What proportion of all the words that have ever been published, in the whole history of humanity, have been published in the last ten years? I don’t know the answer to that (google doesn’t tell me quickly), but I bet the answer is “An astonishingly high proportion”.
And how many words have been published in the last 24 hours? I can’t get google to tell me this either (you may begin to notice a pattern emerging here), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the answer was “More words than William Caxton published in his entire life”.
It is a historians’ truism that the invention of the printing press had revolutionary effects upon European society: the Reformation, for instance. But we live in the midst of a far greater revolution in information technology, in ways and means of “spreading the word”, than Caxton’s. Caxton couldn’t even have dreamed of what’s happening now.
The effects of this revolution across every aspect of our lives are already momentous, and there’s plenty more where that came from. One example: I sometimes go on a climbing forum, and it was on that forum that I first heard of last week’s dreadful Cumberland shootings–in a thread on that forum which climbers (some of them posting from west Cumberland, some of them probably with plans to go climbing that very afternoon in the very areas where Bird was at large) rapidly started using as a quick way of pooling radio and TV information so that everyone could see, pretty well instantly, all the information going about where the threat was, and what people were doing or being advised to do to avoid it. Another example: it is not unrealistic to hope that the internet will play a serious role in bringing a greater measure of democracy to countries with IT-progressive populations and human-rights-regressive governments: I have Iran and China particularly in mind, though my own country has much work to do in this area as well.
Two reactions to this continuing revolution both seem, in opposite ways, inadequate. One extreme is simply to ignore it, which for most of us– especially in an inherently technophile institution like the OU– would be academically and professionally self-defeating, and also, at a purely personal level, a rather disappointingly ostrich-like way of missing out on a great deal of fun. The other extreme is summed up very nicely by a cartoon that I saw in a paper recently: Steve Jobs is pictured waving the i-pad at his audience with the words “This gizmo will make it really easy for you to do a whole lot of tasks that you never had to do before”. As John Wolffe has pointed out on this blog, we can get so that we’re led by the technology instead of getting it to do what we want to do; rather like a holiday French-speaker whose vocabulary runs out so fast that instead of saying what he wants to say, he has to settle for what he can say.
In between these extremes lies the golden mean of working out something like a shopping list: getting clear about what we want digital technology to do, and matching that as far as we are able with what it actually can do. In that spirit, here are some thoughts about what I as a researcher in philosophy want from the digital technology that I use.
1. A very simple and basic request: I want it to work. Instantly. Is that too much to ask? At present, it appears to be. I spend far too much of my time looking at an hourglass revolving or a progress bar chugging along at a dementingly slow pace. This isn’t always to do with my connection speed. I sometimes think that– for all the brave words about the IT revolution I’ve just uttered– where we are now with computers is about where we were with cars in, say, 1913: they’re still halfway between being genuinely use-worthy, and being luxury novelty gadgets for eccentric millionaires that don’t really work any better than the kind of novelties you get in Christmas crackers. As my date 1913 reminds us, in the case of cars it took a world war to sort this out. Let’s hope we don’t have to go to that kind of length to get computers that do actually work, in real time and without driving you nuts and distracting you hopelessly from what you’re actually trying to do.
2. I want a decent online encyclopedia of philosophy. Oh wait, I’ve got one: http://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html . That’s something, then.
3. I want all the philosophical classics to be available online, in downloadable, digitally searchable forms, both in English (good–patchy but improving–coverage: see e.g. http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill1.htm, http://rbjones.com/rbjpub/philos/classics/locke/, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/) and, where appropriate, in the original languages (rather poor coverage, but see, e.g., http://www.wright.edu/cola/descartes/meditation1l.html and http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6342).
4. Sorry, but I’m going to insist on this: I want the GREEK texts of Aristotle and Plato, and everybody else who wrote/writes philosophy in that divine language, and while we’re at it the poets and historians as well, to be available online too. (Terrible coverage; there is, for example, this http://www.archive.org/stream/aristotelisethic00aris#page/270/mode/2up but it’s not genuinely digital; or there’s the Perseus site http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/ but how to make it work for you is a mystery, at least to me, and I’m the kind of audience that they really ought to be able to reach.)
5. I want to be able to access all the key philosophy journals without having to buy the damn things and watch them plug up my already crammed little office. This too is more or less possible, thanks to the OU Library.
6. I want to have a keyboard that enables me to write Greek script as fluently as I write Roman. No mucking around with selecting single characters by click and drag. I’m fed up of it and it’s high time it stopped. What am I, the only classical scholar in the world? Those of us who want to write in Greek are a far from insignificant minority in academia. So far, we just are not catered for in any adequate way at all.
(Sidebar: It’s only honest for me to admit that some of my friends in the OU Classics Department have succeeded in getting hold of a downloadable package that has enabled them to crack this one, and they have kindly emailed me instructions on how to crack it for myself. I haven’t been able to follow these instructions through, mainly because I have either found them impossible to follow, or because the instructions committed me to downloading something that then disappeared into an unknown location on my computer, where, presumably, it still lurks making no discernible difference to anything. Yes, I know, I’m IT-incompetent. But, as I tend to say when I’m on Examining Boards, if one student misunderstands the question, that’s the student’s fault; but if most students misunderstand the question, that’s the question’s fault. And am I the only one who struggles with this? I don’t think so.)
7. Same remarks for logical symbols as I’ve just made about Greek script. I don’t want to have to go Insert> Symbols> Select> Click etc. and put them in one by one. I want to be able to type them as fast as I’m typing this.
8. And that’s basically it. Philosophy’s needs are pretty simple compared with most other academic subjects, and even compared with most other humanities subjects. Philosophers don’t usually have to manipulate statistics, draw graphs, construct databases or spreadsheets or archives, or anything like that. And philosophers may like tweeting or podcasting or similar, but these aren’t things they professionally need to do. (Not yet.) What strikes me most is not the reach or the complexity of my digital demands/needs as a practising philosopher ; it’s the total failure, to date, of technology to respond in any at all specific way to the needs of researchers in my areas of inquiry. I find that failure highly frustrating. I am, I suppose, reasonably optimistic that it will get fixed before too long. But there again maybe I shouldn’t be so optimistic, given the amount of effort and money that I know (from being a contributor) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has needed to get it and keep it going– the SEP being far and away the biggest success-story in the digitisation of my discipline.