Among these was a standard social blossom of witticisms that roughly amalgamate to, “Even if the original books of the New Testament did have something correct or factual in their content, wouldn’t their meaning have been lost in translation from language to language to language?”
Now, even then, I knew of the ever-forward push to seek out earlier ancient texts in contemporary times and translate directly to common American English from sources chronologically closer to +/- 34 A.D. Yet, I, like many of my day, questioned the motives of the would-be translators and therefore the authenticity of their singular translations. I would also question results arrived at in this way if they failed to include other ancient writings similarly dated. A translation without context tends to work only for a bad fiction or two, if at all. Interestingly, that modern-day push for superlative source materials did not wind up in the bible study group’s pronouncements at all. Nor did they rebut with the then standard “God breathed his breathe into the hands of those who translated.”
Emergence of Method
Rather, over the course of three nights, much of the argument built on “their side” dealt with the manner in which texts of all kinds got copied, pre-printing press. By-hand reproductions and retranslations happening on disparate mountain tops in variant nation states, conducted by individuals with divergent styles and levels of language education, most of whom had never met, illuminated by monks and the like for the illiterate masses, recurring for nearly thousands of years, creates for our modern scholars a microcosmic proving-grounds of authenticity.
As that group would postulate, continually “unearthing” our lexicon of biblical copies provides a broad range of comparisons. When individuals conducted their own translations in locations far apart from each other and autonomously delivered the same or the infinitesimally near same result, there is something to be said for the legitimacy of that matchable final content. When, say, one-hundred fifty discovered copies from such a time period separated by great land masses match almost exactly and two do not, it is reasonable to assume that the two variants are in some way flawed, though not unimportant. The one-fifty, by contrast, are likely closest to the intended meaning of the untranslated texts from which they hail, those in turn revealing a similar numeric relationship to the even earlier texts that preceded them. Taken word by word, phrase by phrase, or story by story, it would be impossible for a translator to flourish, adjust, or deceive in a manner that almost perfectly matches another’s attempt at doing the same when physically worlds apart.
So, while not ultimately comprehensive and bypassing additional branches of translation that contributed less to our modern English pieces, the study group followed well exampled chains of such evidence that meandered through ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, German, and eventually English. I did have to go to a few libraries to fill in some of the gaps for myself and shore up a few conclusions to which the group had jumped. Still, this was my first exposure to the methodology and it was relatively tight. Each new discovery of such a text expanded the range of comparisons and further honed what could be understood from more original texts. It was a scholar’s approach.
Sure, a hindsight process like this cannot not rule out a global conspiracy to alter scripture post-printing press nor necessarily speak to whether anything in a seminal text was inherently factual. The process also admittedly included some difficulty in discerning multiples of copies that were all derived from a single book written in the same language, artificially inflating the numbers from which we might properly judge. There are, though, ways to rule out purely transcribed replicas.
This practice did do a surprisingly great job, however, in exhibiting the linkages from bible to bible reaching ever further back in written archives, successfully breaching prominent language barriers. When reaching back far enough into history, it made similar sense to trace out those patterns as the “bible” broke out into individual books. Unlike other predications that eventually require study group participants to indulge in the great mystery, this one was a reasonable illustration in countering a common platitude. Where other affirmations call for blind acceptance, this was something that if I had the inclination to either prove or disprove, they’d provided a logical place to start, something that I could actually go and see. It turns out that “going and seeing” is a great many people’s life’s work.
A Modern Equivalent
In a sense, the process is none too dissimilar from the manner in which Google uses its dedicated engines to translate digital chat across the globe. Theirs is not a simple, static program that equivocates, say, one French word to one Japanese word. It’s better. Sourcing reference material from the vast, existing deep net information cloud, a cloud that includes litany after litany of texts translated by multiple professionals and delivered online, the engine can first search for how many times a particular phrase has been translated by humans in a particular way, draw a best solution from that analyzed statistic, and rapidly morph matching chat box input into a recipient’s mother tongue without users even knowing. Currently the technology is said to be useful only for chatting and texting lengths. Still, that’s a far cry from just a few years ago when stand-alone programs would crank output that would read “The pen from my aunt is on the table of my uncle, says me.”
