Ephemeral Scholarship: Are Digital Texts Doomed to Eventual Inaccessibility? (Not Yet.)

image capture of "StorySpace" interface via Useit.comIn one of my recent entries, I was venting some of my anxieties about designing user interfaces with Adobe Flash. First, let me say that I don’t have a ton of design/coding experience. I’ve been doing it for the better part of ten years now, but never as a full-timer. So I’m always only “sorta” able to think through the latest technologies. Nothing to be embarrassed about, I know. I just wanted to be clear about my position (read: trying not to be a poser). I say all this so you’ll know where I’m coming from when I say that I really like the work that I’ve done so far in Flash. I like the level of interactivity it allows, and the design interface isn’t too bad, either. (My guess is that most of these comments are just as true for Microsoft’s Silverlight, as well, though it’s not as popular.

Anyway, I’m leery about putting so much intellectual work, design innovation, and general scholarly investment into a technology that likely won’t be around ten years from now. I’m still a graduate student. What about my job search? What about tenure and promotion concerns? How do I respond to cynics (some very, very valid) who wonder about the value of digital scholarship based not on the intelligence, innovation, intellectual merit, or scholarly contribution, but on the sole factor of sustainability? (…)

On the other hand, there’s just no way–and I mean absolutely no way–to justify the stance that various digital technologies are not worthy of scholarly inquiry. Yeah, so Facebook will be dead in five years. Okay. So, will scholarship about Facebook be irrelevant in five years? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that’s the case if the scholarship is framed in a certain way. (More on this later.)

And there’s plenty of scholarship floating around (for at least the last 15 years) which suggests that the midium within which scholarship is instantiated affords the types of work that scholarship can do. For instance, if I were going to write some sort of analysis of some writing software, like MindManager, for instance, it would be much different if I could include video-screen-capture of what’s happening as I use it. The way things can move around on the screen, the flexibility of the interface, the transitions in the exporting of files. None of these aspects of a writing process are really very “capturable” in traditional static image and text strategies (read: paper-print technologies). I don’t think it’s very difficult to argue, therefore, that there are some subjects or at least questions in our discipline that will be much more effectively researched and communicated through newer technologies like web-video and other strategies.

(I think the same sorts of arguments could be made about research into blogging (Annette Vee), twitter (Brian J. NcNely), content tags (Jentery Sayers), Facebook (Bronwyn Williams), video blogging (Alex Reid), and other people’s work that I try to keep track of.

Damn it! There’s got to be an answer! Or maybe we’re trying to respond to an old question with old solutions. Maybe there’s another way to think about this. When I first started thinking about this conundrum, I had two impulses.

The first was to call for better scholarship. Scholarship that can’t be ignored. Scholarship that is so good, so revealing, so useful across multiple sites of inquiry, that somehow, some way, SOMEONE will be compelled to find a way to keep it accessible for a long, long time. … But then, as I wrote it, I started to feel like I was giving one of these speeches. Lame. Maybe I’ll write that one later.

The second (and the one I’ll most likely develop in subsequent posts) has to do with a commitment to working with (more) open technologies. So, instead of Flash and Silverlight, seeking out alternatives that can accomplish the same things. I’m thinking there’s got to be a more open, non-corporate strategy for producing digital content.

But those were just my first two thoughts. Not sure where I’ll go with them.

One alternative to these two thoughts above is that maybe we should start thinking about just how important archivability IS to digital scholarship. Whoa. Now hold on. Put down those buckets of tar, torches, and pitchforks for just a minute. It’s just a question. And I’m certainly not invested in making sure we conclude that archivability ISN’T important to digital scholarship. And maybe it’s just something I need to think through for myself. Maybe the conversation has already happened, and I just haven’t stumbled across it yet (please provide bibliographic or link suggestions, please?). My guess is that sustainable accessibility is going to be an essential part of almost any scholarly pursuit.

But what if it’s not. What if we just continue to produce scholarship without knowing if it will be accessible in ten years? That seems okay to me… in some ways, anyway. For a couple of reasons. First, we can’t just put off this sort of scholarship until we know that it’s sustainable. That might even undermine some efforts at developing sustainable technologies. Why develop the technologies if there’s no scholarship to sustain, right? So we’ve got to keep on producing the scholarship, even if it might not be sustainably-accessible. And we’ve got to make sure that scholarship is valuable immediately and for as long as possible within the scholarly conversations to which it contributes.

And then that day will come, when some scholarly digital text we’ve produced, like the recent demise of Internet Explorer 6, will not longer be supported by certain operating systems, programs, browsers, etc. And we’ll have to let it go. Let’s call it a movement for ephemeral scholarship. Okay, that’s scary. Let’s not call it that, maybe.