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Humanities in the Digital Era

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By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, “aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a ‘picture of ourselves,’ and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati – you can read some responses here – some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, “Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,” while Cynthia M. Pyle, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that “for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.”

Pyle goes on to note that “we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away – to the detriment of the book – is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.”

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled “On The Value of ‘Worthless’ Endeavor,” in which I noted – again, in part – that,

“the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or banks […] it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of ‘outlaw’ art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove – in the long run – dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation […] and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.”

Alphaville Montage 1In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia – in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the “Outerlands” to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, “men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.” And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that “no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.”

Alphaville Montage 2But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

Lemmy Caution in AlphavilleWhat will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that “I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,” to which Lemmy replied “I shall fight so that failure is possible.” The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, “the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Cinema at the Margins (2013), Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world. His newest book, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press Fall, 2015.

26 Comments for “Humanities in the Digital Era”

  1. These are great points to keep in mind as organizations make decisions about storing media. I must acknowledge the importance the web has had on my writing/editing career, since I came in when the digital age had already commenced, running Identity Theory’s film page and, later, Film Threat. It’s great to be here, at FilmInt, which has a strong digital presence while continuing the quarterly tradition. Like Wheeler, I dislike the “ghost” media that so many companies offer now — a film/book downloaded to a digital device without separate storage. Though we have to keep in mind the casual film lover who’s fine with streaming content for fleeting entertainment. Harrod Blank noted the same issue on his mind, as he archived his father’s work on DVD (an interview with him, centered on the new Les Blank set from Criterion, will appear soon on this site). Hopefully, in the long run the status quo will demand a form of permanent digital media storage. Many thanks for this essay, Wheeler!

  2. The humanist view, to recall Edward Said, champions a retrospective of self as a compilation of history. This is not a history revealed while wearing blinders, as certain elements within the digital movement portend; rather, it is a history of self as human and, therefore, of self as a composite of infinites. Without a humanist approach, the digital revolution about which Wieseltier and Dixon write, threatens a twisted re-imagining of the dark ages, one in which a renaissance, similar to the one in Europe that kindled in the fourteenth century, made possible by the actual translation and archival efforts of the Iranians and the Arabs, the same people current mass media, itself a digital perversion, regulates representationally in order to steer consumers toward a knowledge of ignorance and hate, will require a frantic and desperate return to the very history we are now enthusiastically burning in the name of progress.

  3. Strikingly insightful — every teacher, educator, critic and journalist should read this. I’ll be quoting it, especially:
    “When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble.”

  4. One of humanity’s most significant habitual flaws is the “all or nothing” response. In an ideal world print and digital would be able to co-exist in harmony, supporting one another as opposed to unnecessarily competing. The immediacy of access that digital can offer is advantageous, but as Pile rightly observes, “we require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another…” Previously having worked in a University’s Library and Information Services department, I often found that even if students were in desperate need of a resource they would frequently refuse access to the available e-book version, instead choosing to wait for a print copy to become available. So from my experiences within an educational environment I have observed the need to ensure that print is not made obsolete through this digital revolution that is unfolding. Rather access to information should be catered to the needs of all, just as dual formats of film home entertainment releases should be common practice. Whether it is choosing the format we prefer to watch films in or the format we prefer to read texts, the choice should remain with the individual.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Matt when he says, “It’s great to be here, at FilmInt, which has a strong digital presence while continuing the quarterly tradition.” I also agree when he comments that “we have to keep in mind the casual film lover who’s fine with streaming content for fleeting entertainment.” Although of course one cannot help but worry that in the end the “all or nothing” mentality for films and books is likely to prevail, and as much as the industry will weight their consideration to the casual consumer who’s fine with downloading digital copies to a digital device without separate storage, the likes of us will be left behind in what the popular front will term progression, we know all too well that truthfully it is a cultural regression.

    Ultimately there needs to be some form of permanent storage for texts whether digital or not, and as I write this I recall Alexander the Great’s dream for the Alexandria library — to have a copy of every text located there. What a wonderful dream. Perhaps if the digital revolution was to have one positive outcome it would be to create a vast database – accessible to all – of all the texts from our civilisation – past and present.

    Through access to art and culture one can raise themselves above the social status they were born into. For companies guided by the bottom line alone to obstruct such a capacity for the individual is a deplorable act and one of society’s great injustices.

    Thanks to Nima for a wonderful thoughtful and eloquent comment to Wheeler’s piece, and thanks to Wheeler for taking the time to discuss this important issue.

  5. A timely and important piece, Wheeler. The argument that the digitization of literature and film has led in many cases to books and movies being less available to us than they were before is irrefutable. What surprised (and concerned) me about the response to Wieseltier’s review is that many readers somehow construed it as an attack on the sciences (and used it as an opportunity to trot out the same old tired critiques of the humanities). In fact, it points to technology’s alarming potential to compromise the knowledge produced in any field–of the sciences or the humanities.

