Culture Magazine

I’m Lost in the Web & Digital Humanities is Sprouting All Over

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
When this is posted it will be the 2398th post on New Savanna since my first post on April 4, 2010 (which now contains nothing but a busted link). Some of those are just links to other material, many of them my photos, while a few others are long-form posts one a variety of subjects: literature, animation, cognitive psychology, society, cultural evolution, graffiti, and a few others. The thing is, despite the fact that I did those posts, I no longer know what I’ve done.
When I look through old posts for something the merits reposting (thus saving me the time of writing something new) I find posts I’d forgotten about. And when I go looking for something I know I’ve written, it sometimes takes me awhile to find it. Sometimes I find it by search through my tags. Sometimes I’ll search on a word or phrase I figure is likely to be in the target post, but not in many others. This searching may take several minutes or more.
I suppose that’s not bad. But, really, I’d like to find stuff instantly. Just like I recall something from my own mind.
But whoops! my own mind doesn’t work like that either. Sometimes I can remember things, sometimes I can’t.
What’s interesting though is that blogging has shifted the boundary between my private notes and public thoughts.
* * * * *
I have always kept notes. Well, not always. But let’s say that I’ve kept notes since I went to undergraduate school. In fact, before I went off to Johns Hopkins I filled a notebook with my thoughts on this and that, all hand written. At Hopkins I kept notes in class, and kept those notes in manila folders – I still have a few of those.
That practice continued in graduate school, both at Hopkins and later at SUNY Buffalo. By then I’d begun substantial work on Coleridge and on “Kubla Khan” in particular. I kept those notes in folders and notebooks as appropriate, no longer associated with specific courses. And that has continued all my intellectual life. Folders and notebooks, hand-written and typed.
I suppose that keeping track of those notes became a problem sometime, but I don’t remember just when.
Then I got my first computer in 1981 or so. It was a North Star Horizon: Z80 bus, 32K Ram, two 5¼-inch floppy drives with, what? 256K bytes per floppy. I don’t really remember my note-keeping arrangements then, probably had different topics on different floppies. Of course I’d keep printed copies around in folders, and the folders in a file cabinet or in boxes. Those arrangements continued when I got my first Macintosh in 1984. Now it was 3¼-inch floppies, with somewhat greater capacity than the old 5¼-inch floppies. Ended up with boxes of them, along with paper copies.
Sometime in the mid-1990s I got a Mac Performa with some kind of hard drive and began transferring from the floppies to the hard-drive. But I don’t think I ever got everything copied over, and I ditched the last of the floppies two moves ago. So now finding things meant searching a hard drive, not flipping through floppies. But it’s still searching.
I don’t know just when Apple added Spotlight to the OS, though I recall it was first called Sherlock. That made things a bit easier. Now I could search inside files without having to find them and open them. Still, finding things is a chore.
And those things are MY things. Created by my mind. External storage as it were.
* * * * *
As I said up top, the interesting thing about blogging is that it has shifted the boundary between public and private. All those notes that I’ve been keeping all these years, they’re private. Meant only for me. Some might be no more than jottings, names and phrases, how they go together, what they mean, only to me. Some, of course, would be coherent paragraphs, or even pages. More or less. But none of it polished.
When the time came to write a paper, either for class (back in the day) or for publication, I’d gather my notes together and open up a new file for the paper. As I move from one draft to the text, I’d create new files. So, a given paper might have involved two, three, or more drafts, each in its own file, and the whole pile of drafts in a folder (virtual, on the hard drive). And I’d print drafts out to read them, and so forth.
And I’d maintain files full of notes, Literature, Anime, Language, Cognition, Neuroscience, and so forth. Within a file the notes were organized by date, from first to last. When a file got large enough I’d close it and start a new one, thus: Literature Notes 1, Literature Notes 2, Literature Notes 3, and so on.
Once I started blogging (first at The Valve) I’d keep those posts in files in consecutive order: Valve Columns 1, Valve Columns 2, Valve Columns 3, and, Valve Columns 4. Each file would contain posts on various topics, literature, graffiti, cognition, whatever. I continued the same procedure with New Savanna: New Savanna Notes 1, New Savanna Notes 2 ... New Savanna Note 12 (at present). Note that I now call the files “notes” files.
Two things changed. On the one hand, when I’d written a bunch of posts on one topic, I’d move those off to a separate file, so now I’ve got files of posts strictly on animation, or even Disney animation, object-oriented philosophy, and so forth in addition to the general, mixed-topic, files. At the same time I started keeping notes in these post files. The notes are possible topics for posts; get enough notes together, and I hack them together into a post.
Some of those posts, of course, are relatively short, 50, 100, 300 words or so, but some are much longer, 2000, 3000 words or more. Some of the longer ones approach the status of draft material for formal publication in the scholarly literature, though the prose style is generally more informal.
And then, when I’ve got a bunch of posts on a single topic, I can bundle them together and create a PDF which I post at SSRN as a working paper. I did that with a series of posts on Alan Liu (notice the tag) recently. When I wrote that first post I had no plans to write any more. By the time I’d written the third I knew I’d be writing a series and gather them together as a working paper: Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities. That working paper isn’t the kind of thing I’d want to turn into a formal article, though chunks of it might end up in an article. It’s something different. Just what it is, I don’t know.
But who cares?
While I don’t publish anything as sketchy as my sketchiest notes, my shorter posts are not so different from the more coherent stretches of private notes. That kind of material is now in public. That’s what I mean when I say blogging has shifted the boundary between public and private in my intellectual life.
And I don’t (quite) know what’s there.
* * * * *
I can’t imagine what New Savanna looks like from the outside. I deliberately decided to keep things mixed, photographs and written material, informal notes and quasi-formal arguments, specialized and non-specialized. Each post is tagged with one or more tags; I suppose, I hope, that helps people find more of the same. There’s a tag-cloud over there to the right that’s of some value, though there’s so many tags in use now (over 300) that I just set up another tag cloud with only 60 tags or so.
Every so often I’ll write a post linking to 10 or a dozen other posts on a given topic. Of course, those posts quickly scroll off into the past and get lost. You can always search the blog, but search is search, and not wonderful, though sometimes at least adequate.
And now I’ve decided to throw in my lot with digital humanities (DF). Which means that I’ve now added a “digital humanities” tag to the list and gone back and tagged older posts with it. But, as you may know, DH is a vague and expansive concept; I could justify tagging some significant percentage of my posts as DH – 10%m 20%, 30% – I don’t know. What’s the use in that?
I suppose I’ll start writing posts that that serve as DH-oriented guides to my work here (and at my SSRN page and my Scribd page).
Will it get to the point where I spend most of my time writing guides to my stuff?

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