Prof. Hayles was kind enough to respond to my request for the text of her story.  Here it is:

N.  Katherine Hayles

Literature Program, Duke University

The War that Wasn’t

Forty years ago, way back in 2010, the PH’s and the DH’s almost went to war. From our vantage point in the New Dark Ages, when everything can be saved but hardly anything can be indexed and found, it is not easy to tell exactly how the animus between the PH’s and DH’s came about.   What is known is that the PH’s, acidic by nature, opened the hostilities by flinging ink wells and clouds of paper confetti at the DH’s, who responded with flurries of sand and threats to byte those who did not agree the future belonged to them.  The PH’s, far from granting the superiority of the DH’s, sent a chilly rejoinder via their ambassador Sir Birkerts that the great cannons of tradition were on their side and would pulverize any opposition, especially since the DH cannons were puny and quickly became obsolete, owing to their heavy dependence on esoteric technologies.

Matters when from bad to worse when it was discovered that the mother of the DH lineage, although a digital matriarch by marriage, had in fact come from an old and distinguished family of PH’s.  When she married, her husband’s nomenclature, which added a dotcom after her given name, had in effect erased her original domain and thus obscured her origins.  Added to this semiotic confusion was a genetic one.  Apparently the gene she carried was recessive and became increasingly scarce as the generations went on, leading some of her more recent progeny to disown her gene altogether, proclaiming that they were pure DH’s and played only those games that owed nothing to the PH heritage.  Thus a schism opened within the ranks of the DH’s between those who wanted to eradicate the traces of the PH’s and those who wanted to excavate that eclipsed heritage, in the hope of finding something that would help them mitigate the present hostilities.  To make matters yet more complicated,  the older DH’s, who like the younger generation identified with the patriarch, nevertheless found themselves at odds with the new wave of digital youth, who had grown tired of playing in the databases only to be rewarded with frequency counts and statistical analyses; they wanted pictures, webcams, action.

On their side, the PH’s made some disturbing discoveries of their own.   At first they considered the DH’s to be enslaved to their hybridized—they would say bastardized—medium, so promiscuous that it hardly ever confined itself to only one modality, in contrast to the purity of their own preferred medium of paper and ink.  But then an exposé by Geraldo Rivera on ITube, quickly going viral, revealed that the PH medium had in fact been completely dependent on DH technology for several decades and was, moreover, quickly moving into DH devices that threatened to make the book obsolete.  The PH’s, alarmed by this turn of events, argued that although the DH devices might cleverly simulate their revered books, they were all the more blasphemous for that.  Moreover, they alleged that the devices carried viruses that could be transmitted from artifact to human, with the result that everyone who used them was at risk of turning into a DH, whether he liked it or not.

By now the boundaries between the DH’s and PH’s had become so blurred that only the most rabid ideologues could claim they were untainted by their antagonists.  Moreover, as the two camps flowed into one another, miscegenation, notwithstanding that it was much frowned upon by purists on both sides, became increasingly common.   Works appeared that were published simultaneously in DH and PH technology; indeed, some works claimed that their integrity as complete art pieces required that their doubled instantiations be regarded as a single entity spread across both technologies.  The bastions that had until then rigorously upheld the boundaries—tenure reviews, hiring procedures, institutional disciplinarity, and the like—found it increasingly difficult to justify the continuing hostilities.  In the end, as we know, the would-be war died not with a cataclysm but a whimper.

What can we learn by rehearsing this history?   In  retrospect, it seems remarkable that there was so little discussion about the integrated changes that were taking place between thinking and institutional structures.  At stake , as we now clearly see, was not the nature of the medium but the nature of cognition. One of the few who understood the implications was Alan Liu, recently inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame for Advanced Cognition.   When he proposed that the Web had made “low cognitive reading” a widespread practice, Liu opened the door to the resulting comparison of low cognitive reading and high cognitive reading (a reworking of the old idea of close reading).  Moreover, his work stimulated much important research on how low and high cognitive reading could mutually enhance one another.  Franco Moretti, before his untimely death from information overload, also contributed importantly with his concept of distant reading.  Once these ideas had penetrated academic culture, institutional change followed quickly, with the old humanistic disciplines—PH and DH alike—being reconfigured into centers for reading, cognition, and multimodal writing.  Once called interdisciplinary—a term that quaintly referred to the era when knowledge was cut up and stored in separate silos—such integrated centers became the backbone of academia, as what used to be departments faded into the background, eventually becoming small specialized conferences held semi-annually at exotic locations around the world (a development that most regarded as a vast improvement over the typical department meeting).  If only we could reach back in time and give this information to our predecessors, how much more smoothly would the changes have gone, and how unnecessary would have been the old animosities and antagonisms!  Of course, this can only be a fantasy forever unrealizable.

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