Writing in 2004, Jerome McGann spoke of a ‘widespread malaise’ where the work of scholarship, has been bound up with being published and determines academic appointment. Near-term economics rather than long-term scholarship has been the driver of this academic model and has in turn, affected the pursuit of textual studies in favour of theory and interpretation.
McGann, a renowned textual scholar, describes this as a ‘system of apartheid’ which has negatively affected the scholarly study of text. He made a striking but likely accurate, prediction which has been frequently quoted
In the next fifty years the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be reedited within a network for digital storage, access, and dissemination. This system, which is already under development, is transnational and transcultural.
In an age of an abundance of information, how we read and what we read has been changed so dramatically through the use of digital platforms and it would be a mistake to consider a digital platform as nothing more than a surrogate of a printed page. A page on a screen with its potential for the use of audio and video, embedded links and interaction is quite a different environment to a printed page.
It is a difference which has not yet captured the attention of enough scholars McGann believes.
We have had almost 2 millennia where the codex form of the book has trained our eyes and minds to identify the natural break of a paragraph and organise our way of thinking. And, it attempting to understand the knowledge creation and dissemination on screens, we need to first go back to the book and reengage with the study of bibliography, the book as a physical and cultural object and the theory and practice of scholarly editing.
Only then can we begin to understand why print has been a medium that has thus far been quite resilient in the face of digital innovation. Why how we read is affected by screen or print, the ways that a printed book has the advantage if we are reading for understanding and the ease which we can scan a screen when we are looking for key terms. Above all, we need to consider that a book has its own artefactual quality, that it has always been much more than the sum of the words inside, with meanings that are both inexhaustible and for McGann, a computable fact.
This way of looking at screens is perhaps essential, so that we can begin to train our minds to appreciate and work with the many affordances and possibilities of digital, or what McGann describes as the quantum order of bibliographical objects which becomes accessible to us through computerisation.
By becoming digitally literate, by reading and writing and engaging online, we can expand our understanding of both the page and the screen. And we can begin to design the interfaces that in some way replicate the sophistication of a book.