The President of SSHRC, historian Chad Gaffield, gave a talk last night at McGill about the role of digital humanities in changing the nature of scholarship. It was a talk probably more appropriate to funders and politicians but one of the recurring themes was the idea of “access.” It is the watchword of digital media, but of course it has also been the watchword of new media more generally. The value of print, for example, was that it made books more “accessible” (ditto microfilm). The value of digital media is that they make books (or their miniaturization through film) even more accessible.
The problem with the discourse of access — call it an ideology at this point — is that it conflates two major contradictions. The first is that the infrastructure needed to make digital texts (let alone images or music) available reliably over time is enormous. We are not even close. Libraries full of books crush digital interfaces in terms of long term accessibility.
But in order to get there we’re going to have to take money from somewhere else. And this goes to the heart of a debate happening here in Quebec, but is common all over the world right now. That is the cost of education. The more expensive it becomes to make knowledge “accessible” the less accessible that knowledge is in reality. There’s this weird thing happening where the fewer people who can attend higher education is somehow going to be compensated for by more people having access to what it is we produce in terms of new knowledge. We cannot have a responsible conversation about digital humanities unless we address the question of cost and access.
Second, access is almost always presented as a good thing. Who doesn’t want ideas to be more accessible? Well, I don’t for one, and I’m not alone. What many writers and thinkers have realized since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century is that access is double-edged. Access is totalizing — the more access you have to something, the more access someone has to you. You can’t, at least not yet, have it one way. What this means is that things like privacy or the time for reflection and thought are increasingly under threat today. And yes, it has to do with the idea of access.
So before we trumpet access as the default good of all new media, we need to accept and address its contradictions too.