What’s the point?

Center for Information and Communication Techn...

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There is no question that there is a surging urge to digitise. But what inspires this? What is the point of all this activity? There are a number of conversation strands to this topic, and I look at some of them here.  It is likely there are more, and others.  What does emerge is that there are professional, philosophical, economic and possibly even cultural differences in approach to digitisation, and these are by no means consistent or consensual. In fact, some of the drivers for digitisation seem to be using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

1. The first and perhaps most obvious inspiration for the digitisation of the world’s documents and cultural artefacts finds its origin in the zeitgeist of the so-called information society: a zeitgeist, may it be said, which by now is surely rather old and tawdry, and exposed for the misconceived delusion that it is. We now know that all societies have always been ‘information societies'; that we by and large agree with Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells that the concept of the ‘information society’ is in fact but another stage of the capitalist industrial society, which encourages consumerism. We are aware that the notion of ‘globalisation’, in the way it is enacted by multinationals to exploit the poor and disadvantaged in favour of the rich, has some serious ethical questions to answer. We can also, quite quickly, dismiss the idea that technologies, in and of themselves, can create change or increase social development: it is the USE of them, and the PURPOSES for which they are used that will make the desired differences in the lives of individuals, communities and societies. This purpose, from the point of view of information professionals, is to assist in the communication of information (or ideas) between people. Alas: at the same time, there seems to be a parallel desire to keep populations ignorant or misinformed, at least by certain regimes: information flows are suppressed.

2. A second driver for digitisation is certainly economic. This has two aspects: firstly, digitisation and increasing use of information and communication techologies (ICTs) seems to be understood to be the way to create new jobs, new possibilities to make money and perhaps even fortunes. This aspiration was dashed at least once, with the dot.com bust in the 1990s: the only people who seem to be making money now are those who are selling the equipment – which needs to be constantly updated and replaced – and the software – although possibilities here seem to be limited with the increased availability of free software and, more importantly, Open Source coding systems. Some online endeavours are financially valued in strange ways, too, which are perhaps difficult to understand. The billions of dollars that Facebook is allegedly worth is, to my mind, a strange phenomenon. But there are still seemingly unlimited opportunities for online merchandising, marketing and retailing, and consultants in social networking marketing seem to be thriving.

The other side of the economic or financial aspect is the possibility for saving money and cost-cutting. This applies not only to the vending of virtual objects such as ebooks or online services (website hosting, for example), which cost little to store and maintain. The replacement of libraries by the internet seems to be a very real possibility for many governments dealing with the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC – which always, for some reason, reminds me of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – BFG). David Cameron‘s present regime in the UK is a good example of this: it extends to replacing large numbers of public servants whose work can, apparently, also be done by citizens using the internet. ICTs continue to be deified as saviours of the world, if one is to believe the rhetoric that is expressed in many government documents, particularly perhaps some of those emanating for the iEurope European Union’s digital economy initiatives.

3.  Digitisation of documents does, however, open doors that were previously firmly shut. The Open Educational Resources University  (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university#Core_initiatives_of_the_logic_model) campaign being led, to all intents and purposes, by Wayne Mackintosh, is a prime example of this. It uses the best characteristics of the ‘information society’ , such as globalisation, to reach scholars and teachers all over the world, in order to create and distribute university learning materials to those who live all over the world – not just in the rich parts – so that they will have access to tertiary education. Surely this is the only way forward, in this dimension? I have mentioned Open Source software; there is also an increased movement towards access to ideas that is possible in a digitised, virtual, networked, information environment: Open Access. This is particularly useful for the dissemination of scholarly information, as well as those documents that are required to support other roles in society, not forgetting entertainment. All of these possibilities, combined with the increasing mobility of ICT devices (smaller and cheaper) and wireless access, may perhaps lead to significant improvements in people’s lives. Some even say that ICTs facilitated the recent political changes we have seen in North Africa.

4. We cannot rule out the possibility that digitisation is also being stimulated by technological determinism. “Oooh! I want to build a twaddler! It’s new! It’s big! It’s shiny!” But what can it be used for? Does it help me? Will it last for ever? Do we need one?  Rather cynically, there does appear to be some of this in a few digitisation initiatives, which have lasted for only as long as the funding has been around – and there doesn’t appear to have been enough reason or purpose to continue the funding. While, for many reasons, I endorse and support – and am enthusiastic about – the purposes to which the digitisation of cultural resources and documents can be put, I am still more than a bit concerned about the long-term prognosis. ‘Digital preservation’ still appears, to me, to be an oxymoron. As well as this, as I have been saying for about two decades, the technology is still very primitive: I don’t think that our clever colleagues in computer science and technologies have come anywhere near to where their work might still take them. Regarding existing technologies as the ‘last word’, or even suggesting that things may stay more or less the same (simply because our imaginations fail us), could mean making a very big mistake indeed.

5. The last aspect of the enthusiasm for digitisation may be motivated by a desire for control (above and beyond any economic or financial considerations). Access to information (or ideas, which I find to be the most useful synonym) has always, and will always be, regarded politically, as ideas may be – and indeed often are – dangerous: at least to the status quo, and especially to those who would be upset or lose out if the status quo were to be disturbed. Paradoxically, digitisation simultaneously provides the possibility for loss of centralised control: the use of Twitter and Facebook in Egypt, for example, or perhaps as a slightly more exaggerated example, WikiLeaks and now UniLeaks (http://www.unileaks.org), which could be seen as serving as the conscience of contemporary society. Citizen journalism – and indeed all social media – are other expressions of this facility. Information, or ideas, no longer have to be sanctioned by those in power or positions of authority: anybody (even me) can say what they like and have the possibility of being heard all over the world. UKUncut ( http://ukuncut.org.uk/blog/26th-march—invite-your-friends) provides  but one example of this.  This may possibly be an unexpected outcome of (4) above: “We invented the twaddler but we didn’t realise it could be used like THIS!”.

Looking forward to hearing from you – and please post comment here and on the Wallwisher!

All the best as ever, wherever you are

S

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Converging ICTs, multidisciplinarity, making knowledge and making meaning.

2 Responses to What’s the point?

  1. Aaah. Why? The most important question in any language system, in my opinion. Wonderful coincidence that you have been contemplating these same issues: I am not sure that I have any answers, except perhaps to recognise that there is a really paradoxical/oxymoronic/schizophrenic nature that can be used (in fairy-tale talk) ‘for good or evil’. So digitisation poses a very fundamental problem for all of us.

  2. Lost in High Antelopeia says:

    Thank you for sharing this on an afternoon where I’ve been increasingly depressed by what I’ve been struggling with: these very same basic questions.

    If the the question is “What is the point?” it’s sister question that needs to be asked of the person standing in front of you, enthusiastically asking you to digitize some collection, should be a simple “Why?”

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