One Digital Difference

Recently in the [Digital Humanities On-line Seminar][dh], there arose the question of what difference does being digital make? Or, rather, does it many any real difference apart from speeding things up? That is, has the digital only sped up otherwise conventional work?

I have two responses to such a question. The first is the observation that at least one dimension of this question suggests that speeding things up or making more convenient certain facets of work are trivial. I make no claim that any work getting done within a quickened digital regime is any better than work done by hand — one imagines the shuffling of note cards versus a quick search through a database, but the quality of the work is always in what was written on the cards, what was entered in the database. The absurdity of such claims is revealed in the fact that books and the printing press achieved the same, if not greater, speed of dissemination — and probably of composition later — than the previous tradition of copied manuscripts. So it’s not worth bothering about.

The other observation is that such speeding up or making more convenient is not enough, that unless computing radically transforms humanistic study, it has not lived up to its promise nor potential. My response to this dimension of the complaint is that such *tipping points* are rarely perceived during their own time but are usually discerned later. The tipping points are, in fact, sometimes a matter for historical argument.

That’s all fine and good. Let history decide and all that. In the mean time, I *can* report on one digital difference I have enjoyed in the lat few weeks.

I am finishing up work on my analysis of the scholarly narratives collected by Project Bamboo. In the end, I focused on forty or so texts that I first simply collected as text documents stuffed in a directory. I also had a list of the texts I had chosen in a table in a Word file. The two really needed to get together, and so, since my SQL-foo is still incredibly weak, and I didn’t feel like running `sed` or `awk` through my collection of texts, I decided to download and install [Filemaker Pro][fmp] — for the record that’s a link to the page and I would be indebted to anyone who wanted to buy a copy for me: UL is broke and I am on my own fronting the cost. Filemaker is a cross-platform database app that can also act a as a GUI front-end to MySQL databases, and so I am hoping it will help me make the transition.

I had already read and to some degree categorized all the texts I put into my Filemaker database, and I had already learned a fair amount about them using IBM’s [Many Eyes][me] — that link takes directly to the corpus I uploaded there and some of the visualizations I set up. With the FM database I was able to automate a few simple tasks, like determining the size of each text by counting its words. But where I was really able to fly was being able to do searches either on tags or on the texts themselves looking for particular words or usages. Almost instantly, I could pull up the 7 seven texts that mentioned X or the 12 that used the term Y.

All of this would have been perfectly do-able if all these texts existed only on paper, but the work would have gone much more slowly and I would probably have taken far fewer chances. (It may also be true that the slower work may have allowed for more digestion. I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s worth arguing.) What I liked was the ability to “play a hunch.” For me at least, sometimes scholarship is really about discerning patterns. The problem is at what level of cognition the patterns get distinguished. Quite often, for me at least, I know I sense a pattern but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I may even flounder around, scanning texts or flipping through pages hoping something will “catch my eye” or “jog my memory” or put the thought on the “tip of my tongue.”

One difference “the digital” makes in my own scholarship is being able to pursue a lead as soon as it pops into my mind. That may only amount to speed or convenience, but that’s a significant enough difference for me. Please don’t take my bionic memory, and recall, away from me.


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