Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scribal Anxiety

  I guess new writing technology has always caused anxiety. I mean, a block of stone marked with a chisel has so much greater archival stability than those marks made with black liquid on some flexible but fragile medium. When I was at school, newfangled ballpoint pens were banned because they would cause our writing to become messy and illegible. (They may have had a point there). We had to use fountain pens. (Ask your grandma!) Essays had to be handwritten, not typed, so that the teachers could tell you had actually done it yourself. There were even neurotic fears among the professions that used typewriters for a living. Legal firms employed very accurate typists, because no corrections were allowed on legal documents, as it would then be impossible to know whether the document had been tampered with.
  Then along came computers, and a whole lot of other issues to get anxious about. From the beginning, a major source of anxiety was the storage of our files. My first computer used a cassette tape (Ask your grandma about that as well.) to load and save very small text files very slowly and frequently inaccurately. We printed everything. Then floppy disks came along. (Ask grandma again, and perhaps dad might have a hazy memory of these.) Horrible things happened to these in the early days. People put staples through them so they wouldn't fall out of envelopes for posting. They carefully saved files to them and stored them on top of those oldfashioned monitors that oozed heat and magnetic fields. They left them in the gloveboxes of their cars. My greatest scribal anxiety about them was that if the computer was merely rearranging very small magnetic fields on a thin plastic film, why did it make a noise like a woodpecker in full spate while it was doing it? Possibly they just included that noise as an extra so that you would be reassured that it was doing something.
  Teachers developed new anxieties about the authenticity of students' work when presented as a computer printout. They demanded that students hand in their drafts as well as the final product, not understanding that with this new technology, writings were edited, not redrafted. I remember my now middle aged son carefully editing backwards his school assignments into a more messy form to hand in as a draft. (Hey, it's a life skill!)
  Hard drives were a great boon, and they didn't sound so woodpeckery; more like death watch beetle. Even the youngest of you has one of these I presume, but the earliest ones had a tiny little capacity compared to those of today. As computers became capable of manipulating graphics files, audio, animation, video and all the fun of the multimedia fair, we had to find somewhere to store those files.
  We were advised to use CDs, as hard drives suffered from "bit rot". Mind you, every computer problem I have ever had that was supposed to have been caused by "bit rot" wasn't. It always turned out to be something else. Recourse of the lazy IT help desk expert. Reinstall Windows - bah humbug! On the other hand, those floppy disks suffered from some sort of rot. Anxiety attack as everything stored on them had to be transferred to something else. Worse than silverfish in your vellum codices. Floppy disks were stockpiled by manufacturers then abandoned by so many users so abruptly that stocks were being sold that were ten years past their use by date. Came the time when about fifty percent of floppies in an unused box turned out to be unusable. 
  I have a large collection of photographs of things of medieval interest, used for teaching by the family partnership. They were originally on slides. (Ask grandma again.) They dated from the days when cameras contained little rolls of photosensitive strips, which gave you beautiful images that then started decomposing immediately. We got them put onto CDs, initially by professionals at great expense, but then doing it ourselves as the equipment became available. And always an extra set for backups. 
  Then scribal anxiety again, or rather, illuminator's anxiety. Apparently CDs are not archival after all. Ha ha, tricked you. Buy a whomping great big new hard drive and copy the whole lot on. Apparently they don't suffer from "bit rot" after all. My scribal anxiety at this point was based around wondering how any dumb machine could remember where so much data was and be able to find it again.
  Assorted portable devices for storing and transferring files from one computer to another came and went; very small volume portable hard drives, Zip disks (The players went crick, crick, crick and died, taking the contents of the disk with them!), thumb drives or sticks (OK for short term use but not recommended for archival.) Come on guys, where can a girl get a good scriptorium when she needs one?
  Bought a new laptop and discovered that the hard drive on this slim device has more capacity than the whomping big one originally used for backups. Copy everything on to that. But now we have another cause for scribal anxiety. Offsite backups used to be stored in the family medievalists's university office, but now he is retired, moved all his stuff back home, and everything is in the one place. This in a country replete with droughts and flooding rains, and bushfires.
  Now some clever clogs in the family has convinced me that my backups would be better out there in The Cloud, wherever that may be. Makes sense, but there is a conceptual difficulty. I can't see it, and I don't know where it is. I choose faith over reason and go down that track. But what if governments fall, there is revolution, another global financial crisis, someone steals my data and finds an antisocial use for pictures of medieval manuscripts and misericords .... what if, what if?
  I now have more backups than a dump truck, but I still have to sort out the muddle of handwritten notes stuffed into filing cabinets, printouts of scanned images, overdue library books and other things that have accumulated untidily since I first started this project. You can see where this shaggy dog story is going, can't you. I am just trying to explain why there might not be a lot of new material on the Medieval Writing website for a little while as I rearrange the deckchairs and wait for the next iceberg. Trouble is, as I work through this stuff I keep finding interesting little bits I want to use, so I might sneak a few little things in.
  The good news is, as I work steadily through all my material, I have only discovered one thing so far that appears to be actually lost. It is a rather obscure Old English transcription, and it was on a piece of paper.
PS. If you want to know what my first computer looked like, click here. They've put it in a museum!!


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David

Dianne said...

Ah, found it, misfiled!
Aris aris feond scathe, to thine
faeie sithe, nu wit scullen de
len, thene daed of mire mazen
aer the king haefde etc etc.
There, that has sent the spelling checker bonkers. Now how do I find things if that happens in The Cloud?

Anonymous said...

tres interessant, merci