Resistance and Residue: What does “Openness” bring?

This week, I was trying to process both my digital humanities readings about the values of open access scholarship and my Renaissance Lyric readings about other (much more historical) technologies – specifically listed in Walter Ong’s Chapter on Orality and Literacy. In his chapter, Ong discusses just how the development of the “technology” of writing has had an impact on human consciousness. Ong shows us the movement or shift from oral cultures to literate ones, and then talks about the ensuing fear from the “traditional” oral culture that the new technology might harm or weaken the standards of learning or message transmission. In the oral culture’s case, Ong recalls Socrates’s view on writing: “[it] destroys memory … Writing weakens the mind” (Ong 135). Ong goes further to say that in the early 21st century, there is the same suspicion about computing devices that make us weaker scholars: “enfeeb[ling] the mind” by allowing for a pocket computer to feed us information on google, anyplace and anytime.

I begin with Ong because I feel that this is comparable to Digital Humanities right now. Moving from oral to literate to digital modes of thinking and processing, we can see that the information can be more widely shared: I can disperse an emergency message to thousands of people via the internet, when I can only shout to about 50 – maybe. If this model of digitizing scholarship and making it open to everyone is valued as a positive technology, then why is there any resistance among the discipline? Why don’t we all just stop what we are doing for the printing press and start blogging? I think our hesitation is driven by the same fear that Socrates felt: we may (wrongly) believe that new technologies “enfeeble” the mind or make scholarship weak or sloppy. Of course, these may faulty assumptions, especially when we are more responsible in our approach to good DH scholarship.

If scholars accept the “residue” model of advancement (meaning that digital humanities and MOOCs will not, in fact, make print, writing, our teaching and orality obsolete), then perhaps we can convince more traditional scholars to join us in a sort of open access scholarship. My hesitation that I brought to the meeting comes from this idea. If open access DH is such a great idea (which in theory, I agree with), then why are we having to work so hard to sell it to people? As a young scholar, hoping to put food on my table with a PhD in literature someday, I would do backflips for open access scholarship if I could see a viable and financially secure future in it. This means that the scholars committed to DH need to place themselves in influential positions and change the views of traditional humanities scholars. Otherwise, I have to play the “print game” with everyone else. and as I say this, I acknowledge that strides in open access and digital publishing are happening slowly as I speak.

There is one distinction that I was unable to make in the meeting. I think that archived material should always be open access. So digitized collections, indexes, and the like should be available online. This does sound like I’m contradicting myself, but I am happy to follow open access models if I could see more concrete examples and see the rewards of those modes of information transmission. I want to learn more and see concrete examples about how these peer-review processes and comments from outside the discipline function. How do they turn out?

I will go ahead and close here — but with one last thought. Those committed to the values of open access should also think (as Fyfe does about error correction): what (if anything) is lost in open access digital scholarship? Without thinking about what may be at stake, we may over-idealize the digital. I don’t know the answers to those questions. But perhaps as I explore examples of these open access projects in the humanities (I’m mostly talking about peer reviewed journals here), I may come closer to answers.

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