Meaning after Data

Just read through an interesting review on digital humanities and the emerging shift from literature to data, by Stephen Marche, "Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities," LA Review of Books,
http://bit.ly/Rs8F7w. Marche, it seems to me, is not against digital humanities as such. Rather his concern is for the hubristic utopianism that pretends that digitisation of data will save the humanities. This relates to my own research on the theological meaning of the codex book at the moment. As Marche puts it:

Google Books, in its way, represents an even more profound shift than the printing press, because it ends the relationship to the codex which began much earlier, in the fourth century. Binding together texts into portable libraries was one of the original Christian acts. For the Romans, texts were isolated events contained in scrolls. The ferocious squeamishness of hundreds of librarians and writers and scholars who resist this disbinding of literature today isn’t mere self-interest. The end of the book is a kind of sacrilege to them, and they’re not wrong. Cutting open the book is literally a return to the forms and modes of paganism...

...Meaning is mushy. Meaning falls apart. Meaning is often ugly, stewed out of weakness and failure. It is as human as the body, full of crevices and prey to diseases. It requires courage and a certain comfort with impurity to live with. Retreat from the smoothness of technology is not an available option, even if it were desirable. The disbanding of the papers has already occurred, a splendid fluttering of the world’s texts to the winds. We will have to gather them all together somehow. But the possibility of a complete, instantly accessible, professionally verified and explicated, free global library is more than just a dream. Through the perfection of our smooth machines, we will soon be able to read anything, anywhere, at any time.

Insight remains handmade.

Recently, I've tried to think through the meaning of writing after Derrida, and Lyotard, etc. What's often missed is the strange set of side comments and footnotes that they made on writing itself. As Derrida recognized, this concern for writing goes back to Plato's record of Socrates' aside on the priority of speech (most famously in the Phaedrus). It's as if the need to record and repeat is part of philosophy itself somehow and digital media is the latest radicalisation of this tendency. Radical both in its change, and in its return to the root (radix) of the problem. 

As book historians attest, the codex provided a set of techniques which we developed to make meaning. Pages cut, margins spaced, paragraphs, periods and breaks, all designed to humanise information, aid the memory, and connect us to the infinite abyss poeticized in Gilgamesh all those years ago. And yet, we stand today in a collective amnesia of this history of the book, a blind eroticism of the latest iPhone, or the milliseconds it takes Google to produce its limited results. Little care or concern is voiced for what we are losing in this shift to data. 

"Insight remains handmade," Marche writes. A simple summation of the small side comments and technical reviews, which concern themselves with the digital devices' strain upon our eyes and hands. Will these comments lead to some sense of the ease with which these grim data reepers help or hinder the meaning making work which we linguistic animals must labor to achieve?

Let me be clear, I am not a luddite. My aim is simply to point out the need for ancient humanist techniques and not to leave it to a few tech executives and focus groups at Apple or Google. Just as Nietzsche declared God to be dead, which decried our feeble theologies more than the life of transcendent deities, so too, we must remind people that Steve Jobs is dead. It is not his corpse that should concern us, but the spectre of a single magician who would be responsible for the fragile, finite, human struggle we are in.

timothywstanley@me.com