Saturday, 23 January 2016

spring-like, what does it mean to be human in the digital age?, agrippa (a book of the dead), suffragetto, relit, writing in fountain pen

Beginning to feel that I am catching up on things after the turbulence of the last couple of months.

A cold start to the day - there was frost in the valley nearer the Thames, so I'm told. I can well believe this given how chilly it felt when I started out on my cycle ride. Though when I got home it was pretty warm and now there is a distinctly spring-like feel to the day, not least because of the richer quality of the sunlight.

Very much enjoyed the What Does it Mean to be Human in the Digital Age? event on Thursday evening. (You can watch the podcast here: Inevitably, perhaps, there was the impression that this was a question that academics, librarians and museum curators are only just getting to grips with but there were some excellent points raised that were worthy of further and deeper discussion. The Keeper of the Bodleian's Special Collections, Chris Fletcher was keen to conserve digital material in order to 'leave  the future something to think about', just as the past has left us the works under his care that shed light on previous eras. As he said, 'After all, we are human, we are curious about the past.' Yet he is well aware of the difficulties he faces in storing and curating such data. At one point he cited the self-destruct early digital artwork by William Gibson and Denis Ashbaugh, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992), which involved a poem about memory that was contained on a floppy disc that was programmed to encrypt itself after it had been listened to for the first time. Behind this extreme example lie issues of the fragility of digital data, hardware obsolescence and the imperative to transfer data to new formats in order to preserve them.

I also loved Chris' reference near the start of his talk to a recent physical bequest to the Bodleian of boardgames (part of which is now on show at the Weston Library till 6th March) that includes Suffragetto. According to the instructions for the game, it was 'a contest between two opposing factions, viz., The Suffragettes and The Police. The object of the Suffragettes is to pass through the lines of the Police and to effect an entry into the House of Commons: and while doing so to prevent the Police from entering the Albert Hall. The duty of the Police is to break up a meeting of the Suffragettes which is being held in [the] Albert Hall, and to keep the Suffragettes out of the House of Commons.' As the blurb for the forthcoming exhibition - Playing with History - says, it features '22 games that show how children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain learned about the world around them.'

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford took a different approach to the conserving of digital material, feeling that we needed to define the 'burden of recording the past' and that the so-called 'right to be forgotten' that is usually applied to embarrassing videos etc should be extended to other areas. She posed the question, Are we recording too much, uncritically? She used as an example the obsessive recording of live theatre productions and made the point that when we have seen something live and it has not been recorded, 'forgetting is part of the way we collude with art.' Adding that 'remembering is the enemy of creative reinvention. Not everything should be recorded live.' I thought that these remarks were particularly thought-provoking.

On Sunday, I read a fascinating article in the Sunday Times about a website and free online course that explore how literature might help alleviate mental distress. The website - ReLIT - and course are run by Paula Byrne and Jonathan Bate. What with the Sunday Times article being behind the paywall, there is also a very good piece about the online course on the Warwick University website.

Returning to the subject of being human in the digital age, I've recently started writing a journal using a fountain pen for the first time in fifteen or so years. During that period a love-affair with PDAs and smartphones has mean that everything has been typed but rediscovering the pleasure of actually writing has been wonderful. Not that I think that fountain pen versus digital is an either-or choice - they are complimentary. The digital age brings us so much but keeping in touch with past technologies and pleasures ensures we remain human in the digital age.

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting post Frank, thank you. I'm lucky enough to hear Emma Smith once a term and she is always superb.
    Belatedly HNY and many thanks for the c*****!