Analog vs. Digital Ramblings

This week’s readings left me conflicted. I found myself going back and forth between the benefits and detriments of the analog vs. the digital. The idea of digital “Open Access” as introduced by Peter Suber and Kathleen Fitzpatrick lays the foundation for public scholarship and the need to create equitable distribution of knowledge. Academic writing can no longer solely rely on publishing and university presses. I started thinking of OA in many different contexts, particularly using the various definitions of the word open. 1) Scholars should be open to not only making their works publicly accessible, but also collaborating with these publics. 2) While libraries offer so many beneficial services, I can see how journals housed within their walls can be considered closed, not open to certain communities. 3) Work that is open can be spread out, shared, unfolded. 4) Those working within the humanities and sciences need to expand their thinking to engage with digital projects, archives, online exhibitions, etc.

Conversely, I can’t help but think of the printed page. Any bibliophile or antiquarian bookseller will be the first to exclaim that the written word and paper will outlive us all! Where would we be as a society without manuscripts, incunabula, and papyrus books? Of course, the irony that most people (excluding the elite and privileged) access these materials online is not lost on me. But, it’s clear that large-scale publishing is not sustainable for financial and environmental reasons. E-pubs and OA have made it easier for authors to create works (whether this is financially viable for authors who are not tenured is up for debate).

Moving back to the digital world, Alex Gil’s Ed project is appealing as an example of minimal computing. The tool removes many of the financial and copyright barriers to scholarship and is also accessible, legible and flexible – opening up the demographics of readership. I take issue with the idea of “plain text”. No text written on a computer is devoid of pretensions. Even the fonts on our computers or web fonts online have implications – who designed them, who licensed them, who owns them? But, I also think about all the people, companies, organizations and institutions who have benefited from database-driven websites, content management systems and their graphical user interfaces. It is the diversity of content and design on the internet that makes it interesting (and the source of many unproductive hours). It may be that all digital work is ephemeral and will one day no longer exist. This brings to mind the phrase “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. I’d rewrite it as “If a digital project no longer functions online, does the scholarship exist?”

Perhaps the idea of permanence is impossible to achieve for both analog and digital. As Johanna Drucker points out, I am probably focusing on the wrong argument. We should be questioning how humanistic knowledge itself is at risk, “If the humanities lose their cultural authority in the process of becoming digital, becoming managed quanta, or superficial entertainment, then what is the point?”

One thought on “Analog vs. Digital Ramblings

  1. Brianna Caszatt (she/her/hers)

    I really like you point about plain text. Both “plain” and “rich” seem to be doing a lot more qualifying of text than perhaps intended. It makes me curious to know more about how these naming conventions come about–and curious to know how they can change if they are identified as problematic (like the Association for Computers and the Humanities is trying to do in regards to racist terminology in technology: https://ach.org/toward-anti-racist-technical-terminology/).

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