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From “Tron: Legacy”

I recently attended a library panel on Open Access scholarship, which is the latest in a climbing tidal wave of technological revolutions that leave scholars, publishers, and librarians scrambling to understand what is happening and what to do. The sheer depth of the metamorphosis renders a real grasp of the shifting ground impossible. As the panel considered this mounting challenge, I quietly recalled something Martin Heidegger once said: “In its essence, technology is something that man does not control.”

I wonder if he’s right.

Scholarship is in the midst of a profound technological transfiguration. This movement extends far beyond the mere digitization of text-bound disciplines and leads into new realms of scholarly expression. In other words, this is about far more than making an article available for download in .pdf format. This is about configuring new horizons of articulation. The transformation at work right now is on par with the invention of the printing press: the way knowledge is acquired fundamentally shifts. Even the humanities, which are by both preference and tradition the most reserved about adapting to new technologies – that is, compared with the sciences, which are driven by technology – have acquired a whole field called Digital Humanities.

These welling sources of change have been on my mind in more than one way lately, and the Open Access panel forced them to knot together. (1) I have a friend studying data curation at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science, and I have to wrestle to learn what that is at all just to understand the very basics of his future career. (2) I’ve been working closely with Marquette’s Raynor Memorial Libraries in the expansion and maintenance of their “Digital Media Studio,” which is one of the most basic ways the library is attempting to respond to the increase of digital assignments all across university classrooms. (3) In the course of teaching theology classes, I have allowed my students the option of a digital project rather than a traditional written assignment, particularly since the courses I teach are often reflections on the breadth and depth of human expression – and of God’s expression to us. All three of these force me to consider again and again how it is that I and my students learn, how I articulate myself as a scholar, and how libraries form an often unseen lynchpin in both processes.

The first thing that technology does to people is it convinces them that anything is possible, which is not in fact true. What is possible is still determined not only by the tools at hand – and digital tools are still tools – but also by the minds that employ the tools. Technology is expanding at enormous, incalculable rates, particularly regarding how people like my students are using it. The classroom is not so quick to adjust. Oftentimes the use of “technology” in the classroom amounts to the use of Microsoft PowerPoint, which has existed since 1990, and which is basically just a computerized overhead projector – an object in use since at least the 1940s. If this is the blazoning path university educators are forging in technology, it is no path at all.

Think instead of something like an iBook or a Kindle Book. Here is a work that, while often simply the digitized reproduction of a work already in existence, could become a new kind of book entirely. I have spent some time drafting an iBook for G.M. Hopkins poems: here I can include links to entire allusions, create visual charts that broke down a metaphor, add active glossaries, incorporate sounds. Here is a format that could and can not only present information, but also integrate multiple sets of information into a single expression. In other words, here is a book that helps a student begin to think as their own professor thinks: words and phrases are in fact maps to entire worlds of information, connected in multi-dimensional lines of influences and connotations. What if more than teaching a book were like that? What if that also occurred in the creation of a scholarly article? The proposition opens the door to dozens of different transfigurative possibilities. But does it leave scholars needing to understand html as well as Latin? Is this too much?

Perhaps, if scholars are the only actors in the drama.

But the complex integration of ideas occurs not only in the mind of scholar, it also occurs in the care for information with which libraries are concerned. Libraries organize and preserve information. This is what they have always done. Now they are tasked with performing the same function in the digital age. They must organize not only data, but also meta-data; they curate links; they archive webpages. The very discovery of connections among digital resources in many ways depends on librarians first categorizing them in such a way that the scholar might find them. Already librarians work to care for faculty CVs at the digital level, involving both librarian and scholar in things like Open Access and e-publications. Already there has been speculation and experimentation with faculty websites that range from personal efforts to institutionally-guided programs.

In other words, scholarly identity itself has shifted. It is increasingly digitized, which both personalizes and defaces.

I must wonder at this explosion of new horizons. I must also wonder what is happening to education itself. Scholars are commissioned beyond simple institutional boundaries now, with the possibility for a larger audience along with it. Yet does this also mean that information has been even further commodified, and educators increasingly marginalized in education? Will sheer variety replace informed judgement? Will there be no masters and no apprentices? Technology perhaps finally outbounds us.

Or perhaps technology will redound back to us endlessly – not because it questions us, but because we’re the ones with the questions. We own the hands that use it.

Perhaps. I am, regardless, in the thick of it. The point is to be awake to the new storm.

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