Sunday 23 October 2011

Academic History Writing and its Disconnects

This is the rough text of a short talk I am scheduled to deliver at a symposium on 'Future Directions in Book History'  at Cambrdige on the 24th of November 2011.

I am on the programme as talking briefly about the ‘OldBailey Online and other resources’ (by which I assume is meant London Lives, Connected Histories, and Locating London’s Past, and the other websites I have helped to create over the last ten or twelve years).  But I am afraid I have no interest whatsoever in discussing the Old Bailey or the other websites.  The hard intellectual work that went in to their creation was done between 1999 and 2010, and for the most part they have found an audience and a user base and will have their own impact, without me having to discuss them any further.  We know how to do this stuff, and anyone can read the technical literature, and I very much encourage you to do so.

Instead, I want to talk about how the evolution of the forms of delivery and analysis of text inherent in the creation of the online, problematizes and historicises the notion of the book as an object, and as a technology; and in the process problematizes the discipline of history itself as we practise it in the digital present. 

The project of putting billions of words of keyword searchable stuff out there is now nearing completion.  We are within sight of that moment when all printed text produced between 1455 and 1923 (when the Disney Corporation has determined that the needs of modern corporate capitalism trumped the Enlightenment ideal), will be available online for you to search and read.  The vast majority of that text is currently configured to pretend to be made up of ‘books’ and other print artefacts,   But, of course, it is not.  At some level it is just text – the difference between one book and the next a single line of metadata.  The hard leather covers that used to divide one group of words from another are gone; and every time you choose to sit comfortably in your office reading a screen, instead of going to a library or an archive, while kidding yourself that you are still reading a ‘book’, you are in fact participating in a charade.  We are swimming in deracinated, Google-ised, Wikipedia-ised text.

In other words, and let’s face it: the book as a technology for packaging and delivery, storing and finding text is now redundant.  The underpinning mechanics that determined its shape and form are as antiquated as moveable type.  And in the process of moving beyond the book, we have also abandoned the whole post-enlightenment infrastructure of libraries and card catalogues (or even OPACS), of concordances, and indexes and tables of contents.  They are all built around the book, and the book is dead. 

If this all sounds rather doom laden and apocalyptic – and no doubt we could argue about the rosy future and romantic appeal of the hard copy book – it shouldn’t.  At least as far as the ‘history of the book’ is concerned these developments have been entirely positive

First, it has allowed us to begin to escape the intellectual shackles that the book as a form of delivery, imposed upon us.  If we can escape the self-delusion that we are reading ‘books’, the development of the infinite archive, and the creation of a new technology of distribution,  actually allows us to move beyond the linear and episodic structures the book demands, to something different and more complex.  It also allows us to more effectively view the book as an historical artefact and now redundant form of controlling technology.  The 'book' is newly available for analysis.

The absence of books makes their study more important, more innovative, and more interesting.  It also makes their study much more relevant to the present – a present in which we are confronted by a new, but equally controlling and limiting technology for transmitting ideas.  By mentally escaping the ‘book’ as a normal form and format, we can see it more clearly for what it was.  And to this extent, the death of the book is a fantastic and liberating thing – the fascism of the format is beaten.

At the same time, I think we are confronted by a profound intellectual challenge that addresses the very nature of the historical discipline.  This transition from the ‘book’, to something new, fundamentally undercuts what we do more generally as ‘historians’.  When you start to unpick the nature of the historical discipline, it is tied up with the technologies of the printed page and the book in ways that are powerful and determining.  Our footnotes, our post-Rankean cross referencing and practises of textual analysis are embedded within the technology of the book, and its library.

Equally, our technology of authority – all the visual and textual clues that separate a CUP monograph from the irresponsible musings of a know-nothing prose merchant – are slipping away.  While our professional identity – the titles, positions and honorifics – built again on the supposedly secure foundations of book publishing – is ever less compelling. So the question then becomes, is history – particularly in its post-Rankean, professional and academic form - dead?  Are we losing that beautiful disciplinary character that allows us to think beyond the surface, and makes possible complex analyses that transcend mere cleverness?

And on the face of it, the answer is yes – the renewed role of the popular block buster, and an every growing and insecure emphasis on readership over scholarship, would suggest that it is. In Britain we shy away from the metrics that would demonstrate ‘impact’ primarily because we  fear that we may not have any.

Collectively we have put our heads in the sands, and our arses in the air, and seemingly invited the world to take a shot.  A single and self-evident instance that evidences a deeper malaise is our current failure to bother citing what we read.  We read online journal articles, but cite the hard copy edition; we do keywords searches, while pretending to undertake immersive reading. We search 'Google Books', and pretend we are not.

But even more importantly, we ignore the critical impact of digitisation on our intellectual praxis.  Only 48% of the significant words in the Burney collection ofeighteenth-century newspapers are correctly transcribed as a result of poor OCR.  This makes the other 52% completely un-findable.  And of course, from the perspective of the relationship between scholarship and sources, it is always the same 52%.  My colleague Bill Turkel, describes this as the Las Vegas effect – all bright lights, and an invitation to instant scholarly riches, but with no indication of the odds, and no exit signs.  We use the Burney collection regardless – not even bothering to apply the kind of critical approach that historians have built their professional authority upon.  This is roulette dressed up as scholarship.

In other words, we have abandoned the rigour of traditional scholarship.  Provenance, edition, transcription, editorial practise, readership, authorship, reception – the things we query issues in relation to  books, are left unexplored in relation to the online text we actually read.

And as importantly, the way we promulgate our ‘history’ has not kept up either.  I want television programmes with footnotes, and graphs with underlying spreadsheets and sliders.  Yes, I want narrative and analysis, structure, point and purpose.  I want to continue to be able to engage in the grand conversation that is history; but it cannot continue to be produced as a ragged and impotent ghost of a fifteenth century technology; and if we don’t do something about it, we might as well all go off and figure out how to write titillating tales of eighteenth-century sex scandals, because at least they sell.

The book had a wonderful 1200 odd year history, which is certainly worth exploring.  Its form self-evidently controlled and informed significant aspects of cultural and intellectual change in the West (and through the impositions of Empire, the rest of the world as well); but if, as historians, we are to avoid going the way of the book, we need to separate out what we think history is designed to achieve, and to create a scholarly technology that delivers it.

In a rather intemperate attack on the work of Jane Jacobs, published in 1962, Louis Mumford observed that:

‘… minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully confine themselves to asking only the kind of question that computers can answer and are completely negligent of the human contents  or the human results.’

I am afraid that in the last couple of decades, historians who are unduly fascinated by books, have restricted themselves to asking only the kind of questions books can answer.  Fifty years is a long time in computer science.  It is about time we found out if a critical and self-consciously scholarly engagement with computers might not now allow us to more effectively address the ‘human contents’ of the past.