  6. What will be most interesting is to see what ten years from now will look like. There will always be the minority of people who will cling to the old ways–the physical–keeping pieces of the past alive. The majority, however, will most likely keep pushing forward with digitization, or whatever may come next.

  7. I agree with Paul Risker, why do we always respond with “all or nothing”? At least for now there can be a place for both print and digital to exist! It’s wonderful to hear about the students who refused to use the e-book to wait for the print version.

    If everything becomes digital, there will surely be psychological and neurological implications from reading everything off of a screen 24/7. We already know that it is unhealthy for us to be staring at screens for too long, so what will our options be if everything we read becomes digital?

  8. Thanks much, everyone, for getting into the discussion. Matthew, thanks for kicking this off; Nima, couldn’t agree with you more; Dennis, yes, that’s a good summary of the piece; Paul, the digital onslaught will give us no choice in the matter, as you note — just as film has vanished, so books will follow; Ian, I agree completely – so much in the humanities and in the sciences as well will be lost if not archived properly; Heather, yes, ten years down the road should be interesting indeed. I predict that all searching will be done by voice, and keyboards will be obsolete – but as with the new Samsung “smart” TVs, the question is “who is monitoring our vocal instructions?; and Sarah, yes starting at screens is bad for your health – we all do it too much already. That’s why print is so important, useful, and portable – text on demand, and no batteries required.

  9. Jean-Pierre Geuens

    In an essay published by Partisan Review in 1954 Irving Howe assessed what he perceived as a major cultural change in the US. He wrote: “What is most alarming is that the whole idea of the intellectual vocation–the idea of a life dedicated to the values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization–has gradually lost its allure.” Sixty some years later, it is clear that the digitization of culture Wheeler talks about is finalizing that trend. For instance, when accessing books, essays, paintings, etc. online, the material becomes available within a normalizing environment. That diminishes the potential impact of the work. In other words, the new surroundings limit, if not reify, what could otherwise have been a life-changing encounter. This discussion indeed is way overdue.

  10. John Duncan Talbird

    Great essay, Wheeler. I couldn’t agree more that your question, “What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities?” is one of the most serious questions facing those of us in the Humanities. It should be an important question for anyone who cares about books, cinema, art, thought, etc.

    I wonder if we need new dystopian fantasies. Stories like Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Berlin, etc. imagine cold, tyrannical governments in league w/ technology when it’s looking more and more like corporate America (or corp. anyplace) is the one w/ the power over our thoughts. I’m reminded of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Game which shows how the banking system has co-opted much of academe’s economists or maybe better, recent episodes of Parks and Recreation which imagines a Google-like Gryzzl who in a friendly, hipster-crunchy fashion is reading everyone’s emails in order to “datamine” the population so they can anticipate all their needs and wants and then sell it to them. The truth seems to be more and more that dystopia is likely to come with a handshake and a smily face button rather than jackboots and machine guns. Maybe it’s (almost) here?

    As you point out in regards to the disappearance of the library stacks, we’re losing the ability to browse which is not as minor or as irrelevant a skill as it might be supposed. Now we go on Amazon which suggests to us what we should read or watch. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most of us that shop at bookstores, choose the kinds of stores that have interesting (i.e. not simply NY Times bestsellers) titles stacked on tables for our perusal. We WANT suggestions. But these independent stores, like the record stores, like the DVD stores, are disappearing and so the suggestions for many of us are now coming from a conglomerate behemoth who has an interest in suggesting whatever it has the most of on backstock in its warehouse which, though probably gigantic, is not infinite.

    Your essay does a great job, Wheeler, of showing us that the democracy of the web may have been overstated, that when it comes to getting our attention, those with the loudest, biggest, and most expensive bullhorns are the ones more likely to get it.

  11. Yes, I love what you said there in your comment, Wheeler: “text on demand, and no batteries required”! Maybe one day we’ll have to come up with creative ways to market books and print and you’ll have to use that as a tagline–haha!

  12. Thank you for writing this piece! Now to print it up and use it for a discussion piece in class! Also, I’ve never seen Alphaville, but it sounds extremely interesting. I’m going to have to watch that this weekend. Maybe I’ll end up using it in class as well!

  13. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Thanks to all, and especially John Talbird and Jean-Pierre — Jean-Pierre, your quote from Irving Howe – “what is most alarming is that the whole idea of the intellectual vocation–the idea of a life dedicated to the values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization–has gradually lost its allure” – is happily not entirely true; I have many students who wish to follow the right path, being interesting, for example, in making a career out of film preservation and archiving, and not everyone is succumbing to the commercial imperative.

