Some Darker Sides of Digitization; or, Disappearing Data, Doubtful Descriptions, and Other Deformations of Print

By Edwards, Mary Jane | Style, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Some Darker Sides of Digitization; or, Disappearing Data, Doubtful Descriptions, and Other Deformations of Print


Edwards, Mary Jane, Style


In Transferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print (2009), Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland, quoting Anne R. Kenney, write of "the 'fast fires' of digital obsolescence" (163). It is not only disappearing data that constitute a dark side of digitization, however. Its bleaker aspects are also represented in doubtful descriptions of works by booksellers on electronic catalogues and in deformed--and sometimes stolen--digitized editions of works originally published in printed forms. In this article I shall both explore these darker sides of digitization and suggest ways in which they might be mitigated. My four case studies derive from my experiences with the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT), an enterprise that endured for almost thirty years at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and with a collection of articles that I am assembling for a volume on the role played by the London publisher named Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, then Richard Bentley, and then Richard Bentley and Son in shaping images of Great Britain's colonies through works that it issued from the late 1820s to the mid-1890s.

CASE STUDY NO. 1: CEECT AND COMPUTERS

In the April 2013 issue of University Affairs, the magazine that is published ten times a year by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and that is advertised on its website as the "The Voice of Canada's Universities" (http://www.aucc.ca), there is an article by Suzanne Bowness entitled "Parsing the Humanities: Everything You Wanted to Know about Digital Humanities." It begins with the following reminiscence:

If you're old enough to remember a time before the Internet, cast your ears back to this sound: ... ding*ding*ding.

That's right. That's the irritating ... ring of an old-fashioned modem connecting your computer to the Internet ...

Now, imagine yourself back in the era when that sound was a novelty, particularly in the quiet halls of an English or history department, where the loudest ambient noise up to that point may have been the quiet swish of pages turning. Or perhaps a pencil scraping lightly at their margins. If you were that reader, hearing that "ding" for the first time, ...

You might have heard the birth of a new discipline called the digital humanities. (Bowness 14)

This article, as well as "When WordStar Was King," a chapter in Dennis Baron's A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (2009) that reviews the dramatic changes in computer technologies in the last half century, reminded me that CEECT too was a pioneer in this field. The reason is that from the time the steering committee started to meet in the fall of 1979, the concept of producing our texts by using computers moved quickly from a remote possibility to a definite reality. When we made this decision, however, there was no Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) that provided consistent and apparently universal ways to mark up text. Although we tried, there was no satisfactory way to digitize texts by scanning them into a computer. And the notion of electronic editions, which has dominated so much recent literature about scholarly editing, had not been imagined. What we meant by editing by computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in fact, had itself largely to be invented. Invent and acquire hardware, languages, and software, therefore, we did. In "CEECT: Progress, Procedures, and Problems," for example, an article published in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada in 1987, I explained that we used the computer "for thirty-two processes in the course of preparing" the CEECT editions, and that we had "seventy programs that were especially written to run these processes" (Edwards 20).

Because computer technology developed so quickly, we never did market our programs as the office at Carleton concerned with such business matters once suggested. And as the years went on, we abandoned our mainframe CP-6 and our WANGs for personal computers and laptops, and we moved from backing up and storing data on magnetic tapes and various sizes of discs to transferring our files to USBs and to sending them over the Internet to e-mail accounts and to various clouds in cyberspace. …

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