The useful similarities between the ever-broadening comparisons of ancient, hand-translated texts and the ever-expanding cloud from which Google chat engines discern a human-based “likeliest” intent leads me to wonder. Can this method be rationally applied to our distant future? How will the digitized, databased, freely copied, easily altered and paraphrased information made available to our age be understood and vetted for authenticity in millennia to come? With temes (technological memes) and all their typos, flaws, mistakes, and errors copying themselves at incalculable rates, frequently without human intention or intervention, how will future historians sift for the accurate or originating sources from which intent is best derived? Disinformation is presently distributed with ease while opinions and faulty interpretations are now “published” in greater volume than exhaustively fact-checked material. The numbers strategy used on pre-printing press texts will likely not apply to purely digital material. It’s a problem.
Forecasting the Mentality
Think about it. We’ve arguably six go-to versions of most plays by Shakespeare, all passed down in print (first folio, second folio, first quarto, second quarto, third quarto, and fourth quarto), and from the minor differences in those hard copies , after only 400 years, we still cannot always discern Shakespeare’s unquestionable intent betwixt the divergent lines. Now imagine similar differences for every publication that are:
Is it too low-brow for me to claim that the whole thing’s just a mess?If this is your first time encountering such a concern, let me assure you that I am not nearly the only person to scratch the surface here. Veritable hoards of archivists, historians, records keepers, ‘ographers and ‘ologists of all kinds have thought long and hard, and to great results, about the more contemporary needs in cataloging post-industrial print (at the least). My aforementioned illustration is amateurish at best. The sheer proliferation of modern written material alone requires a large, driven sector of the workforce dedicated to nothing but archiving. I imagine that at least some people come to these tasks as their “calling,” as might, coincidentally, a priest, a monk, a teacher, or a non-profit worker delivering betterments to masses.
So, before we presume as to what might seem my chief complaint, “We can’t properly keep track of anything anymore,” please allow me to share at least a few of my experiences with the people who are fighting that good fight.The Summer Experience
In 2002, I’d had the wonderful fortune to join a program called The Summer Experience that allowed me to stay at a Benedictine Monastery in upstate New York. While Benedictine monastics are widely known for their open guest policies, The Summer Experience was different, permitting a select few candidates to live as the monks do, exploring that comparatively rarified facet of faith-based lifestyles. We took meals with monks, dressed as they did, lived in rooms still referred to as cells, worked the fields to eat, sheered sheep, pruned orchards, were granted full access to areas of the monastery off limits to the public, and broke up every day (seven days a week) with seven traditional chapel attendances (canonical hours), one of which was always a full Roman Catholic mass. This was a more modern practice as in times past, eight or nine canonical hours were observed.Coming from New York City, rural Benedictine living was a culture shock to say the least, but one that rapidly grew on a suddenly unplugged, topographically isolated seeker of wisdom like me. I don’t think that even now I could count the number of positive, brand new impressions that summer 2002 had made on me, but certainly chief among them was a lifestyle concept in “The Word.” These men fully believed that the purest experience of faith came from “lectio divina” [lex-ee-oh di-veen-ah] or “divine reading.” Reading, hearing, and living repeated inspirations as expressed in sermons, prayers, Gregorian chants, gospel readings, bible study, and other wordplay truly pulled life’s center from the self, to something other, whether that something was or was not deity. It was made clear that life lived orbiting any core beyond the ego was a transcendent experience to be learned from.
