As you are aware, your theme is colossal. Reading and writing are at once human capacities, skills for social functioning, industries, and so on.
There is therefore quite an agenda behind those two verbs, reading and writing.
This morning I would like to speak to you briefly about the consequences of digital technology, as described earlier by Mr. Doueihi and Mr. Ménard.
I would like to discuss these consequences in terms of the activities of the institutions responsible for managing what we commonly refer to as a nation’s documentary heritage—in other words, part of its writing—in an effort to preserve its main substance for current and future generations. This is what has allowed and still allows the ability to access sources for evidence, to build a memory for individuals and nations, to write history, to develop identities, to advance knowledge, and to feed the imagination to create new worlds.
As we know well, these are mainly written sources. Apart from museums, which overflow with three-dimensional treasures, the main loci of knowledge, namely libraries and archives, are filled with books and documents of all types, such as manuscripts, films, portraits and photographs.
For me, digital technology is more than the extension of writing and its conventions into a new space and new forms. Therefore, while I have witnessed with you all the arrival of the electronic book or document in lieu of or in addition to the paper document or book, the operation is much more complex and implies deeper transformations that affect the very attributes and above all the value of the content these objects contain, for both analogue and electronic production. That is to say that today even the printed book cannot ignore the existence of digital technology in establishing its own value, its own attributes. It is no longer the mere product of the creator and the publishing world. It is part of an organic whole that challenges its role as an object for transmitting knowledge and content. It is linked to a more complex documentary world. For example, the texts produced by this conference will not be able to disregard the tweets that will arrive through the social media as the conference progresses.
It is therefore a fundamental question for all of us who are trying to preserve by selecting—with and according to what criteria?—content that is representative of a society’s documentary output. Written products being our core business, what impact does digital technology therefore have on the meaning and value of the written word in terms of our ability to serve as a nerve centre in which the words that form a society’s discourse are found and circulated? What was natural in a world supported by managerial practices is certainly being questioned, and this raises important questions about the current meaning and value of the use of the written word.
The main attribute that characterizes the pre-digital age is the mediation of documentary output. Those who really want to be heard are not. Scholars and those who control publishing are the ones who decide what is to be published, and therefore printed, read and basically known in the different spheres of society. It is the editor-in-chief of the scientific journal who decides to apply and influence the criteria for publishing in the journal, thus limiting the output of ideas to those consistent with the objectives of the journal. The same logic applies to the publishing house and, to a certain extent, the daily newspaper.
Within this space, the role of institutions such as ours was that of “place”—a place where items were collected for preservation and display. The primary objective in managing these physical places was the accumulation, the collection of items reflecting society's documentary output. This includes government documents, private archives or books acquired through various selection mechanisms, more or less automatic, such as legal deposit, that were built on numerous assumptions.
Thus far, our role has been greatly facilitated by the intermediaries between the creators and the users of information, namely, those responsible for disseminating part of this output. Our role has therefore been rather passive, and our success assured by virtue of the fact that we have never, or very seldom, had to choose what was to be kept, because this was already fairly well controlled and determined further upstream by those who decided what would be published. We simply collected it.
Our success, our performance, is often commensurate with our capacity to collect, as extensively as possible, not content, but the objects in which content is conveyed.
Over time, we have even sometimes overlooked the importance of reflecting all forms of expression that help shape societal discourse in order to devote ourselves more, and primarily to, the object, the book, the manuscript, the portrait or the document, believing that the collection of items would reflect at any given time a society's forms of expression and, ultimately, its discourse about a given subject. This leads some to believe that, through our collections, we are representative of the documentary output of our society. Might that be just a myth?
When I look at our vaults or our shelves, or those of others, I am generally amazed at the wealth of the collections. But when I think about the representativity of those same collections, I am concerned. I would not say that there is not some truth in the representativity of the pre-digital era, but today, it is clear that things are very different and that our business models are no longer appropriate, if we hope to respond to the challenges posed by digital technology.
In general, digital technology affects the moral and biological dimensions of human beings. New practices, new perceptions and new expectations are emerging with the presence of digital technology.
The digital world entails changes that cut across the various spheres of human activity.
In criminal law, public knowledge of certain facts can be a source for accusation. For example, when two hockey players come to blows and their brawl is broadcast to thousands if not millions of viewers, we can ask if the Crown can proceed with an indictment on the basis of those images alone. The same is true for home videos that can be published on the Internet and that are accessible to all. Video surveillance of roads raises the same issues. Finally, there are the passports with transmitters that now allow border officials to record the comings and goings of citizens as they move from one territory to another. In just these few examples, it is the citizen’s entire expectation of privacy with respect to the State that changes.
It should be noted in passing that the friction between the State and the citizen is not one way. The digital age is also quite restrictive for the State, which is dealing with all sorts of possibilities that do not mesh with the rules that prevailed in the pre-digital world. Here we can note this information exchange allows for approaches that are much less costly than traditional approaches. Regardless of the domain—domestic trade, health, transport—these approaches, made possible by information technologies, face significant legal barriers.
