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.