So while much of the day was spent in quiet contemplation with almost literal hopes of hearing God speak, it could not escape anyone’s notice that this lectio was not at all limited to scripture. The importance ascribed lectio, while Christ-leaning in all regards as would be expected of that group, was an importance nonetheless attributed to all reading, all words, all knowledge. The monastery subscribed to more classic magazines than a doctor’s office in Manhattan, all fully studied by the time I might ever touch any one. Time, Omni, Wired, National Geographic, they all made the collection. Newspapers from around the world in nine or more languages arrived every morning, most read well before sun-up by nearly every monk in attendance. The Prior was not only both a monk and a fully ordained priest, but a licensed medical doctor, three vocations that each require a lifetime of study and dedication. Lunch and dinner were eaten in silence, but for the fact that someone would always perform a “reading at table,” reading to the group for the entire duration of the leisurely meal on a small mic or in an echoing chamber from one of the countless books on site. Our rooms, our cells, were right in the middle of an expansive library, a time-honored architecture that situated every waking moment to the midst of knowledge. The library itself was no slouch, boasting fiction, biographies, reference materials, histories, science, periodicals, in many ways quite superior to the local public library I’d known when growing up. There were Mark Twain first editions that needed to be handled with cotton gloves not a stone’s throw from an encyclopedia of human sexuality.And therein nestles the rub. See, technically, Benedictine monastics take a vow of poverty, among others. They are not permitted to OWN anything. The very clothes on their backs do not belong to them and while I expect it doesn’t happen much, if the Abbot or Prior were to ask them to give up the attire, they would. So, those books in the library, all those wonderful books, did not come from monks dropping spare change at a rummage sale. Abbots did not go out to the mall and snap up product from the overpriced New Age section at B. Dalton Bookseller. A frank preponderance of those books, books arriving in numbers too many for even the monk in charge to finish cataloging on the day, were donations. Estates, individuals, local libraries falling on hard times, they all thought to do what I had never, until then, known possible. They sent the books as donations into a system without ownership, a place where the library itself (or at least the collection) could exist in perpetuity because there was no present element of financial tie. When a monk passes, there’s nothing to hand down. The books stay. Forgotten books, groundbreaking or not, that might have once sat on a greasy apartment shelf alongside dusty cookbooks growing ever closer to the recycle bin, were instead sent to a place that would instantaneously transform them from rotting trash to cared-for, living records of the past.
This does not happen by accident. It is not as if there’s some default fine print in a last will and testament that states if you fail to bequeath your literature, the church gets it. People left entire collections of books, religious and secular, scientific and mathematical, significant and otherwise to this monastery simply because they believed these books belonged there, that there was some good to be done in the act. That’s a strong statement. See, the library is not open to the public. Giving to it is barely a form of charity. Only the monks and those with access to the inner cells will ever even see the library. If a dying person wanted to share her/his collection with the world, better the texts be given to the local public library or to a school or an upstart book sale. Rather, it was both obvious and heartening to discern that individuals and organizations sent books here to ever broaden and deeper-establish the record of us. They send writing to a place that values knowledge, without being able to own it, so that those writings might persist far beyond our days and contribute to a well-informed future. As impressive as the monks were in this centuries-practiced undertaking, I also walked away with a very logical joy in knowing that it was regular people, everyday working class and middle class contemporaries who made that all happen. The notion of needing intellectually appraisable records, pathways to originals, diverse knowledge, wasn’t a concern to only the small cross-section of the most educated among us. Like a time capsule, those voluminous donations fed the human compunction to record the fact that we were here, that we were significant, that we considered the future, and that we could be understood, as a group, to have had culture that need not perish from memory.ProQuest
In 2007 I, personally, had the great fortune to experience a lengthily extended private tour of ProQuest’s operation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While library systems and networks of museums perform their massive parts of the cataloging and archiving processes, free market, for-profit “information resources and technologies” outfits like ProQuest add to that massive undertaking, bidding on the rights to commit different publishing sectors to posterity. The facility was gargantuan, just one of several locations emphasizing not only worldwide workload, but the dire need for redundancy. Behind the scenes, the root operation of the widespread services they offer was a colossal and streamlined methodology for getting every page committed to microfiche and microfilm. College dissertations, magazines, books, reference materials; if they’d won the bid, recording each flake in the avalanche was their responsibility. It was unfailingly impressive. Recognizing that this was a competitive market and that therefore ProQuest’s business rivals were also out and about doing the same, was even more impressive.Defining the Problem
At first glance, my passing reference to microfiche and microfilm might seem like an investment in outmoded media. Surely, with the internet 4Ging its way into my very pocket on a mountaintop, I must acknowledge having last touched a microfiche during the Carter administration for a grade school report on the 1969 moon landing. So, while obligated to point out that ProQuest and libraries, national archives and museum systems, are all doing wonders with converting centuries of content into being digitally accessible, I do have to simultaneously draw attention to the very notion of microfilm and microfiche being passé as the crux of my original problem.My chief complaint is NOT that “We can’t properly keep track of anything anymore.” It’s that the cavalier attitude with which we consume and accept our digital information so easily allows us to downgrade or forget about the importance of maintaining concrete archives in the first place. The “don’t believe everything you read” idiom, derived from a mostly paper-based onslaught of mass media, in the digital age, has become an axiom. We disbelieve so much of it, that we believe none of it, on purpose. That wasn’t the point of the phrase.
