Media X Notes to the Future from the Precipice of Change
Jed I. Cleishbotham
[Editor’s Introduction: At the blurry-eyed crossing of the midnight hour I found myself a weary, deadline-stricken editor hunched and cross-legged upon the unsavoury carpet of a dimly lit work box on the fourth floor of the humanities building pondering the consequences of a rogue article threatening to leave a gaping chasm in the seemingly invincible ‘In Every Issue’ section arranged for this issue. The shadows settled and the dust collected, the plastic clock thudded on. The vague images of desks and chairs, cabinets and bins and boxes melded with the stacks of books, the piles of papers, the dark whole gently swaying, ebbing and flowing with the passing of time. The distant muffled screech of an owl sliding slowly through the silent spaces of my mind rose and fell. The smell of pencil shavings and cool concrete, stale coffee and an apple core lingered unpleasantly. The waves of words and works solicited and received over months of writing and editing and rewriting cascaded over my working mind while the sinking sensation of incompleteness crept steadily from my cold bare feet, the two finding an uncomfortable home at the pit of my stomach. The rustle of popular magazines caressed my legs, the warmth and weight of old novels encased my torso, anthologies of an improbable weight finally descended upon my chest, seemingly sealing my fate, pinning my pining heart to the unwashed carpet caked with bent paperclips and no-longer-sticky sticky notes. I lay for days and years, making no attempt to raise myself, allowing the dew to settle, the pages to become brown and spotted, my nails to lengthen and curl. The sun rose, the sun set, the room was always dark. I felt I was observed constantly but could not say by whom or for what purpose. I closed my eyes and did not sleep. I could not move yet felt myself always on the move. I made my way through endless crowds, up and down stairs, through thickets and forests and across the river repeatedly. I moved easily, I was unstoppable, but there was no end. The open poppy fields, the winding cobblestone streets – nothing came of it. Stillness prevailed. Circling, spiraling, descending – waiting, relentlessly waiting – the years passed. Finally, I asked the person at the gate, “Have I been here all along?” She answered disapprovingly, “How should I know?” The form of a faceless figure, perhaps a curious colleague I had never met, took shape in the doorway against the square of neon light penetrating from the exposed hallway. I pulled the blanket of periodicals and romances and theoretical musings from my body. The silhouette slipped away. At the entrance remained a copper cylinder and inside was a strange manuscript. A beam of light shattered the darkness, the blood returned to my feet. The following is a selective transcription of the manuscript signed by Jed I. Cleishbotham, which just happened to be more or less appropriate for this section of the journal. Whatever information could be gathered about the author is added to the biographical notice. The origin and date of the manuscript are unknown; scientists of international renown, including Prof. I.B. Chequin, Director of the Humanities Artifacts Verification Laboratory (HAVL) at Jeneva and author of the forthcoming Message in a Bottle, or, the Ocean as Occasional Literary Goldmine, are currently authenticating the source. –Ed.]
Notes to the Future from the Precipice of Change, or Memoirs of an Occasional Traveler, including comments on various aspects of technological development in the modern period up to the twenty-first century with interest in educational and academic spheres, &c. &c.
I have traveled. I recorded tales of the flood on clay tablets; I used papyrus to mark family histories in Egypt; I was among the Romans when the codex emerged; I was second cousin to Gutenberg, a friend of King James and a little-known printer in the town of Boston. Once again, perched as I am with the seabirds on this rocky crag above the far-reaching ocean at this early hour, I am poised to contemplate the winds of change that will overwhelm this tiny island in the few years ahead. As my nights at candle get longer and my days come to a close, visions begin to wash over my mind, visions not of the eternal musings of Mother Nature but of the march of Progress from old to new that moves so hastily in this century, dragging remnants of the past into futurescapes we know not how to describe. Steam is but the latest means of harnessing what the Earth offers freely, but as I sit here, it is not difficult to imagine that a maelstrom is emerging, a great gathering of forces that will alter the fundamental way in which we think and communicate, picture ourselves and speak to others. Just as the Forest yielded timber to Gilgamesh no doubt the soil upon which I sit holds a power unknown, and even these wild gusts that threaten to dislodge my cap will provide the Force necessary to quantities of Work previously inconceivable. But as the clouds gather and the rain covers these barren rocks and the birds shriek and walls of water pound the shore forks of light open the skies and the hands of God seem to announce the profundity of the thunderous events ahead – that which frightens also lights the way. We must look far and deep, listen long and hard for the full extent of the sights and sounds that place us upon the brink of new worlds in which things cannot be as they have been.
In this the year [unreadable, c.1840?], the scales have tipped – communication technology is no longer what it was. The roads lead everywhere; the carriages run fast, the steam trains faster still; the oceans are great highways, and the telegraph is as the lightning that streaks the sky. What holds for the man of letters? Fame for some, wealth for a few as the means to disseminate widely, beyond borders becomes possible. The Wizard of the North – may he rest in peace – is the man of our age in these respects, for even the birds above my head and the fish beneath my feet carry tales of the highlanders, of Rob Roy and Ivanhoe to every pair of eyes and ears in the western world and for no more than a cheap meal. We are all Waverleys in the face of this maelstrom of modernity.