Other examples from everyday life are just as revealing. When renting a car, a customer can take pictures of the car’s body to prove its condition before signing the contract. Today’s cameras add such information as time, date and precise geospatial coordinates to the photograph to build, with a single click, a complete file with an accuracy that was unimaginable just a few short years ago.
Even in the most fundamental human relationships, digital technology changes behaviours we would have thought unchangeable. A teenager recently told me that a change in Facebook status is greater proof of affection than any other declaration. More than ever, things have to “click” between two individuals.
We can also see physical transformations: “texts” and the weakening of thumbs, the crumbling of seniors’ memory with the growing use of search engines. All the work on cognitive function and the modification of human capacities are indicators that digital technology is gradually making changes.
More specifically, the world of information has been heavily impacted by digital technology.
Freely circulated information and universal Internet penetration are creating a free market for content. This market is governed by a number of rules, such as the confidence that must exist between consumers and content producers.
Books, the epitome of the writing system, include a series of segregations: publishers, distributions, collections, retail price, literary awards, number of editions, number of translations, number of sales, etc. For example, a thesis is published by the university press and indicates the author and advisor and the faculty that received it. It is even inserted into a particular collection, such as the orange PUF series or others. Digital information exposes content.
Now that browsers form the basis of surfing, we can no longer attach any importance to sites, since we are no longer browsing sites but rather the results pages of search engines such as Google and Yahoo.
The emerging semantic Web, which seeks to create links between content using algorithms, speaks even further to the idea that information is framed by parameters that can result in increased or reduced consumer confidence.
We can also assume that the sequence of readings by information consumers in a digital world will have an infinite number of permutations. Depending on the keywords used, the quality of metadata used, the search engine employed and the quality of the algorithms behind it, and the information available on the date of the search, each person doing a search will have a different reading of the information available. As a result, some content will be judged credible by some and not by others, with no other judgement factor involved.
Digital technology therefore dissolves the object in which the information was contained. Freed from the traditional segregations of the book, content will be undifferentiated, which will necessarily entail a second crisis of confidence among information consumers with respect to suppliers, somewhat like that against the propaganda of the 19th and 20th centuries. Without benchmarks to help distinguish between true and false, good and bad, fact and possibility, there will be distrust towards the whole that will result in a contraction of the collective consciousness.
Because it is an inexpensive, universal and ephemeral medium, the Web splits content into brief and scattered ideas. This can be seen in several phenomena, such as the reduction of the allowable size for messages carried by the social media, the publication of increasingly brief news, and the general prevalence of factual information over analysis.
It is also because of the participative nature of the creation of content online that the available information is increasingly fragmented. Rather than the complete monographs available at the library, consumers are now faced with articles that develop ideas on very narrow subjects or discussions that are powered more by exercises in rhetoric than a search for truth.
Because of the fragmentation of information, the abundance of content and the crisis of confidence among information consumers, it is expected that there will be a search for discourse having the same features as the information available on the Web, such as instantly available, interrelated with other content, available free of charge and allowing some feedback by consumers.
Because they are too slow to react, the current institutions, apart from possibly universities, are one step behind the consumption of information on the Web. This is particularly true for bookstores and libraries that stock written works that were consumed several weeks, if not several months, earlier on the Web. University research could fill this need, but it seems to me that the production system is too slow to meet this emerging need.
Think tanks are gaining popularity because they alone have a production model that allows consumer needs to be met. They produce complete texts on fairly broad issues, they rely on scattered information found on the Web and elsewhere, and they can produce them at a rapid rate. These institutions are, however, financed by polarized groups or groups whose interests are based on predetermined ideologies.
Not necessarily, but certainly more opportunities to find the words that form the framework.
If books, manuscripts or documents are in peril as “objects”, as an industry, that is not so serious if the role that they played is reprised somewhere else, if the support of books for the development of science, the building of individuals’ critical capacity or social development is now something else, and that something else allows this role to be played with as much and even more efficiency, I would not worry, except about being able to identify and to harness those forms of replacement.
First, we should note that henceforth, anyone who decides to produce and disseminate can do so as never before.
Second, mediation is less and less recognizable. Digital technology does not espouse the contractual and production forms that served the analogue world. Is the new publisher not the cable distributor with completely different ethics and business practices from those of the traditional publisher?
Third, copyright is facing a major crisis. It is being mishandled because it is very likely that we will have to ask more fundamental questions, such as “how to compensate creators?”
Fourth, there is a belief or perception that we can and must preserve everything. While it is true that everything can now at least be saved, that is not the case with preservation. Moreover, should we not first ask ourselves what, why and how?