    But with DVDs, books, and music all being turned on & off like running water, and no physical copies to contemplate, it’s becoming harder and harder to get the sort of classical education in all the arts that I received in college and graduate school. We had no idea how much we were living in an open source era, then, with everything accessible and relatively cheap. Now, we live a paywall world of perpetual lockdown.

    Also, Jean-Pierre, I am honored that you wrote in, because you know I love your work. Please consider submitting a piece to Daniel Lindvall here at Film International – he is an excellent editor, and I bet you have quite a number of pieces – I’ve heard you many times at conferences, and you are always brilliant – that would be great to read here. So, please consider this.

  14. I think that yes, while print was important for its time, it will become obsolete because it will no longer be a necessity– as we are already seeing. I see this as a good thing. Humanity must evolve and keep pushing forward and with it so must technology and everything else. The humanities will still be studied, but just in a different format and way. I don’t see digitization as a problem or negative thing. Perhaps the problem is how the transition happens and making sure important things do not get lost through the process.

  15. Who is reading anything now? The “reading public” if you ask publishers has completely gone away, you have people communicating via twitter, email, and facebook which is nothing, and about nothing. There is the whole class of people who have no need to delve into any “old” ideas, my concern is that there will be no more published collections of letters any more, i.e., letters of Bertrand Russell. It’s not an intellectual discussion to communicate “where are you”, “where/when do we meet”, “review the best frappuccino”, no new, no nothing.

  16. Bravo, Jim. Succinct and right on point.

    Ladies and gentlemen, the films of Jim Krell will be screened for the first time in public since 1982 in an evening of his work at Anthology Film Archives on Friday, April 17th – be there. I’ll be providing a brief introduction & remarks at the top. Glad to have him comment here – always a welcome presence.

  17. “the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”

    I would like to touch on this quote a bit. When we thing of the future, we all think of a straight line. We forget, however, that in a lot of people’s lives, we end up living in the present, which heads into the future, only to be back in the past. This happens when you do the same things over and over again. Really, it is insanity. This cages the mind from expanding, and the spirit from learning anything.

  18. Something I have learned with the boom of technology is that only 25% of it is good. I can see how doing everything on bright screens, from watching movies, to reading, to writing will, in time, change the way the human brain process time. It seems like it actually makes us more aware of time which in turn, depletes our inner being. Everything is all about time now, and that is scary.

  19. Being someone who has a background of panic issues, I think this sudden boom is to blame for the rise of anxiety problems. When you think about it, it is hard to focus on one thing. When you finally you, you find yourself losing track of time, so when you come too, you feel like you wasted it. All this wasted energy builds up and goes against what makes a human, a human.

  20. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    I try to avoid walking by our library now.

    It is a living tomb where the stacks of film books and literature books tremble as they await their turn to be hauled away to “storage facilities.” The art and history books have already been quietly carried off to be buried alive, as have many library books & most paper journals.

    Only a small percentage are actually digitized and made widely available. Much is not digitized at all; plenty simply disappears as if it never existed. Some lucky books and journals end up behind a pay wall – a fortress. It all reminds me of the Dark Ages when only those who read Latin had access to much knowledge and illumination.

    We have entered the Digital Dark Ages, but if you dare speak up you are accused of being obsolete. This is beyond Orwellian.

    One of the most pleasurable and intellectual experiences has always been browsing the stacks in the library and coming upon books that had not been checked out in ages. So many treasures to browse, take home and read. So many centuries of poems, literary volumes, film analysis and philosophy; seemingly endless reading treasures to bring to our students and classes, and vice versa. So much of it was found by intellectually curious students who were not yet zombie-like slaves to their tech devices.

    To me, it would be much more honest to hold bonfires and burn books in public.

    “Disappearing” books – whisking them off (without a struggle) to ‘storage facilities’ is arguably far worse than burning them in public, which would be more honest, if deeply disturbing.

    If library books were burned in public squares, many would be alarmed — they might even notice the mass censorship and destruction of a vast amount of books, culture, film, art, and all types of knowledge – being actively destroyed as a part of the brave new world of digitization. This is not an”information age,” it is really the dis-information age, just as social media is often anti-social by nature.

    If there were giant bright flames licking these books in massive crackling bonfires, people might actually be distracted long enough to look up from their hypnotic cell phones & devices to notice that we are not only destroying the rainforest, we are allowing the wholesale deforestation of the humanities and the arts. Centuries of knowledge crackle in the destructive fires.

    I think of the digital forms as one would think of the “extras” on a DVD. It is nice to have “extras,” but it is crucial to have access to the original materials. One of the first areas removed from our library was the art books. Seriously, can one get any sense of the beauty and visual feel of an oversized art book, complete with illustrated color plates and essays – from a digital version of such a book?

