which it refracts. (I’m going to return to this Gothic moment later.)

> The point of reading, it seems to me, is to engage in better and more diverse kinds of dialogue. Wisdom does not flow from books, but from conversations between people. Perhaps this reveals my own deep indebtedness to philosophers like Karl Jaspers but such an idea is found in folk philosophies around the world. (E.g., the rural Irish concern for the man who keeps too much to himself.)

> Here, digital does make a difference, even if only that difference is, as other posters have noted, once of making things happen more readily. Still, the chance conversation between the scholar and the ordinary citizen is much more likely to happen in a place where both can be, if not simultaneously, at least in a deferred fashion. For this, I look no further than my own research with rice farmers and meta shop workers who regularly check my blog and my Flickr account to see what I’ve been up to and to wonder why I forgot to interview so-and-so. (I really should.)

> In turn, they submit to me, and to others, there own photographs and videos from their own archives, greatly expanding the historical record as they do so.

> I am fairly certain that many, many of us share this active difference that the digital makes possible — and by active difference I mean an orientation by action. Some of this is born out by the analysis that I am currently doing looking at the narratives collected by Project Bamboo from a variety of scholars sprinkled across the nation. So far, the common themes are really things people want to be able to do: access, search, digitize, manage, collaborate, preserve, compute. (It’s interesting that compute really amounts to the smallest percentage of actions people wish to perform.) They want all these actions to be pervaded by two properties: annotated (metadata) and authentic (authorized).

> What’s interesting about these actions is that under “collaborate” a number of the narratives/scenarios are really about opening up the scholarly convention not only to students but also to just regular people, who have their own ideas and practices. (And, to answer from a folklorist’s perspective an earlier conversation about is a prototype a theory? Yes, from my own experience as a field researcher, most folks do not have theories about why they do what they do. They don’t need to. It’s embedded in the doing. It can be drawn out to some degree, but not directly.)

> So I don’t mind if the book dematerializes. Let it go. The codex is a particular manifestation of a much longer-lived idea: that marks in the physical can lead to conversations that lead to ideas. (And, yes, this probably resembles Heideegger’s sense of “aletheia,” but I did warn you with a reference to Jaspers up front where this note was headed.)

> All of this reminds me of the construction binge our good Abbott Suger kicked off and put a whole lot of masons to work, all of whom had competing senses of what the right proportions were. The legacy of the ideas they carried in their head can be glimpsed in the architectural mess that is Chartres, among other cathedrals. The advantage we now enjoy is that many of those same workers carry smartphones and regularly check e-mail and our blog pages, if we but invite them.

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