Oct

17

LectureHop: We Were Born Digital

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The computer strikes again; the English Department sponsored conference “The History of Reading and Reading Processes” examines how word processing has changed the way that authors write and the way that scholars and fans obsess. Daily Editor Liz Naiden was tempted to bring a typewriter to the keynote speech in 523 Butler.

Long-time blogger and resident English Dept. Austen specialist Jenny Davidson would be the one to organize a conference that opened with a discussion of belles lettres and closed with a guide to stalking your favorite authors in the digital age. If you want to learn about Jane Austen’s writing process, you use one of the good old fashioned libraries that keep copies of her original drafts and correspondence. But if you want to sift through Salmon Rushdie’s drafts, correspondence, and personal life and you’re persistent, you’ll find a mid-90’s windows laptop or two staring you in the face.

The question is, what do we as literary scholars (ahem, Facebook stalkers) do with such an artifact? Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland delivered the keynote speech of the conference on this and other issues surrounding the study and maintenance of what he calls “born-digital media,” meaning anything, including a draft of a manuscript, that is created on a computer.

The idea of composing on a word processor has been a strange one since the beginning, when the first personal word processing machine, called “The Wang,” hit the scene in 1976. Though it seems that he refrained from making the obvious joke, Steven King wrote often on the absurdity and fascination of this new way of writing, where one could delete things and they would not just be crossed out or put aside, but simply disappear. In his 1983 story “Word Processor of the Gods,” King envisions a world where deleting a sentence on the divine machine not only deletes it from the document, but deletes the idea, object, or person described from the world entirely.

The ability to delete can, in some cases, make valuable data incredibly easy to lose. President Obama’s Blackberry has been criticized by those responsible for archiving Presidential records because as many readers know, you need to purge the message history of your blackberry every month or so when storage space runs out. On the other hand, different problems arise in the study the personal computers of modern authors who have donated their machines to libraries (like Salmon Rushdie and Norman Mailer, the latter with assurances that nicotine stains on the keypad would be blamed on his “personal assistant”). Is it kosher to look at deleted drafts? What about the song that the author was listening to on iTunes or what they were viewing on the web?

And be honest, would you want your future biographers to know that you were reading Bwog and Gchatting while writing a paper they’ll cite in “The Early Years” as an indicator of your future greatness? As scholars begin to answer the new questions associated with authorial process in the digital age, Kirschenbaum asks us to consider how different traditional textual scholarship would be if we had access to this sort of information about past authors. He flips the slide and a disturbing photoshopped MySpace profile appears – Walt Whitman, pictured at his beardiest, is in your extended network!

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