Think about this contention. “Of course, I know that there are likely to be errors and inconsistencies in this Hawthorne piece that somebody typed in by hand and posted to his blog! Who cares? It’s accurate enough for my needs. Besides, I’d have to pay Barnes & Noble to get my own copy. How do you know theirs is any better?” I submit to you that the most disturbing part of this quote is not the “who cares” or the “accurate enough,” it may well be the “of course.” It’s the rather blind, pan-societal acceptance of the nature of digital text as a new animal, as a convenient beast, that’s okay with us. The novelty of it, used well or poorly, far outweighs people’s motivation to pursue someone else’s precision, someone else’s published fact, someone else’s originating intent. Was this not the lesson in George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Oh wait, maybe somebody changed the lesson while I wasn’t looking.The Generational Voice of the Problem
Allow me to illustrate how this takes place in the mind.Sharing my impressions of the ProQuest operation soon after the tour, my words fell on the ears of a great listener, a long-time compatriot of mine and fellow wisdom seeker. The topic was outside of his realm of experience and he allowed me to drone on about every detail I could remember commandeering more than an hour’s worth of the conversation. At a convenient break in my monologue, he choose to take a step back from the matter and pose a question I would have otherwise thought was commonly understood. He asked, “But why would anybody go through all of that when everything is digital now?” He added, “Why store reel after reel of microfilm in such a huge, expensive place when it can take up nearly zero space on a giant hard drive or server?” Before the objection ended, he’d put me in mind of another long-time friend who actually works for the publishing paragon Harper Collins. She, despite her advanced intelligence and complete immersion in the publishing industry, as well as her own high-level work in preparing e-books for readers like the Amazon Kindle, worried if these digital technologies would mean “the end of books as we knew them.” Even dead center in the maelstrom of best evidences, the future need for non-digital media somewhat eluded her, as it did him.
Both of my friends had been made to perceive, made to believe, that digital texts are better, the wave of the future. They silently postulate that in the face of “better” things, older things or presumably “lesser” things cease to function. In their momentary observations and worries they could not at all derive a single reason why microfilm or books would ever again serve to fulfill a need. Need, to them, was hierarchical, the next always trumping the previous. For instance, we need a new TV when the old one doesn’t work anymore.In the case of my first friend, I felt challenged in having to explain to such a smart person that, unlike digitally recorded data, microfilm could not be altered. It is a picture of the text, not the text itself. Hand me a piece of paper with the words “I love you” penciled on it, and I can easily and somewhat convincingly erase the “love,” replacing it with “hate.” Take a photograph of that same paper, then just hand me the photograph. I would be infinitely harder-pressed to alter what it said. Then, even if that photo’s authenticity came into question 1000 years later, we could compare the photograph to the original, and voilà, a truly forensic examination ensues yielding fact after fact about the content, the author, the authenticity, the chain of evidence, and possibly about plagiarists, revisionists, would-be deceivers, copyrights, and history. The relationship of the paper to the photo in the example is the same relation of the digital text to the printed or “microfiched” text in an archive.
As a generation, we’ve failed to accurately ascribe the importance of the digital. That’s to say that digital media is, in fact, better, but only better as a DELIVERY SYSTEM. Digital text, audio, video, signaling; it’s the greatest delivery device for information to which mankind has ever clung. The role of digital delivery is not unlike the printing press, getting more copies of more works to more people in less time, with less effort. It’s like having a printing press for everyone. There is immense value in that.Yet a delivery system is a service, not a good. We’ve greatly attributed to the digital an importance extended well beyond its role as a delivery device, as if it, in itself, was an artifact or tangible resource. We see this “miracle” of our technology and falsely expect that archeologists will one day dig up the remnants of a thriving 2011 and dramatically hold up to the sky a flash-drive digitally inscribed with Mapquest directions to Applebee’s as if it was the Rosetta Stone. In our present state of mind, we look at an e-book and say, “That’s the book. That’s what books are now. That’s likely what books will look like for a long time to come.” Wrong. That’s an illusion. The purpose of writing is communication, a purpose served by digitization, but the purpose of formal publishing is to establish a record of that communication as intended, as originated. Books have always served more than one need. They spread ideas, facts, opinions, ads, and entertainments, of course, but they also were records of the ideas, facts, opinions, ads, and entertainments as those human components existed in their purest form. They persisted beyond death, even the death of entire civilizations. We haven’t sacrificed purity for delivery, exactly, we’ve simply divided them up in order to try to achieve the best of both worlds. We rely on unalterable archives for the purity, the record, and we rely on digital media for the speedy communication, pure or not. Both are needed.
