Born to be digital

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jul 10, 2006 12:01 AM
Born to be digital

Luddites of the world, awake. Pixels have been working magic while you've slept. Pixels have not replaced the word, but preserved it in a different form. Scanned books are not burned books. Digitized information has opened learning to a new generation of readers.

Having been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the interactive world of digital megadata, I've been persuaded that pixels, those tiny dots that make up the digital image, are not the most subversives things to come down the information highway since moveable type replaced the monks who inscribed ancient texts. Like everything else in the digital world, electronic postings can be good or ill, harnessed to expand knowledge or reduce critical thought. It's up to us (as it always is).

I was surprised to find an ally in Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). He has written 14 books, most of them about the Italian Renaissance, and as we talked over a vitello tonnato salad in a small Italian restaurant near his office just off Pennsylvania Ave., he explained how the NEH has opened a digital humanities initiative aimed at understanding how digital technologies deepen understanding of the humanities.

He's not talking about copyrighted material or the book publishers' lawsuit against Google for scanning whole books. He wants to encourage grants for developing tools to explore the vast resources available in the humanities for scholars, students and ordinary citizens. He cites, for example, the NEH project that will make all of Walt Whitman's archive accessible online. He's enthusiastic about a project with the intriguing title of "The Valley of the Shadow," a "hypermedia archive" at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology, which weaves together thousands of sources relating to two communities -- one southern, one northern -- before, during and after the Civil War. The humanities endowment is collaborating with the National Science Foundation to document endangered languages, preserving them digitally: "They are really the DNA of civilization."

Mr. Cole compares this to the human genome project. He describes the digital newspaper project, a collaborative effort with the Library of Congress, which will eventually include historically significant newspapers from every state and territory between 1836 and 1922. Not just the articles, but the advertisements as well, telling the history and describing the economy and sociology of the time.

A "virtual city" project for St. Louis puts into historical perspective the infamous Dred Scott decision, with transcripts of the proceedings that declared that a slave had no rights, as well as contemporary accounts of slavery, the Underground Railroad and the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The Internet, which has become the most remarkable repository of information in the history of man, is nevertheless a thousand miles wide and an inch deep, and a lot of the "facts" available on it are the sheerest fantasy. But it can be deepened, extended and mined by the dedicated and the diligent. The archives already seem limitless, an index to knowledge if not to wisdom. The wisdom depends on how we use what we learn, but that's true in the library, too. Mr. Cole even defends electronic games (some of them), the bane of many a mom. The games won't make a games addict more moral, but the games are often complex and can enhance a particular kind of cognition, dexterity and ease of interaction that once learned can be put to something useful.

"It's not so easy for an agency that deals with the past to think about the future," the chairman says. "But we're in a new world." He looks forward to the time when scholarly papers with the imprimatur of the NEH can be "born digital" in online journals instead of relying, as most professors in pursuit of tenure do, on arcane paper-and-ink journals that nobody reads. Exposure to a wider audience might even make the scholarship readable.

Digital technology can change the way we think, read, write and learn about the humanities, and the humanities endowment can bestow its financial largesse to enhance an institution's use of new technologies in research, education, preservation and public programming. This will require the collaboration of computer scientists, engineers and scholars to encourage critical thinking.

Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, admits to a certain envy when he watches eight-year olds building Internet web pages, who use the electronic media with spontaneity and ease. "I keep thinking I had to wait until I was 28 because we had to invent it first," he says. A lot of the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do, too.