Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online.

Here’s a summary. Alternatively, read the accepted version in full (Open Access PDF)

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities: a review

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities.
Agiatis Benardou, Erik Champion, Costis Dallas and Lorna M. Hughes (eds). Routledge, 2017.

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books.]

The digital turn in humanities research over the last three decades has enabled the asking of new research questions: the availability of fresh tools and techniques, as well as digitised objects to which to apply them, has opened up angles of enquiry on almost any subject. This was already deeply felt in the pioneering humanities computing projects of the 1980s, but the pervasiveness of the internet has prompted thinking at national and international levels, particularly in the 2000s, about how those new kinds of research might best be enabled in a networked, geographically dispersed context.

At the same time, the policy environment for humanities research has been inflected by external forces: the energy directed towards ‘cyber-infrastructure’ for the ‘hard’ sciences; the increasing pressure on the custodians of cultural heritage (publicly funded galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the GLAM sector) in particular) to maximise the use of their holdings. Also, in Europe especially, there has been an emphasis on a common heritage of European civilisation that ought to be studied comparatively as part of a more general projection of the European ideal. As a result, the European Union has funded, and continues to fund, ‘research infrastructures’ for the humanities in varying shapes and sizes, although it is not alone in doing so.

However, as the editors of Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities point out, there is as yet little reflection available on the impact these research infrastructures have had both on the academy and the wider public (5). This collection of essays is a very valuable contribution to that process of assessment, and deserves to be widely read. It will be of interest not only to humanities scholars, but also to those in the GLAM sector concerned with user engagement and access, as well as policymakers in and around government.

The eleven chapters presented fall into several kinds. Readers most specifically concerned with the broad strategic issues concerning infrastructure provision – i.e. which services these infrastructures should provide, to whom and using which technologies – will be best served by contributions from Seamus Ross; Veerle Vanden Daelen on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI); Agiatis Benardou and Alastair Dunning on Europeana; Sharon Webb and Aileen O’Carroll on digital tools in Ireland, and; Tobias Blanke, Conny Kristel and Laurent Romary’s chapter, and the editorial introduction. Other contributions focus not so much on these wider issues as on individual disciplines or on particular tools and services. Although edited by scholars from Australia, Canada, Greece and the UK, the focus of the collection is weighted towards Europe; while the collection is none the worse for that, there is still room for reflection on the situation in other contexts.

Some common themes stand out. The collection is shot through with a refreshing awareness of how crucial engagement with the user is in creating a service that meets their needs. This is welcome indeed, since there is no shortage of digital services that serve their users less well than they might, largely because those commissioning, designing and building them did not stop to ask what users required. The well-documented example of Project Bamboo in the United States disappointed the hopes placed on it largely for this reason, and is acknowledged here.

This reviewer was also reminded once again of the sheer particularity of humanities scholarship both in terms of method and the kinds of materials in use, which points up the difficulty of creating infrastructures that suit more than a small number of scholars. A juxtaposition of Gertraud Koch’s essay on anthropology and that of Christina Kamposiori, Claire Warwick and Simon Mahony on art history serves to make the point: different humanities disciplines often make use of very different kinds of digital objects, and where they do use the same materials, quite distinct working assumptions are made about them. Furthermore, disciplines are also marked by varying levels of digital skills amongst their practitioners. Given all this, the challenges in designing services that meet all these needs are formidable. The experience of EHRI – providing a service that allowed scholars to discover materials in many archives relating to the Holocaust – shows the difficulty of creating such a service even for what, on the face of it, is a relatively clearly defined class of resources.

Despite all the stimulating and useful material this collection provides, a question mark remains over whether persistent organisational and technical structures are the best way of fostering research in the digital humanities. The question is met head on by Blanke, Kristel and Romary, who rightly acknowledge the complexity of creating large semi-permanent distributed digital services to connect very diverse individual tools and resources, especially as both the needs of users and the technologies available change rapidly and asymmetrically with each other. Beyond this book, however, the wider debate about how to enable distributed humanities scholarship is still often framed in terms of the shape that such infrastructures should take; their desirability in principle is not often stated as such, but is assumed. Andrew Prescott has rightly taken issue with the whole metaphor of infrastructure as an unhelpful way of imagining what is required. To envisage things in terms of infrastructure implies permanence, rigidity, standardisation. An alternative case might be made for the metaphor of the ecosystem, with which Blanke and colleagues also make play.

One can imagine a scholarly ecosystem in which individual libraries and archives concentrate on understanding their own users and designing services to meet their specific needs, whilst exposing data in a maximally open but passive way for others to access as and when they need to. Some of the funding currently directed at intermediate technical structures might instead be used to develop this local capacity. At the same time, funders might also invest in three other things: observing and reporting on the directions in which research in each community is heading (in the manner of the now defunct AHRC Digital Methods Network and other projects, as noted on pages 4-5); developing the individual technical skills of researchers in exploiting those resources and in making their own tools; and supporting the development of many community-specific tools and projects in response to demand, on the condition that those same tools are openly available for reuse and adaptation as needs change. To be sure, several of the existing infrastructures do some or all of these things, but it may be that that is all they should do.

