The Fallacy of Completion in the Digital Edition

I “finished” my Wikisource annotations about 10 days ago. As I was writing the “last” annotation, I remember thinking two things: 1) Wow that was way more work than I initially realized. 2) My sense of completion on this project is very tangential. This project is unlike any other academic assignment I have undertaken. Unlike an essay or presentation, which are characterized by finality, by completion, our edition is open to constant change. JOH has really stressed, for me, the arbitrariness and, perhaps even falsity, of designating a work “complete.”

In terms of amount of work, I really was surprised by how many hours I spent slouched at my computer, eyes glazed over, looking into some really strange biblical phrases or fascinating facts about everyday Victorian life… I never thought I would be writing about coal holes, for example. Although I did spend quite a lot of time as the editor of my 25 or so pages, I can’t help wondering how much longer and painstaking this project would have been without the internet. Every time there was strange phrasing in the text, I would copy and paste the sentence into Google and 9/10 times I would find that JOH was referring to a biblical passage. Without the internet, I simply would not have the knowledge or even skill to assume the role of editor. I often wondered how editors managed at all before the internet. Who could possibly know the bible that well?!

My time on this project, also underlined, for me, a kind of diminishment of the need for expertise (hopefully, I am not sounding as dogmatic as Keen). The answer to my former question about the bible is, quite simply, a scholar of Judeo-Christianity or, in the very least, someone who is extremely well-versed in the bible. Would this same expert know about coal holes or floriography or Victorian mourning clothes?… I am not so sure. Before the internet, it probably would have taken the work of a diverse team of researchers and scholars to undertake a project like this. It seems to me that every edition, regardless of whether it is printed or digitized, pre or post internet, is most likely the result of group rather than singular effort. It’s funny because as much as our project is a social edition, each 25 page unit seemed to be undertaken singularly, with little to no collaboration within the editorial segment. Our collaboration seemed to occur between the pages rather than within them.

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4 Responses to The Fallacy of Completion in the Digital Edition

  1. julie.morrissy says:

    I agree that the JOH project has challenged my idea of when a project is “complete”. This has been difficult in some senses because academic pursuit is often very focussed on producing work that is “finished” in one sense or another. I found the ongoing nature of the JOH project to be liberating. As I was annotating I found comfort in the fact that I can return to the text and continue to add annotations in the future, and also that other people can do the same. I like the layering effect of the social edition. The project really broadened my understanding of what a text can be.

    • michelle.keith says:

      I agree with this sentiment as well. However, while I found the layered effect of the social edition liberating, I also found it a bit stressful. I guess I am just used to being “finished” with a project or an essay at a particular point, so the open-endedness of this social edition has stressed me in the way that it can constantly be improved. This sounds a little weird, I know, but I kind of like the finality – the “it’s out of my hands feeling.” While this social edition does allow us to make constant changes (and allows for others to contribute as well), in this way it becomes a task that never ends, never leaves your mind and never allows you to feel the satisfaction of completely the task – in a way the the pressure never lifts.

      (Wow this comment got steadily negative – I’m really not that stressed I swear….)

      • steven.jankowski says:

        Michelle, I tend to think of my projects as never quite finished most of the time, even when there are points of punctuated “completion”. I find that this sort of project makes this fact explicit. Even when one of my project are done, I know that what I learned there is going to be carried forward. That ideas I built then will be reopened and investigated again. For instance, take the fact that I want to present at a conference on this project. In preparing for the presentation the “doneness” of our class will be ruptured so that I get back inside it again. There is a vulnerability to this state of being, but there is something absolutely worthwhile about it.

  2. Pingback: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

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