More fuel to the fire: an introduction

2011 Feb. 13

In the introduction to her book The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Elizabeth Eisenstein aptly identified a problem that was confronting humanities researchers; she was responding to a historian who had lamented that “new media” was causing a sort of “collective amnesia,” as old reading habits were dying out in favor newer, less careful ones. But that historian had it wrong, says Eisenstein:

Collective amnesia, however, did not strike me as the proper diagnosis of the predicament which the historical profession confronted. … It was recall rather more than oblivion which presented the unprecedented threat. So many data were impinging on us from so many directions and with such speed that our capacity to provide order and coherence was being strained to the breaking point.1

In other words, the problem was one of too much information.

Eisenstein was working on that book in the 1960s and ’70s, at the dawn of desktop publishing, but a full generation would elapse before such new media phenomena as wikipedia, one-click ordering, and google books changed the way the public collects and creates information. Nevertheless, I think Eisenstein’s analysis is useful for describing the situation today, when historians and other humanities researchers are being overwhelmed with information—not only junk, but useful and relevant information. So what do we do?

That brings us to the digital humanities. The central task of pioneers in this field is to devise ways to work through all this data, for researchers today are confronted with too much information, and the only way out is through. And so it is with this spirit that I gleefully add fuel to the fire and introduce this blog on humanities and new media.

1 Elizabeth Eisenstein. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), xiii-xiv.