Why’s that computer lookin’ at me funny?

Is anyone else here a Murder, She Wrote fan? Because I’m definitely and unashamedly in love with Jessica B. Fletcher — I’m pretty sure her life is supposed to be my life (though maybe with less murder) and maybe that’s why I’ve always been so averse to driving. But I digress… If you didn’t grow up watching Angela Lansbury write her way to the top while solving murder mysteries, then you likely won’t know that about 2/3 of the way through the series, the credits — which normally feature Jessica Fletcher typing on her typewriter — change to Jessica typing on her brand new computer.

And really, when we think about it, the e-book craze and all of the debates surrounding it are really missing a lot of the larger points that computerization and digitization can, have, and are bringing to the literary world. Consider, after all, not simply how computers have transformed our books and materials, but how computers have changed the way we write, read, reexamine, and create those materials — what does a book consist of anyhow?

Folgers is certainly creating new ways to think about Shakespeare and related texts with their new Digital Library:

“This database offers access to tens of thousands of high resolution images from the Folger Shakespeare Library, including books, theater memorabilia, manuscripts, and art. Users can show multiple images side-by-side, zoom in and out, view cataloging information when available, export thumbnails, and construct persistent URLs linking back to items or searches.”

Then there are authors like Jeff Gomez who are working to take the concept of “the novel” and see how far this term can be stretched without losing its “true” identity — begging the question of, what constitutes a novel? How do we define “book”? And he asks these questions through the presentation of his new “book”: Beside Myself. In this, what Gomez calls an “interactive novel,” he draws on the idea of being able to let readers “choose” their own endings — a stylistic choice I’ve always associated with the Goosebumps series in my mind (must’ve been that cat-monster themed book of their’s that I read as a youngster). But beyond this, there are also web links embedded in the text that lead the readers to fake sites, working character email addresses, other interactive menus, music, and even connections to Twitter and Facebook. And, while I feel compelled to ask, when does it cease to be a novel and begin to be an RPG or a video game — these sorts of questions are the entire point!

But presentation isn’t the only thing that’s changing — as I mentioned earlier, processes are also transforming. Not only are writers changing the way they approach writing and readers changing the way they approach reading, but scholars are beginning to change the way they approach and study both. As Thomas Rommel explains in his “Literary Studies” chapter of A Companion to Digital Humanities (edited by Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth): “Computers are not used for the sake of using new tools, but computers can supplement the critic’s work with information that would normally be unavailable to a human reader. Speed, accuracy, unlimited memory, and the instantaneous access to virtually all textual features constitute the strength of the electronic tool.”

However, while studies are beginning to demonstrate just how useful computers can be in providing critics with empirical data that would have otherwise been unavailable to them, this style of readership and critique remains on the fringes of today’s mainstream humanities scholarship. There are many reasons for this but the primary one is simply and undoubtedly the deep aversion that most humanities scholars feel toward this nod to the digital. And while I cannot say that I am immune to this, it does make me wonder why I often cannot more accurately explain why I feel this way — perhaps it’s only natural to feel this way when moving through the liminal realm between the virtual and the physical, the digital and the natural. But as we begin to venture deeper into these studies and into what it means to write, read, and be read, we must begin to ask  ourselves yet again: how different are these planes to begin with?



One thought on “Why’s that computer lookin’ at me funny?”

  1. Indeed we all work with “data sets” and empirical data as we formulate humanistic inquiries and arguments, but digitally produced data seem suspicious to “mainstream humanities” unless you can demonstrate convincingly that the digital is there for a reason other than the coolness factor. You mentioned that you could not “more accurately explain” your own resistance to the idea of using computers to provide empirical data for analysis. The problem here is the insistence on textual analysis even when complex cases call for broader methodologies and “empirical data” (such as videos!). One of the blind spots in Thomas Rommel’s brief history of literary computing is its replication of field’s unproductive adherence to the textual, narrowly defined.

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