First of all, many thanks to Alice for the free press. Her recent entry is the first (and possibly last) demonstration of the relevance of what I'm working on to someone who is neither me nor has been dead for more than two centuries. Generally speaking I prefer a late audience, as I, like so many others, am in the habit of taking by one's silence that he or she agrees; but, as the living go, she is absolutely aces.

Secondly, why have I titled this entry after an Australian rock band that will this very summer be celebrating its twentieth anniversary? For a number of reasons:
  1. I am following Alice's use of the word "excess" in her title
  2. The band has shown durability beyond both my hopes and expectations and done so in the cyclical fashion enjoyed by many the canonical text
  3. The name of said band gets at one of my hobbyhorses--it eliminates "excess" information: that is, a space between words, two "e's", a "c", and an "s".
  4. I am hopelessly ridiculous.
In reading Alice's post and learning of Gordon Bell's digitally archiving what anyone but the most dedicated voyeur, narcissist, or future anthropologist would likely discard as the excruciating minutiae of a life that had better turn out to be remarkable for more than having digitally archived what anyone but the most dedicated voyeur, narcissist, or future anthropologist...

I'll start again.

It's interesting that Bell is recording everything in a digital archive, as digital technology is precisely that upon which all the archivists whose works I've read suggest an archivist should not rely. It is not, to deploy what I have recently discovered is not "my" buzzword, durable. If you want a durable medium, you're still far better off with analogs--stone, metal, quality paper, etc. If you have anything that's important to you on a 5 1/4 floppy, you know what I'm talking about. I haven't read the Bell (and I don't mean to disparage his character at all; I agree with Alice that he's up to something terribly interesting), so I'm sure he's aware of this.

It does bring up an interesting part of the technology tradeoff, which until I'm better educated I'm going to think about in spatial and temporal terms. Scanning, photodocumenting, etc. -- anything that eliminates the middlemen of analog conservation processes -- enables closer-to-comprehensive documentation by saving both time and space. Space is the easy part. The problem with analog storage is of course that it takes up so much damn real estate. Bell can only do what he's doing because he doesn't have to buy a small moon on which to keep everything he wishes to preserve. As Gabriel Naudé lamented in the seventeenth century, comprehensive knowledge is impossible with respect to space because comprehensive data storage and therefore retrieval are impossible. Or, as comedian Steven Wright put it, "you can't have everything. Where would you put it?" The selection process of survival and canonicity, a librarian will tell you, or might have formerly told you, is driven as much by space as anything else. One wonders to what extent matters of taste came to prominence precisely because proliferation put space at a premium and demanded more stringent and nigh-on metaphysical standards of valuation. "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" is nothing if not quantity reduced to quality. The best expression can stand in for (take the space of) the countless iterations of something clogging up everyone's brains and bookshelves. (The entry on "memory," included in the treatise on metaphysics in the first edition Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-1771) and culled -- in another space-saving gesture -- from John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding uses spatial metaphors such as "storehouse" and "repository" to describe the memory. We're hardly out of the habit.) Now, of course, all we have to do is define "best." Plenty of people around willing to do that.

So, the gizmodification of the world buys us space. The library without walls envisioned by frustrated Enlightenment types can finally exist; total storage and total retrieval are theoretically possible; we can put everything everywhere (of course, this doesn't mean that we can just get rid of the analog "originals." Book historians now weep over the countless manuscripts cast aside when their contents were brought out in print, and as this article suggests, space remains a huge problem. Also interesting and having to do with space, storage, and digital technology is this article).

Tech also buys you time, but the relationship of proliferation to time is a bit more complicated. The proliferation of print is indeed all about time--as Polydore Vergil wrote in 1499 (and as Thomas Langley translated half a century or so later): "one man may print more in one day, than many men in many years could write." You're going to run out of space one way or another, but with high rates of production and increased distribution you're going to run out of more space faster. So in that respect time is the primary concern, but the advantage of speed was one of the most highly praised with respect to the printing press. I'm guessing that it's similarly the temporal advantage of technology even more than the storage concern that makes Bell's project feasible. You certainly can't write to the moment, as Tristram Shandy laments (Fielding's take on this in Shamela is, by the way, one of my favorite things in literature), but with the right gadgets you could perhaps nearly digitize to the moment -- one man may scan more in a day, etc. This I think is the point of Twitter. Limiting the time it takes to make a record (twitter restricts you to 140 characters per message) makes it possible to make more records. As one friend tells me, you send these little missives "all day long." Assuming you can find the right medium between doing things and recording things done, you've got a much more detailed picture of a life to be viewed by you and your posterity at some point down the line.

