Walter Kaiser on Online Instability vs. Printed Stability

In reviewing the fifteen-volume cataloging of the massive Robert Lehman Collection (‘An Astonishing Record of a Vast Collection‘, New York Review of Books, 7 March 2013), Walter Kaiser writes:

Like the collection itself, its impressive catalog may well be the last of its kind–and there aren’t, as I’ve said, very many of its kind to begin with. In this era of revolutionary technological innovation, online catalogs are bound more and more to replace such endeavors, and one can only wonder about the future of the printed catalog. The great advantage of an online catalog is that attributions, conservation work, exhibitions and bibliography can all be updated in perpetuity.

However, perpetual aggiornamento brings with it losses as well. At least for someone of my generation, the handsome volumes of the Lehman Collection have an enduring stability and nobility that any online catalog, essentially mutable and transient, lacks. What is more, these volumes tell you important things about the time in which they were written, the point of view of the author, and the way in which art was perceived at a certain moment in history; an online catalog may or may not give you that information and authorial voices, which are one of the aspects of the Lehman catalog that make it so special, may well be lost.

These are a perceptive set of remarks. They capture a curious feature of the online: that while it promises greater endurance–as evinced in the slogan ‘digitize it if you want it to persist!’ and in the very real fear that our online identities are well-nigh impossible to erase–its content is also more susceptible to constant alteration and emendation, and thus to easily provide a snapshot, a moment frozen in time. (Software version control systems are, if nothing else, an attempt to maintain a running image of the code changes over time for purposes of quality control and debugging as are the tracking features of word processors.) As I noted in my post here on Robert Viscusi’s epic poem Ellis Island, this feature of the digital is what makes possible that poem’s endlessly generative aspects; it would be rather intractable to attempt to replicate that same feature in a traditional, paper version of the poem. (Or if not intractable, then perhaps exceedingly clumsy.)

There is, in the journalistic context, another not-benign aspect of this digital transience: the less-than-entirely scrupulous journalist or blogger may edit his articles online–without making note of his changes–to cover up mistakes and misstatements. These can be recovered from cached versions of the page in question but these might not always be available. In a personally amusing instance of this, a blogger who had once found my analysis perspicuous enough to cite in a post of his own, but found a later article infuriating and said so in a subsequent post, went back to his first post and edited it to scrub me from it. So determined was he to ensure that no trace of his archaic appreciation ever existed.

Sometimes the instability of the digital can function not like a feature, but like a bug.

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