The revolution will not be virtualized.

reading

I did some reviewing work for Routledge in the autumn, and in return they very kindly sent me some new entries for my quickly growing digital Shakespeares reading list. Mostly these books have been decorating my desk over the holidays, but I have managed to get started with Steven E. Jones’s recently published The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. It’s a very helpful guide to the growth of digital humanities as an academic field over the last fifteen or so years, though Jones points out that ‘DH’ didn’t become ‘a thing’, as it were, until about 2009 — which apparently is 5 years ago now… (Side note: reading about digital technology and culture is involving a lot of moments in which I encounter dates that look very recent and then realize that, actually, they aren’t.)

Jones works his way through a number of interesting case studies that allow him to talk about the dimensions, people, places, things, publications, and practices that make up digital culture, with each word being the title of a different chapter in the book. His thesis is that digital life is material, located, and social, and most fundamentally that it can no longer be clearly separated from what we might be tempted to call ‘real life’. Virtuality, he suggests, is not a very useful way of thinking about what the digital is anymore, seeing as how digital tools are so enmeshed in so many very real aspects of modern daily life (think email, iPods, Google maps, smart phones, GPS, e-readers, swipe cards, and digitized records of all different varieties).

Rather than think of the digital as something that happens in a weird sort of cyberspace, Jones argues that we need to accept that it has ‘everted’, or exploded outward into the world at large. The result is an integrated, but nonetheless very mixed reality, in which we are constantly presented with ‘the paradox of living in two worlds at once.’ (Another side note: Jones tells us that the terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘eversion’ both come from the sci-fi writer William Gibson, who coined them in 1982 and 2009, respectively. Which makes me wonder — what is Gibson writing about now??)

I find Jones’s central argument very helpful and persuasive, and I’m interested in how people like me approach the process of moving between the highly related but still distinctive worlds of analogue and digital (I’m tempted to use the word ‘toggle,’ but I feel like that must say something about my own digital coming of age). I think this process of oscillation is what I’m trying to understand better as I think about the experience of watching a performance live in-person versus live on-screen, or of trading Shakespeare quotes with a group of people through Twitter versus underlining passages in my own hard copy of the complete works.

These questions are put into sharper relief this week as my university resumes teaching, and I find myself giving the same lectures and leading the same seminars on-site for campus students and online for distance learning ones. My approach has always been to combine and blend the two groups as much as possible, extending the on-site into the online, and the online into the on-site. But it would be silly to say that differences don’t remain. Which makes me wonder, are there limits to eversion, or is it simply a matter of time? 

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