postmedieval reactions: The Digital Middle Ages

I am continuing to work through the postmedieval forum about the public Middle Ages. Previous installments here and here. Today, Kathleen Kennedy on “The Digital Middle Ages.”

Kennedy (note: one of my closest friends) plays with notions of open and closed information in medieval information culture and today. To me, what’s interesting is not the lament of the loss of the commons (though that matters), but her perceptive analysis of the ways that openness  persists despite the best efforts to change it. She writes:

Computers, the Internet, and medieval manuscript culture function today and functioned in the past thanks to a profound commonness. On a screen you are reading active pixels that reproduce a copy of my text, saved as a copy on a server, that is derived from a copy on my own computer’s hard drive. Thanks to their instantaneous multiplication, electronic copies proliferate even more promiscuously than manuscript copies. In digital culture like manuscript culture, copies are common. Copies are one of the ways in which texts function. Unlike digital copies, medieval texts both proliferated and changed with every copy. When medieval authorities tried to curb textual multiplication they failed spectacularly, and in those instances translators in particular defended copying as a common action. Today, when we make digital copying difficult (through DRM for example) we are actually making it harder for our machines to function. Our digital machines are so medieval that forced modernity harms them.

Later, she adds:

Thanks to the commonness of medieval texts, works moved freely in their original forms, and due to their openness, they also traveled freely in forms wildly different than their originals. Given the copying at the center of computing culture, digital copies also tend to circulate freely, unless they are checked by limiting software. Nevertheless, the free circulation of digital texts continues to be a norm, if not the norm. Social media makes sharing any text as fast as the click of a button. The notion of “shares” as a noun describing a number highlights how freely texts can still circulate, and at speeds not imaginable in the Middle Ages.

I’m interested in the hyperlexic and hyperscribal nature of modern society, in which people are reading, writing, and sharing (as Kennedy says) at a scale hitherto unimaginable.

So Kennedy, to my reading, is suggesting that medievalists can, by looking at the information culture of our period, function as futurists. Which is good, as the whole futurism industry has a lot of problems (white, male, relentlessly optimistic).

Read it! Read them all!

And afterwards, you can download Kennedy’s free ebook, Medieval Hackers (Punctum, 2015). It expands on these themes brilliantly.

Leave a Reply