Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Will digital scholarship ever keep up?

[2b2k] Will digital scholarship ever keep up?

Scott F. Johnson has posted a dystopic provocation about the present of digital scholarship and possibly about its future.

Here’s the crux of his argument:

… as the deluge of information increases at a very fast pace — including both the digitization of scholarly materials unavailable in digital form previously and the new production of journals and books in digital form — and as the tools that scholars use to sift, sort, and search this material are increasingly unable to keep up — either by being limited in terms of the sheer amount of data they can deal with, or in terms of becoming so complex in terms of usability that the average scholar can’t use it — then the less likely it will be that a scholar can adequately cover the research material and write a convincing scholarly narrative today.

Thus, I would argue that in the future, when the computational tools (whatever they may be) eventually develop to a point of dealing profitably with the new deluge of digital scholarship, the backward-looking view of scholarship in our current transitional period may be generally disparaging. It may be so disparaging, in fact, that the scholarship of our generation will be seen as not trustworthy, or inherently compromised in some way by comparison with what came before (pre-digital) and what will come after (sophisticatedly digital).

Scott tentatively concludes:

For the moment one solution is to read less, but better. This may seem a luddite approach to the problem, but what other choice is there?

First, I should point out that the rest of Scott’s post makes it clear that he’s no Luddite. He understands the advantages of digital scholarship. But I look at this a little differently.

I agree with most of Scott’s description of the current state of digital scholarship and with the inevitability of an ever increasing deluge of scholarly digital material. But, I think the issue is not that the filters won’t be able to keep up with the deluge. Rather, I think we’re just going to have to give up on the idea of “keeping up” — much as newspapers and half hour news broadcasts have to give up the pretense that they are covering all the day’s events. The idea of coverage was always an internalization of the limitation of the old media, as if a newspaper, a broadcast, or even the lifetime of a scholar could embrace everything important there is to know about a field. Now the Net has made clear to us what we knew all along: most of what knowledge wanted to do was a mere dream.

So, for me the question is what scholarship and expertise look like when they cannot attain a sense of mastery by artificial limiting the material with which they have to deal. It was much easier when you only had to read at the pace of the publishers. Now you’d have to read at the pace of the writers…and there are so many more writers! So, lacking a canon, how can there be experts? How can you be a scholar?

I’m bad at predicting the future, and I don’t know if Scott is right that we will eventually develop such powerful search and filtering tools that the current generation of scholars will look betwixt-and-between fools (or as an “asterisk,” as Scott says). There’s an argument that even if the pace of growth slows, the pace of complexification will increase. In any case, I’d guess that deep scholars will continue to exist because that’s more a personality trait than a function of the available materials. For example, I’m currently reading Armies of Heaven, by Jay Rubenstein. The depth of his knowledge about the First Crusade is astounding. Astounding. As more of the works he consulted come on line, other scholars of similar temperament will find it easier to pursue their deep scholarship. They will read less and better not as a tactic but because that’s how the world beckons to them. But the Net will also support scholars who want to read faster and do more connecting. Finally (and to me most interestingly) the Net is already helping us to address the scaling problem by facilitating the move of knowledge from books to networks. Books don’t scale. Networks do. Although, yes, that fundamentally changes the nature of knowledge and scholarship.

[Note: My initial post embedded one draft inside another and was a total mess. Ack. I’ve cleaned it up – Oct. 26, 2011, 4:03pm edt.]

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