This is not necessarily to advocate such a way of working, but merely to pose the question of whether the infrastructural paradigm is necessarily the only way available. This reviewer, at least, remains to be convinced that the demand for infrastructures that federate access and analysis has been shown to be present amongst end users. But while Webb and O’Carroll rightly suggest that the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ (129) has had its day amongst those who create individual tools and services, is it not alive and well at the infrastructural level? As a minimum, we ought to ask whether the dominance of the infrastructual paradigm is not due to its appeal to large providers of content and its comparative simplicity to fund and administer, rather than its intrinsic rightness as a way of fostering research. Readers will differ on the answers to this question, but anyone concerned with the future of digital humanities research will find much to ponder in this timely and important collection of essays.

The edited collection: pasts, present and future

I’m delighted to be able to announce that I now have a book bearing this title under contract with Cambridge University Press. It is part of a new series called Gatherings: short monographs on aspects of contemporary scholarly publishing. It should be published in 2019.

Image from Flickr (GoToVan), CC-BY

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

This volume sets out to explore the forms that the edited collection has taken in recent decades, the roots and shape of the present crisis (if it is indeed rightly so called), and the possible futures for the form.

It focusses on the humanities, and history in particular, while drawing also on publishing trends in theology and in musicology. It is also focussed particularly on the UK, but in comparitive context with other nations, particularly the United States.

Web 25: Histories from 25 years of the World Wide Web

Niels Brügger (editor)
Web 25. Histories from the First 25 Years of the World Wide Web
New York, Peter Lang, 2017. Paperback at £36.

It’s always a great pleasure to have sight of a book in which some of your own work appears. In the case of Web 25, it contains my short cultural history of the first 20 years of world Web archiving. But the book as a whole is full of intriguing other things, some of which I draw out here.

One of the most interesting areas (for me) in the emerging field of Web history is that of the early intellectual history of the Web: the modes in which people told stories about how the Web came into being and what it was good for (and the dangers it held). It was just this kind of research that my own paper at the ReSAW conference in June was aiming at ( ‘Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web‘ (podcast)), and there are several points of contact with two papers here: Marguerite Barry on the ways in which the Web entered general public conversation; Simone Natale and Paolo Bory on understanding the early history of the Web as one instance of a ‘biography of media’.

There are also several intriguing chapters that examine the concrete histories of particular parts of the Web: Sybil Nolan on one particular news site (the Australian The Age Online); Elisabetta Locatelli on the genre of the blog in an Italian context; Michel Hockx on the development of the Chinese Web; Jean Marie Deken on one particular organisation, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre. Here we have case studies at every level of magnification: organisations, particular kinds of content, whole nations.

There is also methodological reflection: from Matthew S. Weber (‘The challenges of 25 years of data: an agenda for Web-based research’); Federico Nanni and Anwesha Chakraborty on integrating archived Web materials with other sources including interviews to build diachronic accounts of the evolution of a particular site; Anne Helmond on the importance of embedded third-party code as a means of understanding what she terms ‘historical website ecology’. It’s a potentially very fruitful approach that complements the kind of analysis of link relations between sites that I’ve attempted here and here. It also connects with Niels Brügger’s own chapter, a short history of the hyperlink.

Finally, in the same section as my own there are chapters on the experience of creating and managing Web archives themselves, both in national library contexts (Paul Koerbin on Australia, and Ditte Laursen and Per Møldrup-Dalum on Denmark) and Camille Paloque-Berges on Usenet as an archive that falls outside the more established patterns into which Web archiving has fallen.

All in all, the volume is another part of an exciting upswing in interest in the idea of Web history, represented by The Web as History, the new journal Internet Histories and the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History.

New article: Users, technologies, organisations – towards a cultural history of Web archiving

This article is now published, in Web 25. Histories from 25 Years of the World Wide Web, edited by Niels Brügger. It is published by Peter Lang, in hardback, paperback and ebook formats. A postprint version is available to download here.

From the Introduction:

If 2015 marked the elapse of 25 years since the birth of the web, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of web archiving: of systematic attempts to preserve web content and make it accessible to scholars and the public. As such, the time is ripe to make an initial assessment of the history of the movement, and the patterns into which it has already fallen. This chapter represents the first attempt to document the subject at length. It concentrates on what might be termed the cultural history of the movement. It does not address the question of how web archiving has been carried out, but why, by whom, and on whose behalf.

Historians have for long known that, in order to interpret archival materials properly, it is first necessary to understand how that archive came into being. Why is a particular object to be found, and not another? What does the archive seek to document, and whose interests does it serve? The last very few years has seen a very welcome growth in interest in the archived web among scholars. However, that interest is not yet accompanied by the necessary familiarity with how the archived web came into being, and to be thus familiar is arguably even more important in this context than for traditional paper-based archives. Older distinctions with which historians are familiar — between published document, ‘grey literature’ and institutional records — have become blurred, as have those between personal and institutional publication. As a result, it has become less clear where the responsibility for preserving which types of content lies among the established institutions in the library and archives field. In addition, the archived web resource is unlike the live version from which it was derived in subtle and complex ways that do not apply to print publications or to manuscripts. If this chapter serves to orient users as to some of the questions they should be asking of their sources, and of the institutions that provide them, it will have achieved its aim.

It falls into the following sections: The Internet Archive / National libraries / The corporate record / Research-driven archiving / Activist archiving / Users and the future