The Future of Yesterday: Scientific publishing after the Digital Revolution

In his new Essay, Valentin Groebner, Professor for Medieval history, asks about the possibilities of digital media and the historical perspective that could teach us about their chances and risks.

In his amiable nature, Groebner first admits that he wouldn’t use digital social media a lot – in contrast to Mareike König, for instance, who deals extensively with Blogs and Twitter. To the scientific microblogging please see my post Twitter in the Humanities. But, Groebner is intrigued by the acceleration of diffusion of information, a phenomenon that he no longer thinks to be explained by traditional media theories. Groebner thinks that the promise of the internet is an imaginary vision, sort of a mirage. The infinite cosmos of ordered knowledge to him is utopian.

Then, Groebner looks back to the former scientific publishing. He stresses that the increase of the number of publications has been a problem already before the digital revolution. The real horror of the scientist, he says, is the gray literature, which he thinks to be the direct precursor of digital publications.

What should be done?

The Humanities must defend the borders of their disciplines, Groebner says. He agrees that feedbacks are important, but thinks that they have increased too much. The constant presence in the Web and the steady production of highly specific material is simply too much to cope with. And here we are in the heart of Groebner’s Essay: The abundance of information has to be filtered because there is only limited time available for reading and understanding. This might be true, but Groebner doesn’t discuss the filter and he doesn’t discuss Distant reading, a possible solution to this problem – please see my post Between Distant and Close reading to that.

Groebner’s thinks that books are important because they interrupt the liquefaction of information. This is very interesting – Wolfgang Schmale was thinking about the liquefaction of modernity, too. So, does the reader have a right to stabilized information? And can only books provide such knowledge? The future will tell. But, it seems, against the considerations of Groebner, that more and more scientific journals are published on digital platforms – last year, in Switzerland, there was a controversy on this subject: Digitally produced history needs a shop to sell its products.

So, Groebner’s small and  interesting essay might not touch totally the level of current discussions in the circles of the hard core Digital Humanists. But, it stimulates to reflect on the disadvantages and limitations of Digital History.

Valentin Groebner, Wissenschaftssprache digital. Die Zukunft von gestern, Konstanz University Press, 2014, 176p.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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