- Looking Backward: Print and Digital Futures of the Humanities
What will be the future of the humanities in the digital age? The question has become as pervasive as its answers remain elusive. Although leading thinkers and practitioners of what is now widely known as the digital humanities have devoted much energy and creativity to this question, the resulting projects and practices primarily take the form of dispersed (if proliferating) experiments. Digital humanities initiatives, such as web-based archives and digital research or teaching “labs”, rarely end up well integrated into university policies, curricula, and departments. Even the most successful of those initiatives struggle with their long-term sustainability. Few have demonstrated how universities and departments will ultimately balance new digital methods of research and teaching with the approaches that we might now call “traditional.” We find ourselves in early stages of a transition, it seems—from the institutional and disciplinary practices that shaped the humanities as we know them in the age of print, to the new (and old) ones that will enable us to continue to preserve our printed past and explore its convergence with the digitally dominated present.
If debates about the future of the humanities are only just beginning to find answers, that need not be discouraging news. On the contrary, understanding the current state of the humanities in this way promises an escape from the discourse of crisis that often accompanies such discussions. As the media scholars among us know well, transitions motivated by media change are not unique to the digital age. Media history from the middle ages to the present contains countless examples (some well known, others long-forgotten) [End Page 404] of experimentation with cultural forms that new technologies have inspired and enabled; of the remediation that takes place as old media converge with new; and, ultimately, of the reordering of media and other cultural systems as those convergences lead to new practices and representational regimes. Exploring that history can help us to, borrowing Stephanie Boluk’s words from a recent reflection on the Electronic Literature Organization, “slow down and look back as a means to move forward.”1
Within media studies in recent decades, scholars have explored the idea of looking backward to gain perspective on current transitions, as well as previous ones, through research focused on recovering the debates and possibilities that existed “when old technologies were new” (Marvin).2 As William Uricchio explains, “The history of ‘old media’ developments, if freed from the teleological determinism which so often accompanies retrospective considerations, can provide a surprisingly diverse range of alternative concepts and consequences” (128). A widely read example of the insights resulting from such work is Lisa Gitelman’s investigation of Edison’s phonograph which argues that its eventual development into a commodity used for listening to music at home demonstrates what happens “when media are new, when their protocols are still emerging and the social, economic, and material relationships they will eventually express are still in formation” (Always Already New 15). Like the once-new media technologies that came before and after it, from handwritten scrolls to the Gutenberg press to the Internet, the phonograph demonstrates how new media serve as “socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning as such” (6). Studies like this one have shown how periods of media transition offer particularly revealing vantage points from which to understand cultural texts, the systems in which they participate, and the social negotiations that they inform.3 More recently, such research has also helped to stimulate a new approach to the discipline that is sometimes called “Comparative Media Studies.”4
The influence of comparative media studies is evident in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013). Editors N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman describe their founding premise as follows:
As the era of print...