[Humanist] Re: 22.641 looking back

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Mar 23 11:19:36 CET 2009

Let me respond to James Rovira's restated question with an assertion I
hope someone challenges. He asks,

> The last major revolution in "text" technology, the shift from
> manuscript to print culture, has been well documented to have
> contributed to significant social and phenomenological changes, such
> as the spread of literacy, increased production of printed texts
> (presses in 1800 could print 250 sheets an hour; presses in 1848 could
> print 12,0000 sheets an hour, and often needed to), the
> democratization of learning, etc.
> In these terms, I see the internet as an extension or continuation of
> the changes begun by the advent of print technology, but not nearly as
> substantially different -socially and phenomenologically from the user
> end- as the change from manuscript to print culture.  Can anyone
> coherently describe social and phenomenological changes in the user
> experience of internet texts analogous to changes from print to
> manuscript culture?

One real difference from the world of printed books that I have
witnessed in the last 30 years has to do with the simple matter of
finding secondary literature in the course of investigating a topic. In
the late 1970s through the mid 1980s I researched and wrote a
dissertation which involved mostly, but not exclusively, the fields of
Milton studies, biblical studies and classics -- or, in terms of
locations in the library I worked in, chiefly but not
exclusively PR (13th floor), PA (12th floor) and BS (9th floor), my
study carrel being on the 13th. I also regularly made the circuit of
other campus libraries at Toronto, the most distant being 15 minutes'
walk away, and including the Engineering library. (Milton was a polymath
who did not confine himself to any one of our disciplines, so following
in his footsteps took a bit of mind- and leg-stretching work.) I had a
system of accumulating references to books in other libraries in order
to minimize the amount of walking between libraries, an important
consideration given the climate, but I essentially treated Robarts as a
random-access repository and so was going up and down stairs with
considerable frequency every day, nearly, over the 8 years of the PhD.
(Those were the days!) When I finished my dissertation, I had, alas, a
non-academic job, but fortunately for me still in Robarts Library, where I
continued my work furtively but constantly for another 12 years until I
landed a proper academic job.

In other words, I have had intimate
physical experience of intensively and extensively interdisciplinary
work for many years.

That's the background against which I consider the impact (yes, the
right metaphor) of JSTOR et sim -- the world that allows me to construct
what seems a profound difference from my physically peripatetic past. I 
now observe myself
at work, gathering materials or references to them almost exclusively
online, directly or indirectly. I see what happens when I go to JSTOR
and look across all the journals in the online collections for hits to 
sometimes unconstrained, sometimes not. I note where topics surface, in
what disciplinary areas where I would never thought to have looked. I
become a sometimes frantic manager of wildly forking paths, sometimes
just a bemused observer. It's true that I was in some respects in the
same position with Milton back in the 1980s, inclined to wander, though
paying then more dearly in the currency of my own time than I could
possibly afford to do now. But the difference is that now I discover
where to look by where those paths fork to rather than decide a priori 
where in which libraries I will go.

Now because time is limited the net result is that I tend to go wide 
rather than deep. My implicit commitment, then, is not to a truth 
obtained on some deep level of a subject but to one that is fragmented 
and refracted across the surfaces of things.

Recently in a course on research methods the students told me that they 
begin their research papers by going to JSTOR first. I imagine that they 
do not go as widely and wildly as I do, but they do deliberately put 
themselves in a situation in which there are no physical impediments to 
encounter across disciplines. This seems a very different situation from 
the one I was in all those years ago.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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