But Would He Have Made Regular Backups?

This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Hamlet.doc?” starts out with a nice discussion of the multiple Lears and Hamlets problem.  No scripts exist in his hand.  We don’t know when something is his own idea, or a memorial reconstruction from his actors.  Sometimes it’s just a plain mistake, and we might think it’s perfection. Then the article goes on to say “but what if Shakespeare was using a word processor?”  He could have made backups.  He might have had version control.  Tracked changes.  “We might have learned that the play was originally called Great Dane.” 🙂 The article uses a term I quite like, “born-digital.”  Literature, in other words, that has only ever existed in digital form.  We in the software world like to say, “As soon as you print it, it’s out of date.”

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5 thoughts on “But Would He Have Made Regular Backups?

  1. If you’re into this thing, may I recommend the book Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton by Leah Marcus.

    While reading the book, I blogged this excerpt, which seems to be saying something similar (context is in my blog post):

    “As both computer technology and poststructuralist theory have made inroads into the field of literary studies, most of us have come to think of texts as more malleable, less fixed, than we did before. If texts are generated by computer, the idea of the ‘original’ loses much of its charisma: how can we reliably differentiate ‘originals’ from copies? Printing out our own computer-generated work, we have ourselves become printers and designers on a small scale, and may therefore take more interest in past modes of book production and the ways in which format can influence interpretation.”

  2. I tend to agree that digital texts may lead to an unexpected rethinking of ‘authorial intention’ among academics, but I was slightly put off by Kirschenbaum’s claim that computers “are machines designed to imitate other machines.” That kind of thinking can be somewhat limiting.

  3. Computers are not so much machines designed to imitate other machines as machines whose operations are made to simulate other machines for the ease of the humans using them– so we use metaphors of a desktop with notepads, clocks, calculators, and calenders, metaphors of folders and file cabinets, magnifying glasses, et cetera. The interface is made of metaphors.

    One thing that digital texts have allowed for (and demanded) is higher production values independently produced works– why read an ugly photocopied poetry chapbook when there are so many equally valid poetry blogs out there? The answer is that even small press publishers who specialize in runs of under a thousand must use better paper, and use the desktop technology to its fullest.

  4. Hi,

    I admire Leah Marcus’s work a lot, but one of the things I wanted to do in the Chronicle piece was stress that electronic text is only “malleable” because we choose to make it so, in the form of software that works the way we program it to work. Likewise, document authentication is big business these days, and secure digital documents are becoming more commonplace; to me this only underscores the point that what we call an electronic “document” is really a kind of model of textual behavior, and this model can be made to work in different kinds of ways in accordance with user needs and desire.

    “Computers are not so much machines designed to imitate other machines as machines whose operations are made to simulate other machines for the ease of the humans using them . . .”

    That’s a better way of putting it, absolutely. And I completely agree about the tremendous impact and value of poetry blogs, etc. But to return to the question addressed in my article: how will that work be available for posterity? Is the WayBack Machine the literary archive of the future?

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. That’s a better way of putting it, absolutely.

    Don’t forget to cite your source– which again makes me wonder about texts in our age– Shakespeare and his contemporaries felt free to steal lines from one another in creating their original works– but current standards regard plagerism as beyond the pale– even as the technologies make plagerism easier than ever.

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