Thursday, 27 March 2014

Breadth, depth, digital, print

This is a blog.  I am not an academic.  Inevitably, any of the very few interpretative elements here are going to be under-researched; probably unoriginal; frequently banal; sometimes plagiarised or poorly referenced and possibly wrong.  Individual posts are liable to be changed without notice - I may delete controversial statements written in haste or even add them.  Don't judge this by the standards that you apply to a journal article or an academic book.  If, by chance, I write something you think is interesting, don't use it without referencing me, but look first to see if someone with more authority has said it first, and said it better.  As sure as eggs is eggs, it will be out there...  and it will be a better reference.

Google can get you so far, but not very far.  How far would you get researching an essay on "Walid Raad" using Google?  About as far as Wikipedia, and thousands of snippets of fact and opinion, with some analysis which you may or may not be able to evaluate.  The in-depth analysis is more likely to be found in academic sources.

Today's research environment is confusing.  You think its easy because there is so much information available, and it is keyword searchable, but information is not the same thing as analysis, nor is it the same thing as knowledge.  Two hundred thousand web-pages have quoted these lines from T. S. Eliot:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
It must be true!

The digital environment is fantastic for pinpointing specific information.  So, if you have a reasonably distinctive term, Google can home in on it like an army of scud missiles.  It facilitates a particular type of research using keywords to search academic as well as non-academic sources.  You can trace the frequency of the word 'materiality' in books over 200 years, track down 3500 books which mention "Walid Raad," or wonder why there are so few journal articles that name-check this artist listed on Google Scholar.  It would be fairly tedious, but perfectly possible to curate rather than write an essay, using all this data: "Raad's work undermines the conventions of logical procedure and testament and makes use of our expectation of factual accuracy" etc etc.

I'm not knocking it. If you know what you're doing, you can construct a good list of references this way.  It is research on speed.

A few reservations, though.  What do you do if you are not researching a proper noun, when concepts are less easy to define or separate from other, everyday language?  What do you do if you are researching the idea of the 'family album' and Google starts to fail you?. And what are you overlooking, when you are skimming, scanning and - to use Katherine Hayles term - "Hyper reading"? Might you have got further in your understanding if you gone straight to a recent exhibition catalogue and read a few of the contextual essays?  Did the articles in the peer-reviewed journal Third Text appear in your searches?  Do you understand the difference between keywords and subject terms? (see here).

And what are you doing to your mind if you don't read full works and don't follow the logic of an argument from start to finish?  What if you can't assess the quality of a source, its perspective, or the credibility of individual arguments, because it is presented to you in a stream of Internet pages?.   What if you think a blogger has the same status as academic research? And what about all those sources that are full of wisdom that are not specifically related to your search terms???  What if you can't recall anything you've read from the mash-up of Internet sources?  What if the closest you have come to reading any key text is a a summary in a textbook such as Fifty Key texts in art history or worse a gloss of it on Spark Notes.

Digital culture is oriented towards information and the database; it is about harnessing vast quantities of data.  It is about speed.  There is a flattening out of traditional hierarchies.  It is less focussed on longer forms of analysis and discussion, and of authority, selection, and discrimination; and despite its breadth, what you tend to get is the specific.  It pushes you towards less but more focussed reading, less analysis, and more citation.  One can see the development of a kind of scavenger scholarship with more reliance on using breadth of references as 'evidence' rather than relying on strength of argument and analysis.  Even within the journals within library and information science I read articles that go something like this: “There is increasing evidence that Giraffes are lovely (Snavely, 2012, Smith 1999, Enfield, 2002, Zimbardo 2013, Paltrow, 2014)”).  Am I supposed to read and assess the evidence in these references?  Or are we to suppose that because a reference is in a peer reviewed journal, of whatever quality, it must be true?.  I am sick of articles with as many references as a PhD!.  Digital culture encourages people to cut and paste in preference to thinking; it encourages a combination of tunnel vision, and chaotic distraction. Social media just adds to the problem!

I know.  Its not all bad.  If you know what you're doing.  But, as argued by Hayles, Brabazon, Carr and others there needs to be a counterbalance - an appreciation of the different cultures of reading; one based in the traditions of print - slow, in depth, analytical - and one based in the digital world.  They are not mutually exclusive - you can have print culture online, and online culture in print.  We must live with both.  There is a need to encourage depth of understanding.  I see us like acrobats on a high-wire, stretched between the two cultures - print and digital. To situate yourself in either one is a mistake.

Further reading

Brabazon, T. (2013).  Digital dieting; from information obesity to intellectual fitness.  Ashgate

Carr, N. G. (2011).  The shallows; how the Internet is changing the way we think and remember.  Atlantic Books.

Hayles, K. (2012).  How we think; digital media and contemporary technogenesis. The University of Chicago Press.

Mann, T. (2001). The importance of books, free access, and libraries as places—and the dangerous inadequacy of the information science paradigm. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27(4), 268-281. doi:

Muir, L. J. and Hawes, G., 2013.  The Case for E-book Literacy: Undergraduate Students' Experience with E-Books for Course Work. Journal of Academic Librarianship 39 (2013), pp. 260-274 DOI 10.1016/j.acalib.2013.01.002

Staiger, J. (2012).  How E-books are used; a literature review of the E-book studies conducted from 2006 to 2011.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51 (4).  American Library Association. doi: