Friday, March 1, 2013

New Medium, New Literacy

The first literary text to be put into electronic form was John Milton's Paradise Lost (shown here in the Project Gutenberg edition that's on my new Kobo Mini eReader). This was originally prepared for the computer in 1964-65 by Dr. Joseph Raben of Queens College, New York. That was no small feat, either. It required some 100,000 IBM paper punch cards that each could hold 80 characters.

Dr. Raben was pioneering the adaptation of old texts for a new medium, one now emerging from its cradle state and becoming a force to be reckoned with. He was like the Renaissance scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, or his collaborator, the Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius. Their painstaking scholarship and printing innovations in the early 16th century laid the groundwork for centuries of literary flowering.

As the printed book came into its own, it changed how people read and wrote. It made modern schooling and modern scholarship possible. It set the grounds for how knowledge would work, publicly and privately, for centuries to come. Print was a game-changer.

These so-familiar and authoritative containers of learning, printed books, did not begin with such clout. Printed books were at first seen to be cheap novelties or mere conveniences, infinitely inferior to the "real" manuscript books which held authority within the scribal manuscript culture that had predominated for centuries. Printed books cheapened knowledge, it seemed. They let knowledge out of the hands of those with greater education and discernment. With printing came a profusion of heterodox opinions, and of scandalous, libelous, and obscene content. It is no wonder that conservatives of the day saw only trouble coming from the printing press.

Can you imagine how it might have been if those who did not like the change from manuscript to print culture had had their way? What damage this would have done to the growth of science and learning! It would have disenfranchised millions -- even billions -- while it preserved the sacrosanct privileges of an elite class sufficiently privileged to have access to those rare and valuable objects, manuscript books.

Now, almost 50 years after the first computerized literary work, much has been done to prepare the way for a new Renaissance for literary study; much remains to be done. There exists a robust computing and media infrastructure through which millions of digital objects circulate at the speed of light among billions of people who are online and using various computing devices as part of their daily lives.

Paper books are yielding to their electronic counterparts, and a tipping point is coming -- a point at which print books will be the exception, rather than the default, in how literary works are experienced. Just as the hardback yielded to the paperback, the convenience and lower cost of eBooks will inevitably mean that students are far more likely to be using eTexts in the near future than printed books.

The dawn of the digital humanities is here, and with it not only new ways of experiencing texts and cultural artifacts, but new ways of creating and circulating our knowledge about them. It isn't just the format of literature that is changing; literacy itself is becoming something different.

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