- New Questions for New Media: Scholarly Writing and Online Publishing
Forum on Hypertext Scholarship
AQ as Web-Zine: Responses to AQ’s Experimental Online Issue
“Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American Courts” is a cautionary tale for those who would speak of new technologies. Faced with a form of representation that seemed to challenge received notions of original and hearsay evidence, photographers, courts and the legal press struggled to determine the veracity of the new photographic art. Initially, photography’s mimetic qualities were enthusiastically endorsed. The photograph, reported The American Law Register in 1869,
is wholly free from the infirmity which causes the rejection of hearsay evidence, namely, the uncertainty whether or not it is an exact repetition of what was said by him whose testimony is repeated by the witness. In the picture we have before us, at the trial, precisely what the apparatus did say. Its language is repeated to us, syllable for syllable. 1
But by 1886, although photographic evidence was widely used, most legal observers would agree that photography could lie with the best. Indeed, its reputation for accuracy made photography all the more suspect:
The most dangerous perjurer is he who not only holds an almost universally high reputation for truthfulness, but also telling the truth in the main still introduces one such small and concealed element of falsehood as serves to turn the whole of his story on the side of unrightness. 2 [End Page 250]
The impact of photography upon the law of evidence was not inconsequential, but photography hardly transformed legal culture. Instead, contemporaneous social practice determined the uses to which this new technology was put.
Web sites are launched, a funny expression for a medium often as seaworthy as one of those cartoon ocean liners that sink at the smack of a champagne bottle. Print is a far more stable technology. There’s been more time to work out the bugs. It’s somewhat of a devil’s bargain, then, to commit to print observations concerning a medium as shifty as the Web. However convincingly I may argue that this is the future of academic publishing, that argument risks being severely undermined by the not unlikely possibility that five or ten (or even two) years from now the reader of this manifesto might search for the URLs mentioned herein and find not a trace.
URLs vanish for material, not virtual, reasons. Sites crash because they consume resources and require complex, ongoing partnerships. Sites, like journals and departments and conferences and associations, are social constructions. That’s what makes them and that’s what makes them disappear. People make their own Web sites, but not on the servers of their choosing. You know the drill.
It is as if the existence of every book in every library depended upon the ongoing collaboration of every author, publisher, reader, and librarian, a Schrodinger’s cat experiment designed by Rube Goldberg. A lot of social links must be maintained to keep this contraption going, and over time these links dissipate.
But websites are not simply abandoned. It’s worse than that. The paint never dries. This medium invites one to tinker endlessly, and there is often a lot of tinkering to be done. Since Hearsay was launched, the Center for History and New Media has continued to provide access to the directory in which it resides, and I have made regular use of that hospitality. Most of my revisions have been technical or design-related, but my tinkering might just as well have involved substantive changes to the content and nature of my essay and argument, and this—to which anyone who has ever desperately wanted to retrieve and revise some misstatement put to print will attest—certainly sets the Web apart from the usual scholarly means of production.
Sites disappear and change. It would be better if they could be captured on CD-ROM, purchased, cataloged, and properly stored. It would make sense to restrict revisions to a published online work, for it [End Page 251] is no easy thing to cite a moving target. A little...