In the future, we’ll all be curators.
Sean Takats’ recent post looks again at how access to information changes out work. If readers will forgive some geezerish ramblings, I’ll recall what it was like back in the early 1990s, when I could reasonably have been called a digital media pioneer, and consider how new media resources change our practice.
I taught at Vassar College from 1990-1994. Michael Joyce, the author of the pioneering hypertext novel Afternoon, had a gig there, as well as the British historian Tony Wohl, who worked on George Landau’s In Memoriam Web, a hypertext organized around the Tennyson poem of the same name.
A “hypertext,” in case you don’t know, was a text with no boundaries and no fixed narrative direction. Readers could move through Afternoon and by clicking on different links, construct entirely different plots and outcomes. Any user of the In Memoriam Web (which was not actually on the web: it was on a disk) could add material at will: commentaries, criticisms, other pieces of prose or poetry. I found Joyce’s prose annoying and thought it was astounding that anyone would read Tennyson’s turgid and unpleasant In Memoriam in conventional prose, much less in a new and unconventional form. But the whole business of computers in those days combined giddy utopianism with a medicinal tendency to substitute “new” for fun or beautiful. Hypertexts bathed in the glow of the “technological sublime.”
Hypertexts were going to end hierarchy and destroy the tyranny of the author; they would abolish ownership and democratize both scholarship and knowledge. Apple even had a program, called “Hypercard,” which allowed you to relatively easily create “hypertexts” in glorious black and white. 1
Hypertexts then arrived at your computer on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. The internet, in 1992, still kept humaninsts mostly at bay. It was slow–delivering a single black and white image gave you time to make another cup of coffee or possibly several. I spent a lot of time searching via “telnet” for interesting stuff, mostly thinking “wow, if this thing I was looking for was actually out there somewhere, it’d be really cool!” In 1993, the few humanities types surfing the web were thrilled by the release of NCSA Mosaic, reasonably termed the first “graphical web browser,” which allowed you to wait impatiently for small, low resolution images embedded in a plain gray web page of text with no margins. At the time, Yahoo was a gray page with about 98 links on it.
In 1994 I went to George Mason and became close friends with Roy Rosenzweig, who put me to work helping turn the textbook Who Built America into a CD-Rom version using, yes, Hypercard. CD Rom seemed like the way to go–the internet was brutally slow, hostile to anything but text, with an almost Puritan disdain for aesthetic pleasure.
Roy had just gotten the initial start up grant for CHNM. We took a local seminar on HTML, designed the first few CHNM web sites and set up our first web server, on a Mac IIsi in a broom closet. We did this partly because the University would at the time not allow faculty to upload files larger than 3 megabytes.
By then you could add color to a web page. In 1995 I devised an entire course, “Magic, Illusion and Detection,” around a game-like interface. A revised version, half heartedly updated in 2007, is still up at http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/magic/: the internet archive has a version from 1997. It was very avante garde for its day, and a huge amount of work. Just finding the images took forever and involved trips to the Library of Congress and the Washington DC historical society. You can see the legacy of those early days if you enter the “movie theater.” The films playing, at tiny size, were probably in 1994 the world’s largest animated gifs!
It’s an obvious point but worth reiterating: many of the things being proposed as utopian possibilities in, say, the early 1990s, when I started teaching, have simply come true.
This week I prepared some new lectures in two different periods of American history. I was able to find images supporting every single point I wanted to make. And not just images: for a lecture on Harry Houdini I found his 1922 film The Man from Beyond; for a lecture on intelligence testing I found the full text of the report on IQ in the US Army in 1919. I gave a lecture on the Shakers: in 1994, images of Shaker communities were rare, and I actually brought a book to class and passed it around. Today there are thousands of images on the web and dozens of versions of the Shaker song Simple Gifts to chose from. At one time I went to the Library of Congress and after negotiating much bureaucracy managed to get a videocassette of very early silent films to show in class. Nearly all of these have been subsequently posted to Youtube. None of this took much effort to find. The revolution is now: utopia is here.
That sounds ridiculous, maybe, and of course it’s not a perfect world. But the teaching part of my job is just completely, astonishingly different now. Assembling the materials of a good lecture–not just the intellectual materials, but particularly audio-visual materials like cartoons, movies, songs, posters, photos–was literally the hard work of a somewhat compulsive lifetime. Dedicated teachers constructed a library of books and file drawers full of transparencies and slides, a private archive that amounted to a tangible physical re-presentation of their thinking. See for example this page on Roland Marchand’s file cabinets. Few went as far as Marchand. But most of what Marchand collected is now available online elsewhere. 2
Not all the predictions of hypertext enthusiasts have come true, but a surprising percentage have. See, for example, this recent article in Slate about just how much of the world’s music is now online. Scholars now look less like discoverers or creators of knowledge and more like curators, choosing from existing collections and making meaning out of the choices, drawing on a deep background of contextual knowledge to assemble a plausible interpretation or theme. It’s obviously easier/more likely in some fields than others, and of course the relatively open access we now enjoy are always under threat of beng enclosed by copyright. But at the present, my job as teacher is feeling quite different than it did when I began, and in almost entirely positive ways. And just as it has effected teaching, so it will effect scholarship: scholarship will look increasingly “curatorial.”
- The In Memoriam Web was engrossed into the Victorian Web: the site gives you an excellent example of really bad web design but also about how people were thinking about hypertext and in the 1990s ↩
- Roy Rosenzweig had a similar huge collection, occupying boxes and boxes and cabinet after cabinet in his basement. When Roy passed away something had to be done with that material. Most of it was now available online. What to do with such an archive? His widow, Deborah Kaplan, describes the problem here. ↩