    Ridiculous. Of course not. Similarly, studying a tiny streaming version of a film meant for a large screen on a small device is not really viewing a film. It is like looking at a postcard of a great artwork, or a badly reproduced image of a masterpiece on a T-Shirt, a coffee cup, or a mouse-pad.

    “Place studies” is a really popular discipline right now. What of the loss of “places” associated with the arts and humanities? Not just libraries, but bookstores, video stores, record shops — so many human centered places where one could browse endlessly and end up in face to face discussions with other opinionated human beings — get into debates about anything from music to philosophy. Those spaces are disappearing faster than the earth’s ice caps.

    Go ahead — dismiss me as an alarmist. Talk me down from the ledge. What alarms me most is the seeming lack of alarm or debate, the false consensus that we are going through some sort of wondrous and potentially transformative “information age,” as if this is a golden Renaissance.

    I don’t buy it.

  21. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Gwendolyn for her comments. All I can do is say that I agree with her entirely, though she makes what’s happening even more immediate and desperate. And she’s right – this is nothing less than a crisis for the humanities, and for humanity itself by extension.

    This particular emperor has no clothes, and seems intent on sweeping everything before it into the trash bin of oblivion. In the past few days, there’s been a lot of talk about Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special, for example, as if there’s any real accomplishment there. These people are simply recycling shtick from decades past that wasn’t even that funny then, and is certainly a complete waste of time now. But it dominates the media – for the moment. Then it will fade out completely, and some other new manufactured “cultural moment” will take its place. But it’s simply junk food – there’s no real nutrition or insight there.

    As another example – of many, many possible; the list is literally endless – the St. Trinian’s films have recently been “revived” in some truly terrible films starring Rupert Everett in the role originated by the great Alistair Sim – so, OK, make a buck off a proven franchise – but what’s appalling to me is that so many people don’t even know that the original series of films – three in all, and all in black and white (paging Paul Risker and I’m Alright Jack – Paul, chime in on this, will you?) which are uniformly excellent have been absolutely forgotten.

    In Britain!

    When Everett went on The Graham Norton Show to plug the new films, he assumed that the audience knew about the originals, but drew a complete blank from the studio audience. And we’re talking about pop culture here! If these modest yet cheerfully anarchic comedies have been forgotten by the very culture that created them, then what hope is there for H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, Shelley, Keats, Basil Dearden, Michael Crichton, Joseph Losey, Montgomery Tully or any other list of poets, writers and filmmakers – or artists in any discipline you wish?

    The books are being stored or thrown out; I can’t tell you how many hardback books I’ve purchased on Amazon for a penny plus shipping that arrive in immaculate condition in a library binding, marked “discarded” on the inside. Yes, they’re on Amazon for a penny now, but when those copies are gone, the remaining exemplars will go for $500, $1000 or more. The same with DVDs. All of this stuff is going away, replaced by Electronic Sell Through downloads – anything to escape physical media. So buy before you die, or you won’t get a chance to buy it at all.

  22. Christopher Sharrett

    Gwendolyn,

    It’s all so true, I’m sad to say.

  23. I was absolutely enthralled by this piece. In an age where everything with cultural value is being digitized and cataloged, you can’t help but wonder how far things will go. Years and years ago I was a film student who fell in love with the work that Martin Scorsese was doing to protect the remaining physical copies of the great films. What we need – as a society – is more professionals and scholars like Mr. Scorsese who are willing to go to the extremes that are necessary to fight back against the rising tide of digital storage. There should always be a place for the authentic works of art, not just a place for their digital copies.

  24. I 100% agree with Dennis Coleman above. Every teacher and scholar should read, understand, and teach the words in this essay.
    When (if) the day comes when there are no libraries, book stores, music stores, movie stores, comic book stores, or movie theaters (the list can go on and on), society as a whole will be much less informed & much less interesting as a result.
    Great job with this essay.

  25. What a fantastic article! I totally agree that educators at all levels should be discussing the ramifications discussed here. I’m an engineer by trade but a writer on the side. Kind of an interesting mix. I’m torn by my love of science and technology and want to see their continued progression in all aspects of life (I look forward to having my phone, computer, and TV embedded into my eyeballs as much as, if not more than, the next guy) but as one who grew up reading actual books and comics and drawing and painting too, I want to see these media preserved in their original formats to be loved and appreciated by all.

  26. Way back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan gave us the idea that the medium is the message. While that phrase has been interpreted many ways and many times over the years, I believe the idea carries even more significant weight now is this digital age. The medium we use actually is a message. The fact that we are going away from the substantial, more physical mediums and are willing as a culture to go in that direction passes a message about our nature and I am not so sure that the message is a good one.

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