[Humanist] 26.628 imagining new techniques of external remembering

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 28 09:58:36 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 628.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 27 Dec 2012 10:39:10 -0600
        From: amsler at cs.utexas.edu
        Subject: imagining new techniques of external remembering

"As we struggle to imagine and construct (the) what we call the
"digital textual edition" as well as the digital memory archive, what
are we doing that is not simply a digital rehash of our
techno-conceptual inheritance? - WM"

This isn't quite the optimistic response you were looking for since  
the focus of my thinking about the online world has been primarily on  
what we are losing and in particular whether print book and paper  
artifacts themselves are in the process of disappearing. But I suppose  
it's a glass half-full/half-empty way of looking at things.

There are several themes here:

(1a) The disappearance of the print book and its replacement not with  
the eBook, but with the web site.

(1b) The question as to whether the web page is in fact the upgraded  
replacement for the printed page because the web page now does much  
more than the printed page could do in terms of ability to incorporate  
other media and live links and as such is the basis for the print book  
becoming obsolete. I.e., the unit of knowledge may have always been  
the 'page' rather than the 'book' and now that the page has evolved  
significantly, the 'book' as a collection of pages is being erased  
from the future--but is the web site its replacement?

(2) The failure to carry over to the web site (as the book's  
replacement) the two print memory conventions of cataloguing and  
indexing. I.e., that librarians in general do not create catalog  
records for web sites--and thereby as a civilization we have  
absentmindedly abandoned the access to the future of knowledge by  
subject classifications and all the mechanisms of knowledge access  
afforded by having lists of works by authors, titles, dates, etc. You  
can't browse the web by virtually looking at web sites arranged by  
subject call numbers as you could walk the shelves of a library; nor  
readily discover the web sites created by the same authors. The lack  
of cataloging information for web sites makes them almost 'anonymous'  
and dateless. The 'site index' is not widely used and it is actually  
more of a 'table of contents' than an index in the book sense of the  

I found one site that seems to be trying to reverse this trend,

A Virtual Library of Useful URLs Subject Headings Arranged by Dewey  
Decimal Classification: 000-999


(3) The disappearance of the print index and its replacement with the  
keyword search capability of computers without a realization that  
print indexes had entries that did not necessarily represent words  
actually in the print document as well as offered hierarchical levels  
of indexed terms--hence we are becoming 'content blind' since all we  
now know of online data is its keywords and their Boolean and  
proximity relationships to each other.

The creation of the 'tag' for electronic pages may be an effort to  
remedy this gap, but it is a throwback to a more primitive stage of  
indexing in which index values were created by amateurs and not  
rigorously controlled so that information seekers and information  
creators could find each other through common descriptive phrases.

(5) That the world of paper with text on it may vanish and in the  
future and it will be hard for people to know what was on paper in the  
environment in the past. (I recall a Huminist interest in what we  
should be saving for future study that we are not. Perhaps this is one  
such bit of knowledge.)

Already we may have lost the knowledge of the ecology of print paper  
from previous decades. What was the paper environment like in the  
earliest centuries in which paper existed and in the intervening  
decades when it became inexpensive and ubiquitious in the environment.  
There were 'editions' of newspapers, for example, 'printings' of  
books, dust jackets, all things that may disappear along with the  
knowledge of how common or rare they were in everyday life. Knowledge  
of what we took for granted as the printed information on the detritus  
of paper swirling on city streets or as decaying remnants posted on  
walls and poles, handed out, etc, may all vanish eventually.


Oh, a typo in the below Humanist post. "Making the Mind: A History of  
Memory's author is "Kurt" (not "Karl") Danziger. Amazon couldn't find  
it at first until I tried more complete descriptions.

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 608.
             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

         Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2012 10:54:19 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
         Subject: imagining new techniques of external remembering

In his masterful book Marking the Mind: A History of Memory (Cambridge
2008), Karl Danziger describes the situation that first developed when
literacy became commonplace and written notes and records began to
proliferate. He argues that these notes and records were not first used
to replace human memory but challenged it with a rapidly expanding
volume of that which needed to be remembered in the mostly oral
performances e.g. of courtroom proceedings. He continues:

[Hide Quoted Text]
People who found themselves in these new situations, and who were
faced by tricky demands on their memorial skills, had a use for a new
kind of technology. As the sheer volume of potentially relevant
written material increased, a massive problem developed: how to
summon up this material when it was needed? Nowadays we are
accustomed to using a multiplicity of highly sophisticated finding
aids, from catalogues and indexes to internet searches. In other
words, we make the content of external memory available and
accessible by exploiting the resources of external memory itself. But
in doing so we are benefiting from techniques of literary retrieval
that took many centuries to discover and develop. In classical
antiquity these techniques - which now seem so obvious - had not yet
been thought of at all or were still in their infancy. Finding ways
of turning external memory on itself turned out to be a painfully
slow and difficult process.  (p. 61)

Danziger shows throughout with admirable subtlety how technologies and
conceptions of memory, indeed what is meant by "memory", have
interrelated and affected each other. He notes that early computing
devices -- the isolated, room-filling machines that once were what
"computer" referred to -- strongly imprinted by metaphor how
psychologists and others concerned with memory think about what it is.

All those techniques that we now have and use mostly thoughtlessly were
developed in tandem with the slowly developed possibilities of the codex
book. As we struggle to imagine and construct the what we call the
"digital textual edition" as well as the digital memory archive, what
are we doing that is not simply a digital rehash of our
techno-conceptual inheritance?


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