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Responding To Surfdom

Note: This is a post I sent that appeared on the Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 567 (

Dear Willard,

This is a late answer to your pointing us to the Matthew Reisz article “Surfdom” ( which starts with,

“The internet has revolutionised humanities research. But has the development of ever-more sophisticated online resources freed up scholars to explore new ideas, or made them slaves to the digital machine?”

His approach seems to find someone to quote, ask a pointed question and let that stand as evidence that there is a problem. While this approach is irritating when you have been in the field for some time, it is probably worth addressing taking some of the issues raised seriously.

  • Serfdom. The title of the article, "Surfdom" and opening question about whether online resources have made us slaves is just plain silly. Does the existence of resources enslave anyone in any meaningful way? If so, were we slaves to print before? Does Reisz think we were free before to explore new ideas and are now serfs to the surfing machine? Yes, that old story of technological slavery again; now dressed in cute questions about the digital humanities which alas will have to put up with such reporting as long as we are seen as the new new thing. As for serfdom, Reisz plies his readers with suggestions that the technological (the mechanical) is limiting scholarship or public access or some unidentified person who might be fooled into thinking the digital is the real thing. Philosophers and historians of science and technology have long questioned such facile deterministic views which would have a dominant technology drive our thinking. There is undoubtedly a connection, but it goes both ways. Perhaps the digital is being enslaved by the humanities. Perhaps computing is going to turn out to be driven by the questions of English profs. What matters is that we continue to discuss the digital and how it might change the questions we ask, and that is one of the things we have been doing seriously in the digital humanities.
  • Digitization driving scholarship. Reisz quotes Peitch to the effect that "what gets digitsed drives scholarship." There is some truth to this, but the same holds for any scholarly work. What is published (in your language) also drives scholarship as do all sorts of other things like public funding, conferences, and student enrolments. Has it ever been any different? I would call it “changing” not driving with its slave driving connotations. If anything digital archives are coexisting and supplementing traditional archives so that scholars can choose what will drive them. Would we want it any different? Imagine if a field like the digital humanities had no effect? While I doubt we are driving scholarship (the cuts in the UK to universities are doing that) the digital humanities should make a difference and there is nothing wrong with that. What discipline does not try to engage others? Why should projects be funded if we don't try to change the scholarship?
  • Access. Reisz manages to turn virtues of access into sins. He quotes Pietsch that "digitisation does reduce some of the obstacles imposed by distance" and then quotes her to the effect that most of what she needs remains unavailable "in bricks-and-mortar institutions". In other words all this digitization doesn't help (even if it is driving things). One story hardly touches the issue of access. Reisz may still have to travel, but how many scholars don't need to travel because they can access a digital surrogate? Reisz himself admits, "It is a rare researcher in the humanities today who doesn't draw frequently on digital resources, as well as using the internet to check factual details or read texts that are long out of print." Digitization of materials was never meant to entirely replace archival access, it is meant to broaden access to those without travel grants and to reduce the need for fragile documents to be constantly consulted. The digital surrogate supplements, but doesn't replace the original. Use of digital resources is one more tool available to the scholar.
For that matter, access isn't only for the scholars like Pietch working on neglected topics. Access is also for the geneaologists, the amateurs, and the citizens who pay for universities. We would be fools to think that only professionals with travel grants are interested in online resources or the only people important. Digitization is a way to engage a broader community and return scholarship to them, not that Reiz thinks much of that argument (see below).
  • Limitations. Reisz quotes Turner about the "limitations imposed by the mechanical process" of digitization. I wonder what the alternative to mechanical processes is? Copying out by hand? Are there not limitations to the mechanically printed editions we read, to the opto-mechanical microfilms we use to consult newspapers, or even the "originals" which were often mechanically produced (and are still housed in infrastructure like archives.) Sure things get missed in digitization - that is what archiving does and what editing does - it keeps and discards, it shows and hides. Digitization is no different - content experts make choices about what to digitize, how to encode it, and what sort of access system will deal it up. Archivists make similar choices. Scholars should question these decisions, they should look closely at the medium and infrastructure they use to study the past whatever the form. Surely a serious scholar, who uses a computer in everyday work as most do in this age, will not be fooled into "a false sense of security in some digital projects". After all they are scholars and most are really good at asking questions. No doubt we all need continued training and other opportunities where we can learn about the limits of the digital, but that too is what the digital humanities offers. Reisz seems limited in his view of what the digital humanities is. He thinks we digitize mindlessly without ever wondering about the choices made.