Re-explained, my chief complaint is that, as a group, we are slowly forgetting that both are needed. We embrace one significantly more than the other. Doing so is fine, individual to individual, but if a strong and mouthy preponderance of individuals begin to, even for a single generation, languish under the mass delusion that the service is more important than the good, in the case of texts, how long will it be before we stop paying people to archive? How long will it be before we view that library system’s effort as unnecessary and withdraw funding? What happens when nobody sees archiving as a calling? What happens to the original goods when the old service is no longer deemed a worthwhile undertaking? As Richard Dreyfus appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher so imperatively reminded us on the subject of teaching civics in schools, “...unless we teach what that means, it will go away in your kid's lifetime, and we will be a fable.” It only takes one generation to forget. The same applies to archiving. It only takes one generation to devalue its purpose before all after generations are contented without it.Taken Out of Context
I’ve come to sincerely revere the people of the past who so diligently made certain that our understanding of older human ways would persist into every possible future, especially mine. They drew on cave walls. They fashioned alphabets. They carved into stone. They copied by hand, in the most permanent inks they had, over entire lifetimes. They established libraries, translated vigorously, painted on canvas, invented the printing press, bound books, invented film, struck thick metal commemorative plaques, and constructed vacuum-sealed time capsules. The sheer historical diversity of goods that still exist, texts especially, not only provides us the annals of time long gone, but their vastness also gives us the contexts needed to understand them more and more. The digital age, while making strides of its own to counter this disparity, has a participatory context of everyone, everywhere, at all times. That’s the same as not having a context at all.So, the older system of archiving using ink, books, climate controlled containment, microfiche, microfilm, etcetera is still perfectly valid because it is ever-expansively needed. This is a way of saying that books (and pictures of them…you can’t have the picture of the original without once having the published original in hand) serve not an outdated need, but a persistent need. They are the forensic proofs of when digital text has undergone accidental or purposeful alteration. The more we print, even the drivel, the more we have to commit to posterity in creating not only our records, but our context. We’d never crumple up the original U.S. Constitution thinking that the millions of digital copies, even the ones that are accurate, would suffice. Why? Because then there would never exist any way to be CERTAIN of its original content, intent. Trust is one thing. I trust the National Archives to properly post transcripts of the U.S. Constitution online. Proof is a completely different process and matter. For proof I have to visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom and see it myself. I have to go on a day when its exact replica is not on exhibit because the original Constitution is having its display case appraised for maximum protection against the elements. Again, seeing is not proof of the intent of the writers, but in language, what’s written is as close as we can possibly get, especially soon or long after an author’s death.
The problem as I perceive it, the mess created by the influx of highly popular and useful digitization, is one whose solution remains metacognitive. We are likely never going to create a digital medium as untamperable as hard copies. The digital, by design, is malleable and its existence as a superior delivery system lends that malleability a full community-driven momentum. From where I sit, the likely best we can do, as a generation, is to remember the importance of tangible archives. Retask the mind on the glories of digitization. We have to look inward and examine exactly why we simply think that digital stuffs are goods, goods that are “better” than other goods like books or pictures of books. We have to teach our conclusions to the next generation and them to the folks that come after. We have to persist in our understanding of the importance of recording, even if that understanding is regained anew as previous generations might forget to exemplify it.Should it be the destiny of archives to become extinct, we don’t want to be the digital generation who started them down that spiral. Yes, the work sectors tasked with archiving, library sciences, restoration, historical acquisitions, and scholarly interpretation are thriving well in our America today. That does not make me any less disheartened when I hear a frequent “So what?” on the subject, or a “Why?” This respect for the manner in which we preserve documentation cannot be relegated to only those whose job it is to get that done. The case outlining archival importance cannot be the expected knowledge of only the most educated among us. These would be like trusting the task to a cult or secret society. Those folks only have those jobs because we perceive those jobs as necessary. If the mass perception fails, as it’s like to do in the shadow of digitization, the jobs will eventually go away. Just perceiving text preservation correctly becomes everybody’s job. Hitting save does not SAVE.
