And then there are these wicked tongues whose fashion
Is to speak harm; and men are so untrue;
Immediately they cease to feel their passion,
They cease to love; they’re off to love anew;
But harm that’s done is done, that’s certain too:
Those are the very ones that passion rends;
But violent delights have violent ends.
Two things I have read today which have piqued my interest. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts with you on them.
The first is this article I’ve discovered on the Guardian website entitled “Digital Domesday Book Lasts 15 not 1000 years”, written in 2002. In it, they discuss the dire state of the Domesday Project, an ambitious enterprise embarked upon by the BBC and published on “interactive videodisc” in which the “Domesday philosophy” was used to take a look at modern Britain – Britain as it was in 1986. The project was ambitious in scope and provided a wealth of information on that particular point in history (900 years after the original Domesday Book).
“It was meant to be a showcase for Britain’s electronic prowess – a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book.”, intoned the Guardian’s erstwhile journo, “But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable”
The problem is that technology superceded our best intentions. As the Domesday Project’s own website says, “It was impracticable to consider using CD-ROM alone, because it had, and still has, a limited capacity for pictures and, in any case, we are talking about a time before High Sierra (the original CD-ROM filing system), let alone ISO 9660 and JPEG”, and so they relied upon a combination of video disc and floppy disc. In 2002, we were approaching a point where the thousands upon thousands of words and images captured by the people of Britain in 1986 were on the verge of becoming lost to us – something which, the journalist wryly commented, was not a danger with the original Domesday Book, which some 900 years on was still as hale and hearty as it ever was.
From my brief reading today it appears that the digital Domesday Book was eventually lost to the general public, and can be seen as a “salutary lesson in technology creep”. There are elements of this to be seen in the story of the digital Hengwrt Chaucer. Whilst we are not at a stage where the information obtained from the original manuscript will be lost to us we are well advanced in our own case of “technolog[ical] creep”. I can’t remember the last time I accessed a CD-ROM. In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever used one was when someone gave me a copy of Encarta, which I used on my Commodore 64 (I feel as old as Methuselah – I suppose in technological terms I might as well be).
We have to consider what happens when we digitise these items, what happens once the project comes to an end; we need to keep looking with fresh eyes, ensuring that they aren’t lost to us. And I suppose this also ties in with availability, and who’s using the item; the more popular they are, the better maintained they’ll (hopefully) be. In the case of the Domesday Project the BBC disbanded the original team (which is a polite way of saying they were made redundant) in the early 90’s, and the project appears to have slipped thereafter into a terminal decline.
The second article I read today was on a speech given by Chris Poole, the founder of “hacker website” 4Chan, in which he addressed our concerns about online identity. He said that essentially we’re getting it wrong. “Google and Facebook would have you believe identity is like a mirror” he said, when in actual fact we are multi-faceted, like diamonds, and our online identities should reflect that. Twitter, he says, is getting it halfway right, by allowing us to choose a user name, and to not make anonymity something sinister. We need a “more flexible view of identity”.
I’ve always, quite unconsciously, adhered to the Facebook concept of identity – everything I put online should reflect me, under my name, for good or for ill. However, as I’ve grown older and my professional status has changed, it has become ever more apparent that there is not simply one reflection of me; I am several people, and I need several online identities to reflect that. And not all of them should necessarily be identifiable as me. Why should they, after all?
I was very resistant to the idea at first, however, because it felt like a falsehood. To even imply that there are aspects of my personality that are not fit for general consumption makes me sound slightly sinister, like Mr Hyde or Margaret Thatcher. However, I now have a clear delineation between my private and the professional personas, which I think is fair and healthy – something that Chris Poole would allow us, and Mr Zuckerberg would not. I am a multi-faceted diamond – or at least, that’s what my Mum always tells me.
After a lovely little email in which she described herself to me so that I would be able to identify her when we met (she was extremely modest) I had a very interesting meeting with Dr Susan Davies on Friday. We discussed the project generally and more pertinently, what I think my role is within it and what my own personal interests are. We met over a cup of tea and ended up talking for two hours in the wonderfully salubrious confines of the Arts Centre. Afterwards I felt really enthused, so much so that I immediately adjourned to the Arts Centre shop and bought myself a new handbag.
Dr Davies, I think it’s fair to say, is something of a polymath. She not only has extensive teaching experience at postgraduate level in palaeography, manuscript interpretation and archive studies, but has been Vice-President of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales and a member of the Advisory Council on National Records & Archives. She’s also been published many times, amongst many other glowing achievements. She is, it is fair to say, not only one of the most intimidating people I have ever met in terms of her academic prowess, but also one of the nicest.
We launched straight into a wonderfully broad-ranging discussion in which she listed some of her own achievements and how they could be useful in assisting my research on the project, but was generous in paying deference to my own experiences (such as they are) in the world of work and as an FE lecturer in South Wales. We discussed the digital humanities generally, and a range of projects that she was aware of (a few of which I was also aware of, so that was quite positive) and ultimately we talked about how access could be seen to be linked to social agenda.
I also mentioned an article that I’d read in the THE about “The Historical Present”, and how one commentator had referred to the “industrialisation of intellectual endeavour”, and it seemed to me on reading it (as indeed it does often as a newcomer to the world of digital humanities) that there is perhaps still a troubling divide between those who consider the digitisation of artifacts as a good thing, and those who believe that there is no better thing than having your hands on the original manuscript. I wondered whether this concept of the “industrialisation of intellectual endeavour” had something to do with those feelings.
We parted discussing shoes and the relative benefits of different brands of shoe (a subject I am extremely interested in since my ankle injury in January) but more particularly, I left with a feeling that I am on the right track. Everyone needs a good guide when embarking on a long and potentially perilous journey, and I feel that I have several rather excellent ones.
I’ve spent the last two week acclimatising to my new role. This has meant walking tentatively into rooms filled with strange faces and asking: “Is this the Research Skills class?” (and fifty heads nodding back at you with expressions of sympathy and understanding) and getting my library card sorted and lots of books out (I learned the lessons of my academic past by downloading something pretty from Facebook as my library card picture, which has enabled me to (a) actually look identifiably like me on the card and (b) not to look like the villain Lo Pan from Big Trouble In Little China).
Of course, the major hurdle I’m having to get over is identifying what the digital humanities actually are – which might sound fairly obvious but is not actually something you can pin down very easily. Thankfully Melissa Terras’ excellent blog has been an amazing resource and I’ve been reading some very clearly written stuff from Schreibman, et al and Patrik Svensson.
What I’m finding increasingly wonderful is just how much of the writing on this topic is open source; I’ve only had to access Shibboleth a handful of times since I started my research two weeks ago, thus fulfilling one of the basic tenets of the digital humanities, that everything is easily accessible to everyone and not to just academics. Coming from an undergraduate degree of over a decade ago when the only use I ever seemed to put my PC to was a perfunctory game of Patience and to email rubbish to my friends (the days of Lolcats being but a distant, glorious moment in a yet unimagined future), it’s wonderful and also a little bit frightening as to how reliant I now am on my laptop for my academic needs.
I’ve now got two rather smug-looking pages of bibliography and a thousand words of prose down on paper (I should say screen) just for a starter, and I’m shutting down Word feeling quite content. Admittedly I wasn’t feeling quite so magnanimous at half 10 this morning, when the laptop decided to turn itself off right in the middle of my eloquent ramblings (I felt almost viscerally the sensation Coleridge must have had when the Person from Porlock knocked on his door). I’m off this evening for tea and cake; not quite feeding on honey-dew and drinking the milk of Paradise, but probably as near as I’m like to get tonight.