As I wait at the gates, my mind wanders forward again, and I find myself before unlikely visions. Great institutions of learning arise. I see women in long pants and men in short-sleeved shirts with odd floppy collars and only two or three buttons. Many look somewhat aggrieved or over-tired. I find great rooms lined with books of all shapes and sizes. The few people in these rooms are reading on machines. While some giggle and fewer speak, fingers communicate across time and space with multiple people - AT THE SAME TIME! They are together and yet separate, in the same room and yet not there at all. Words are sent and received instantaneously, stored or deleted, published or accessed without delay and in great quantities. Such communication is cheap and mobile, and the opportunities for individual and collaborative creativity across borders increase daily. The new technologies are empowering. I see opportunities for marketing.
. . . and yet there are questions both general and particular to the learning institutions that rise and become entities unto themselves. . . . How does the nature and practice of reading and writing change in this electric world? . . . What are the key questions and concerns relevant to research, pedagogy and publishing?
How does the internet change the way in which research is produced, disseminated and received? The great shift toward online publishing and reading is well underway. Publishers, libraries, institutions and companies are finding ways to get works, old and new, online and in the hands of readers in new ways. There is a strong emphasis on reproduction, preservation and access. However, efforts to experiment with comprehensive resource management systems that allow and encourage the full exploitation of the technologies available are as yet at an early stage. There is, perhaps, less of the humanities in digital humanities than there ought to be. Transferring Shakespeare (ah, Bill, did we not raise a glass or two?) to the web improves accessibility, and various widgets or tools enhance search capabilities; posting complete or multiple open access editions of popular or little known authors or works is an effective use of the medium as a means of retrieval. But the creation of content management systems that allow users to creatively and usefully integrate all available resources for a particular author, work, genre, topic or time period have yet to take shape. The art of storytelling online, the coming together of narrative and multimedia, remains ineffective. For research and pedagogical purposes, the use of text, images and sounds to create interactive avenues of exploration including print history, textual criticism, social and political context, course outlines, discussion boards and more would provide an important supplement to the sort of intense reading traditionally encouraged in the humanities. Further, such imaginative construction must be open to everyday readers and writers, students and scholars – not just technicians.
How does education itself change in the face of technological change? Before this, one might ask: what exactly does the teacher of literature expect students to get out of a class? What do students expect to get out of a class? Is it about knowledge of a particular topic? Is it about experiencing a work? Accumulation or process? If current technologies offering easy access to a vast store of materials encourage wide reading, is it advisable to make use of such resources or to promote a more traditional appreciation of fewer works? Does this choice have to be made? Is it advisable to use tools such as iClicker or Powerpoint and if so to what purpose? Does a literature course need an online discussion board? Should only the birds twitter? Does it matter if students have a printed book in their hands or read it on a Kindle? E-pub or at the pub? If the assigned anthology also comes with online access to background materials and analysis, quizzes and exams, research questions and active discussion boards, when and to what purpose is attending a class in person necessary? In a world of wikis and Prezis, Macs and tablets is the essay still relevant? In short, when you are in the ‘smart’ classroom teaching ‘wired’ students, where are you, what are you doing, and why?
What happens to works published online? The old clay tablets were not as indestructible as previously thought. Will files stored in clouds prove better? Who will maintain these files? Will they be accessible indefinitely? Who will own, manage and access them? Do these questions stem from a print mentality? Is it necessary to completely change the way in which we imagine information, communication and media, or will this come naturally with succeeding generations?
Will academics who experiment with digital technologies in the humanities get credit for such work from institutions that teach and promote traditional forms of reading, writing and research? For example, if a young scholar attempts a doctoral dissertation that incorporates both written and digital components will each part be appreciated equally? What if the project is an interactive online archive without the traditional written work? What if the project makes use of the networking possibilities available to create a collaborative and ongoing project? Will this form of scholarship be accepted and properly assessed? How will dissertation or hiring committees review such work?
It is to the oceans, to you, wherever you are, that I submit my travels, the sights and sounds that reach the eyes and ears of a long-suffering wanderer. . . . The distance between the stone tablet and the information superhighway is daunting, but the distance to the bottom of this cliff is also great, and as the birds are circling and the wind is threatening to dethrone me, I had best beat a trail back to–
Jed I. Cleishbotham is likely the pseudonym used by a reclusive schoolmaster, parish clerk, librarian, scholar and self-professed mystic in rural Caledonia affiliated with Gandercleugh College in the mid-nineteenth century. The full extent of his scholarship is unknown. However, a growing body of scholars is convinced that his work consists of many anonymous articles and books, including the informative “Probability of Steam-fueled Teleportation in the Nineteenth Century,” the prophetic “From the Telegraph to Handheld Social Networking” and the best-selling My Story: A Tale of Survival and Redemption.
 The manuscript continues at great length, moving across various time periods and well into the future, often achieving moments of eclecticism that seemed inappropriate for a scholarly journal. An unabridged version in the forthcoming Complete Works of Cleishbotham by Mighty Craggy Press will no doubt prove more satisfactory to interested scholars. –Ed.