  • Utility, Democratisation and Thinking. Underlying much of Reisz's argument are some assumptions about what the point of scholarship is and what is useful. His opening, phrased as a question, contrasts the slavery of online resource development to exploring "new ideas." Digital development not only threatens thinking, he also complains that it isn't even useful to amateurs as a resource. He writes about the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music being organized in a way that is useless to the "amateur music lover". He complains about Paul Vetch's argument about democratisation (by making scholarly resources available through digitization), "If democratisation means anything, it must surely mean more than just making freely available online something of interest to only a handful of specialists." But that is exactly the point - digitization can make specialized information available for use by anyone who can surf the web instead of keeping it to a professional caste lucky enough to be paid to chase the stuff down. Since when are only scholars interested in specialized resources. Reisz should get out more and meet some of the people who love this stuff without a PhD. Digitization opens up specialization letting anyone play at it, and we should be very careful making assumptions about what will be useful to whom over time. As for generating ideas, he should read his Plato. Socrates in the Phaedrus complained that writing would not make us wiser. I've seen no evidence that any form of writing, scholarship, or information access makes anyone wiser or helps them think. Information, whatever form it takes, is something we think about or think through, it isn't the new ideas themselves, they are what people have. If anything Reisz isn't radical enough. If we want people to explore ideas we might try discouraging writing altogether, including his writing (and mine) and get back to dialogue with a philosopher. We simply don't know where or when new ideas are going to come and if there is a problem it is that we are inundated with cheap information dressed as reporting instead of knowledge.
  • Funding Ideas. At the same time that he complains about digitizing too much specialized stuff he also quotes an anonymous researcher that, "Meanwhile, there was less money available to fund researchers wanting to investigate a substantive question or develop an original idea." The implication is that digitization doesn't further substantive or original research. Or perhaps the wrong people are being funded as he complains about how digital humanities is done in teams (with graduate students being funded.) Do these people have no original ideas? Do they not pursue questions? I think there is a hidden snobbery here that some more worthy club of people who wouldn't stoop to manage a digital project are the real thinkers that should be funded. There is the suggestion that all sorts of much more worthy traditional research is being neglected as money is wasted on digitization. People, that great anonymous and undocumented people, "raised questions about whether there aren't just as many pointless projects and whether the field always justifies the hype that surrounds it." So who decides what is a pointless project? One anonymous and unhappy reviewer or the committees who judged the digital grants fundable? The humanities have been whipped pointlessly since Socrates was martyred and Reisz knows that, even as he tries his hand without admitting it. I would answer that it is in the nature of pure research to do things that seem pointless to others and it has ever been so, even before the digital humanities. Find me a project which no one complains about. Digitization doesn't change the tendency of scholars to pursue ever more specialized questions and it won't change the pointless criticism. At least when projects are accessible on the web we aren't hiding in an ivory tower. At least through digitization we are openly sharing the research and digital evidence with a potential public. I hope some publics see through to things that interest them and continue to support universities and granting councils still interested in substantial work whether digital or not, useful or not.
  • Waste. The one point I would agree with is that we need to be talking about what works best and how to best husband the resources available, more so now that we are facing cutbacks in the humanities. Sure, some digital projects have wasted their funds and some resources aren't being used (yet), but isn't that normal at a time when we are experimenting with new technologies that are changing. Should we just sit back and wait until the dust settles and someone outside tells us how to do things right or should we try solutions relevant to the humanities. The fact is that the digital humanities has led the discussion about how to best leverage computing for scholarship. We have been addressing these issues for decades, but Reisz seems to think the digital humanities is just a stampede to digitize stuff. One could rewrite his article in praise of how the issues of access, limitations, audience, and technology he is raising now in 2011 have been discussed in the digital humanities since the 1970s. Central to the digital humanities are questions about digitization and computing with the digitized, but he wouldn't know without consulting the (online) record. I want to tell readers who think we are wantonly digitizing without thought to take a course in our Humanities Computing MA program or read about the TEI. The solution to the issue of poorly thought out digitization is the ongoing and rigorous discussion of the issue and that is what informatics, library and information science and the digital humanities have been cultivating for decades.

No doubt the length of this response says something about how artfully he pricks my hopes and beliefs about the digital humanities. I wish responding to reporting were not necessary, or that I believed that any reporting like any review is good (whatever it says), but as we move from a discipline largely ignored to one questioned publicly we need to prepare for critical reporting and respond. We should be prepared to take criticism seriously and explain what we do over and over. It has, alas, become part of the job of the humanities to explain the value of our work. As you (Willard) point out in your comment below the article, he has an awfully limited idea of what the digital humanities is which means others do too.


Geoffrey Rockwell



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