Fifth, access to information and to content also raises questions. Among other things, if we believe that reading can still be organized, we need only remember Petrucci’s account of the reaction of some students on an American campus to the use of the Dewey system.
Lastly, and most importantly, where is the content and where is it formed?
This overview of digital technology and its consequences allows us to draw certain conclusions and to set out certain needs for the future.
The Web is obviously not a publication in the traditional sense. On the Web, the ideology of the book is no longer dominant, because reading itself has changed considerably.
Are reading and writing therefore at risk? In my opinion, the system of writing is not about to disappear, but to be replaced. A new balance is struck each day between traditional writing and the writing issued from the new media that is sometimes a mere transcription of the oral if not oral recordings. Talking is certainly returning in force in the form of expressive functions. The Web is overloaded with expressive functions that are neither words nor discourse, but that are often taken as such. Does a society risk falling into collective amnesia if it does not produce either written statements or discourse?
It is digital content that will form the collective memory and knowledge of tomorrow. Consequently, this calls into question the work of those who choose what should be memorized. The role of the institutions and information professionals should gradually evolve to become proactive and move further upstream in the process of documentation, closer to the source and the moment of creation.
Information should now be organized from the time it is created; the moment of documentation has changed. The onset of the digital era has completely transformed the documentary moment and has brought many new factors into play in our decision making around memory value. Decisions that could be delayed for thirty years can now be taken before, during and immediately after the act of creation.
For a long time, we have collected not content but the objects that carry content as exhaustively as possible.
Over time, we have even sometimes overlooked the importance of reflecting all forms of expression that help shape societal discourse in order to devote ourselves more, and primarily to, the object, the book, the manuscript, the portrait or the document, believing that the collection of items would reflect at any given time a society's forms of expression and, ultimately, its discourse about a given subject.
We will have to abandon the objects and equip ourselves to understand the content—that is where the work will be done.
How to understand the digital universe? What do we keep in it? Everything? Based on Borges and Funes, we have come to believe that we should not. We have also gained a better understanding of the risks, including even the inconsistencies and the impossibilities.
In short, it is increasingly clear that the institutions responsible for deposits of documentary resources need to refocus their activities according to technological changes.
Our challenge is therefore huge, and our work, colossal, if we are to remain essential pillars for the construction of loci of memory and knowledge.
Books certainly have a history. There is romanticism surrounding books, their course and forms, which is justifiable, or at least understandable. They were a way to promote literature, literacy and the advancement of science. They helped carry the imaginary beyond individual borders to reach the masses. However, we could say the same for manuscripts, official documents, and so on. In that sense, there is a kind of misunderstanding or confusion of genres between content and means of dissemination, the retrieval of discourse and content, the channelling of messages and content. There is not enough understanding of the crucial link between creation, the creation process, discourse and the existence of discourse and dissemination, the importance and value of texts, the importance and value of ideas, the importance and representativity of discursive components at the level of an organization, of a society. This confusion constitutes a major obstacle to scientific knowledge, since it is discourse, the embodied ideas, that transform, not the book or the manuscript, or the bytes of today. If books and other means of preservation and dissemination have made it possible to acquire facts, ideas and the collective imagination over time, do these objects not become simple artifacts over time? Consequently, beyond wanting to protect and promote a symbol, human thought is not fed by the book, manuscript or byte, but rather by its content, by the expressed imagination. The question that concerns the social scientist is: can human thought continue to develop, to spread and to be used with and outside the book, with and outside the manuscript? Can discourse exist, develop, and be used without the book, manuscript or byte? How and where is discourse created?
An epistemology of the information sciences must be created—I hesitate to use the word sciences, as I feel that these are rather trades, approaches or techniques. There is no epistemology.
We must find the new locum and the new space, and the new tools that circulate knowledge. We need to get involved. We must contribute what we know to maintain authenticity, truth, etc. It is not a matter of retaking and transposing analogue data in the digital space. The system of writing, that is to say its conventions, is collapsing.
Allow me to first ask, entirely rhetorically, why “speaking” is not part of what would help form the perfect trilogy to which we are accustomed. And in the digital age, would it not be more fair to include the verb “to say”? Because if the document and the spoken word are clearly distinct forms, what is happening in the digital age? The oral and written word have provided scientific tools that are themselves also distinct for deciphering meaning: ethnology for the oral tradition and historiography for the written word. How do we approach digital technology? Isn’t digital technology the "what is said" that results from a mixture of oral and written tradition?
Secondly, then, and this is important, because my anchoring this morning is that of an institution which, like many others, is trying to find its way in this new environment that has long been characterized by work involving objects: manuscripts, books and documents, portraits or films and photographs.
My interest in the debate on reading, writing and, now more globally and progressively, on what is “said” relates to the role of the institutions responsible for assuring present and future generations that they can build identity, memory, democracy and literacy on solid foundations, namely, society’s documentary production and the discourse that is formed within that society.