Or do you? Do 100 140-character notes add up to one 1400-word document? If we don't know what you thought of that bottle of Romanee Conti the label of which you've scanned, or that you barely had space enough to tell us you drank, we might think the more important part of your history has been left out. How do we define ephemera? Dictionaries define it as referring to written or printed documents intended to have a brief lifetime (remarkable how long the concept of "life" has been wrapped up in that of writing. Writing doesn't just exist, or remain--it lives). Ephemera is something you read, and immediately discard. So are my friends' 140-character messages ephemera? What happens to them if I keep them, collect them, string them together, reconstitute them as some sort of narrative? Are they still ephemera? In choosing to record a life 140 characters at a time rather than burden yourself or your friends with "long" entries, could you end up producing an ephemeral 140,000 word document?

What's happened here is an important switch in perspective. So far I've been mostly writing about production. The other side of that coin is of course consumption, and it's on this side that the temporal and spatial advantages of technology meet the limitations of being human. Technology may have allowed you to record twenty years of minutiae and given you a convenient way of carrying it about, but it hasn't given me twenty extra years in which to review it. And if Monsieur Naudé had managed to secure, oh, let's say the entire Left Bank for his Master Library I'm not entirely sure how much time he'd have left to poke about in it. I've written about this problem before -- you can't read everything, and depending on why you're reading, it's possible that you oughtn't to read too much in the first place. Technology doesn't buy the consumer more time; rather, in the context of an increasing and increasingly available body of knowledge contained in print, it makes the same amount of time "worth" less. It's all perfectly well and good if a couple of friends want to send me or make otherwise available ten, twenty, thirty messages a day. I'll be very up-to-date. But if five friends do the same, one wonders if it will start being more trouble than it's worth. And if ten friends do the same, that gives me up to 300 X 140 characters, or 42,000 characters, to read per day. That's just under 30 double-spaced pages of notes. Thank God I'm antisocial. Even so, I can imagine that with much material, I would find myself making decisions about my friends that I would otherwise not have made. "Terribly sorry, old man, but I simply haven't time for any more friends than I can read on the subway. I'm afraid you shall either have to start doing more interesting things with your life, edit yourself down to a reasonable amount, or shove off."

I'm fairly certain that these were roughly the same options readers and/or booksellers gave authors in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Welcome my friends to the show that never ends.

So--on the production side, tech buys time and space. On the consumption side, it makes the process of selection ever more narrowing, and time matters more when space matters less. The only way to combat the time problem caused by proliferation in the absence of spacial inhibitors is a new line in research--a method of knowledge production that reduces time spent in consuming. Though this of course presumes that you're interesting in knowing everything. Or aspiring to knowing everything. Or deluding yourself into thinking you can aspire to know everything. But then, that's what Enlightenment is all about -- with one important distinction. Enlightenment was always about the future. All the mysteries would not be solved in a single lifetime. It would take an untold number to map the mind of the God through the close examination of his works. That meant handing things down, passing them along, securing some sort of continuity that would enable posterity to both understand and carry on the work.

This is why the encyclopedists -- Chambers, at least -- imagined the Cyclopaedia as that work with which humanity could start over if all other works were destroyed. Not start over in a complete sense, of course, but start over from where it left off: in the midst of Enlightenment. So, if you had to save one thing from a world on fire...

Hm. Speaking of proliferation and reduction, this entry has had too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Anything to avoid real work.


Jane Dark said...

I've been thinking about the issue of how much one can/should consume a lot in my own research, so it's interesting to see you laying it out here.

In terms of the durability of digital vs. analog mediums, it's easy to see why archivists are inclined to distrust digital technology, but what about the question of use? Good quality paper is long lasting, provided that no one is touching it. As soon as people start handling materials, though, all the rules change; and the quality of the paper barely matters if the binding and/or sewing is decaying. I'm not referring to poor handling, either -- even carefully done descriptive bibliography takes its toll.

But I don't mean to come across as rah-rah-technophile; only to say that access and the ability to share archival materials is the other major thing that gizmodification seems to provide.

Scriblerus said...

I'm more in favor of tech than against, certainly, and if it weren't for ECCO and EEBO and whatnot I simply wouldn't know what to do with itself. Everything breaks down, true enough--that's life (and death) for you. Paper rots, bindings disintegrate, disks demagnetize, hard drives fail, data is corrupted. Those folks in the article I linked to still had to bury their secure servers under who knows how many feet of earth and behind who knows how many feet of metal and concrete to protect them from forces human and majeures alike.

Access and sharing are absolutely, I think, the big thing that gizmodification (let's see if we can get that term to catch on!) allows -- but we've yet to sort out precisely to what end. I've thought a great deal (not enough) about that, as a few of my other posts might half-assedly illustrate. There is a strange combat, sometimes, between presents; one era's trash is another era's treasure. I wonder sometimes how much material we now have access to is the result of someone lining a trunk with it rather than sending it to the pie-shop two centuries ago? A small amount, surely--but valuation is ever on a sliding scale. I suppose we learn equal parts about a culture from what it keeps and what it throws away (or tries to, at any rate).

Alice said...

Hey, sorry I'm a little late in commenting, but the lag does give me the opportunity to direct you over to the Britannica blog about Web 2.0:


What do you think of the responses?