In 2007, Digital Humanities scholar Peter Robinson wrote a paper titled, “Electronic Editions for Everyone,” in which he explored the current state of digital or electronic scholarly editions. Though the primary focus of his paper is concerned with scholarly texts, Robinson spends the first section outlining why he believes books have defied the digital revolution, in contrast to film and music. According to Robinson, electronic books (e-books) cannot offer either a better distribution medium to printed books, nor a better performance medium. As a result, print books continue to flourish because e-books do not offer anything worthwhile in exchange.
While reading Robinson’s article through the lens of my 2014 perspective, I couldn’t help but disagree with nearly all of his introductory arguments about e-books and printed books. These arguments might have been valid at the time Robinson wrote the paper, but seven years later, I believe they don’t hold up well at all. While e-books and e-readers haven’t replaced print books (or print book sales), the rapid rise of products like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook have made e-books far more commonplace in 2014 than they were in 2007. U.S. e-book sales in 2013 alone accounted for $3 billion. Furthermore, e-readers offer benefits a print book can’t, including the ability to carry an entire library around in one (relatively) small device. *
Of course, it is not Robinson’s fault that his arguments from 2007 look very different in 2014; after all, how could anyone have possibly predicted the incredible rate of technological advancement within the last few years? It does, however, raise some interesting questions about the future of Digital Humanities: for a field so intertwined with technology, how might the continuing advances of technological tools and methods affect the sustainability of DH scholarship?
That technology will continue to change, develop and move forward seems inevitable. Tech companies thrive on pushing the limits and the finding the next big thing. At some point, Web 2.0 will likely give way to Web 3.0 (or 2.5 or some other term indicating advancement). Whatever that may look like, it also seems inevitable that the next generation of tech and web tools will make our current digital environment seem obsolete. So what, then, happens to Digital Humanities projects and scholarship developed during Web 2.0? Will we be able to access the information? Will the data even be useful anymore, if the technologies used in its creation are no longer valid?
I don’t necessarily have any answers right now. I don’t believe we can stop technology from changing (nor, I think, would we want to). Still, Robinson’s paper – and my reaction to it seven years later – seem to illustrate this uncomfortable uncertainty within Digital Humanities. If we can’t know or predict the future, how are we to ensure our scholarship in the present day (particularly, or at least, scholarship involving and aided by technology) isn’t rendered archaic in the future? Or do we simply accept the possibility of obsolescence?
In my first blog post on this blog, I talked about the difficulty in defining Digital Humanities, in part because it’s a field that is in constant motion, always evolving – something largely due to DH’s relationship with technology. In my opinion, this fluid notion of Digital Humanities is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it keeps pushing Digital Humanities projects and scholarships forward, testing the limits of the field and its tools. On the other hand, it mean very well mean that what we do today will be irrelevant in two, five or 10 years time. Perhaps that’s the risk we take as digital humanists. The one thing I do know is that it’s important to keep asking these questions, to keep refining and re-shaping our ideas of Digital Humanities. Since we can’t move backwards, we might as well keep moving forward – whatever the future brings.
(Post Script: my classmate, Josh Savage, wrote a blog post about the durability of data, in which he grapples with similar themes and questions.)
* Note: In 2010, Robinson’s paper was published as a chapter in Text and Genre in Reconstruction, edited by Willard McCarthy. In an updated appendix, Robinson does mention the introduction of the Kindle, but (in my opinion) rather casually dismisses its potential to upset his arguments.