We might be battling a disappearing thought process. It seems to me that even the minimum wage-earning 17 year-old in 1955, smoking a cigarette, having a beer, and listening to rock ‘n’ roll while tinkering on a car engine, rebellion and all, had more mental expectation that our past was being properly recorded than some of the full-grown, better educated, contemporary adults of Gen X and Gen Y. That 1955 teenager was instilled with stories from his parents, card-carrying members of the self-proclaimed Greatest Generation, stories that made him want to make as much of an impact on the world in his own time and way as they had, stories that created dreams, stories that lasted well beyond the acts that gave rise to them and well beyond the lifespans of those who’d lived them…important stories punctuated with purple hearts and folded flags kept in boxes in attics. He might have felt like the “little guy” at the time, but at least he knew that there were “bigger” folks than him out there making sure that his family’s sacrifices would never be forgotten. He may not have ever heard of “archiving,” but to him it was important.Today, thirty/forty-somethings whose lives stretch back to when the only digital tool in the home was an alarm clock, me and my peers, we tweet, game, comment, like, unlike, share, text, email, chat, thread, blog, ping, link, and search with instantaneous ease. Whether that ease was created by our human drives or our drives an outgrowth of that ease, the surge seems an almost desperate attempt to record our own fractured, non-linear stories. It seems we want to always communicate, to participate in the growing dialogues and establish our presence in what there is to be said. And, in so doing, we get the chance that something, just something, no matter how small, something of us might live on beyond our own end. That’s good. Still, like the “lost in translation” platitude offered earlier about the Christian bible, we don’t trust anybody else to do it for us. We perform these actions ourselves. We don’t presume that we have something important enough to convey that somebody else might consider committing it to posterity, and if we do, we don’t trust them to accurately cache our personal intent. So, not as readily offered the opportunity to formally publish and therefore formally contribute to the archives, we opt for the great delivery device. We skip the formalities and put it all out there. What once might have been the notes, outlines, early drafts, errors, changes, edits, corrections, thoughts, and reminders that would never make it to the final manuscript of a publication are all included in our digital endeavors, chronologically mashed-up with each micro-step taken by everyone else who’s doing the same. That’s a reversal!
In yesteryear, a paper published by, say, Einstein was FIRST viewed as groundbreaking enough to gain worldwide attention, and because of that piece’s impact we are LATER thrilled to discover some of his original notes, likewise storing them in The Library of Congress. It was the recognition of the completed, comprehensive work that makes the original notes at all relevant or interesting. The digital has enabled us to switch our attitude on that sequencing. Now we, as readers and “writers,” believe our notes and originating thoughts interesting in and of themselves. That’s what we “write.” We look for no final work, no conclusions, no thru-line, and we are okay with that. Whatever relevance might be present in any such quick posts, we are comfortable in mentally bypassing it, which lends cognitive license to all the times we, ourselves, wish to purposely post without relevance for fun. The cloud we create is a vaster one, but with a diminished pith. We know that, so we take it with a grain of salt. We treat the digitally networked world as a bit of a guilty pleasure, absent-mindedly consigning the digitally published, digitally marketed world to a similar diminished importance. It becomes a sort of “They have it on iTunes, why would they buy a CD?” understanding of preservation. I bet that “little guy” in 1955 readily knows why. Moreover, Gen-Y knows what 1955 wanted them to know only because Johnny-common understood what they often do not. Archives are valuable exactitudes that exist only as long as we continue to think of them as a need.Conclusion
Celebrate the digital, but espouse it only as what is, a box. It’s the most attractive and useful box humans have ever created, but one that perpetually ensures the possibility that the contents of your box could be invisibly changed by any of the fourteen billion hands it went through before arriving on your doorstep. The only way to truly know if Grandma meant to send you a dirty limerick, or if she instead intended to send a check for your first semester of college, is to visit her every so often and have her show you the gift before it gets wrapped.