In Defense of Digital Moderation

Technology is ever-increasing the ways in which we can view and research cultural artifacts, but is this a good thing? Before the widespread proliferation of the printing word, scholars could study near everything with relative ease. Books were expensive, and there wasn’t many of them. However, after book production exploded, it was far easier for scholars to focus their study towards a highly curated pool of ‘acceptable’ materials. It was hard, perhaps even impossible, to study everything, so, instead, expert filters were established in order to cull what was worthy from that which was not, but these filters were little more than a stopgap. As is now incredibly evident, filters are quickly failing. There’s too much interesting of everything to study, and without filters, we’re forced to study everything so we can filter everything ourselves. As technology has advanced, so have tools which enable a more distant, mass reading of material, but, as mentioned before, is this a good thing?

There is definitely merit in distant reading, don’t get me wrong. I think new techniques broaden perspectives and bring usually-needed variation to the echo-chambers of academic disciplines. In fact, I’d encourage anything which incites such broadening. I do, however, have a fear. We’re swimming in a sea of studiable material, and not only is it daunting, it also is stressful. Academics and scholars are those who should know things others do not, and there is pressure, be it professionally, socially, or psychologically, to know one’s devoted field of study completely. Often times one’s career hinges on the fact that one knows more, or at least as much as, everyone else in that field, and as the surfeit of useful material quickly rises, so lessens the ability of scholars to maintain their study.

It’s unsurprising that digital tools and techniques have been developed to aid in this task. If I can’t read all the books, maybe a computer can help paraphrase, and, to a limited extent, this has worked. With the mass digitization efforts such as those of Google, and a litany of others that I’m most assuredly unaware of, the problem is solved, right? Computers have saved us. The sea has been dammed. Paradigms have shifted, and this novel new world, as shiny as it might seem, makes me iffy.

Helpful as digital technologies are, there’s real risk that, if over relied upon, they’ll  encourage people to minimize close reading, as those of the past were forced to do. As already stated, the broadening of perspectives resultant from a multitude of methodologies is the true value in developing new forms of learning, seeing, and researching, but what’s the point if we simply trade one form for another? Every form has inadequacies, and it behooves us to not only utilize, but also encourage, nurture, and support all methodologies in order to best understand our world, ourselves, and our past. Developments in scholarship need to eliminate inadequacies, not supplant one for another.

Personally, I think digital tools need to be used with some conscious mediation. Just because the wheel was developed millennia ago doesn’t mean people stopped, or valued, walking. In the same way, scholars needs to value both new and old forms of scholarship. Both have their place, and both should be practiced well into the future.

Re: Book Shaped Thought

“At last thought has a medium that helps it past the limitations of physical books that brought us to think of long-form thought as the highest and most natural shape knowledge could assume.” (pp.96)

I am not an expert on authorship, readership, or book history, nor have I sufficiently read or am familiar with David Weinberg’s writing to understand the complexities of his views. I’m sure he has forgotten more about the above fields than I’ll ever know. However, at least from my cursory reading, the above passage seems blanketing, inappropriately worded, or possibly wrong.

I should articulate that it appears I’m somewhat more conservative than Weinberger, at least after my limited, vicarious exposure to him through Too Big to Know. Even still, I agree with him on nearly all points. Networking, and most significantly the Internet, has changed the way in which have to think of and make use of knowledge. Times are changing, and I consider it for the better.

That being stated, it’s hard to completely agree with the above-quoted passage. I surrender the fact that the printed form is somewhat limited transferring knowledge and long-form thought has disadvantages, but I’d argue that digital mediums do not supplant the physical book. They simply avow new perspectives, and these perspectives, while novel, are no more important than others.

I wouldn’t argue that the spirit of the passage is in agreement with his central discussion, that networked knowledge allows consumers partake of it in personal, natural, and dynamic ways, but the above passage, at least to me, seems to ignore the benefits of long-form thought in authorship and scholarship.

Weinberger addresses the benefits of book authorship on page 103, but I think he ignores the point of my contention. While true the exacting path of the printed form is inflexible, it clarifies and codifies a writer’s thoughts. More than a product of expertise, the printed, long-form is an authorial tool. It solidifies position. Books may be the ideal environment for such modalities of thought, I’d hardly say they limit others.