POST: The Uncanny Valley and the Ghost in the Machine: a discussion of analogies for thinking about digitized medieval manuscripts

Dot Porter (University of Pennsylvania) has published the text of talk she presented at the University of KansasĀ Digital Humanities Seminar in September. “The Uncanny Valley and the Ghost in the Machine: a discussion of analogies for thinking about digitized medieval manuscripts” presents a series of ruminations on digitized books: they’re not the original, but what exactly are they?

That digitized versions of books are not the book itself, but rather a surrogate, is by now well-trod ground in digital humanities and information science. But Porter poses a more nuanced version of the thinking around the physical and digital, the “question that actually keeps [her] up at night”:

If a digitized manuscript isnā€™t a manuscript, how can we present it in ways that explore aspects of the originalā€™s manuscript-ness, ethically and with care, while both pushing and respecting the boundaries of technology?

Porter’s talk delves into this complexity by exploring four aspects: uncanny valley, as it relates digitized manuscripts; memes and terms, as they relate to and give new meaning to terms such as facsimile, surrogate, and avatar to describe digitized manuscripts; transformative works and the language of care as they apply to historical texts; and the Ghost in the Machine, applying mind-body dualism to “the separability or inseparability of the mind of the manuscript and the body of the manuscript.”

Porter discusses the many different digital versions of a manuscript, and how each captures different aspects of the physical work but not the entirety of it. And outside of not being able to capture the totality of the work in a single digital version, she also points out that the proliferation of these multiple versions are “creating relatively massive amounts of fragmentary data about our manuscripts.”

What the analogy of the Ghost and the Machine forces us to do first is to determine what is theĀ ghost, and what is theĀ machine. Being informed by Benjaminā€™s concept of theĀ aura, McCluhanā€™s concept of the medium and the message (distinct from content), Dr. Wilsonā€™s concept ofĀ affective reception, and also the relationship between affinity and ā€œmanuscript-nessā€ in the uncanny valley, Iā€™d like to propose that theĀ ghostĀ of a manuscript is very close to Benjaminā€™s concept of theĀ aura, and that theĀ auraĀ is what informs ourĀ affinityĀ towards any interface, and is also what we as humans are set to respond to emotionally. The aura, the ghost, is what makes a manuscript unique, and what allows us to identify it. Earlier, when talking about the uncanny valley, I mentioned that if you had Ms. Codex 1056 in your hands tomorrow it would look different that it did in the video I showed you. That difference between what you would see in your interactions with the manuscript, and what you see in my video, thatā€™s theĀ ghost. And it is, I think, impossible to reproduce the ghost of the manuscript, and impossible to visualize it completely in any digital interface I can comprehend.

Porter’s point is that each digital version of a manuscript, each interface, “illustrate[s] some aspect of the manuscript and to ignore others.” She suggests that practitioners of digital humanities should become more conscious of their choices, in order to better understand the ways in which the virtual, digitized machines we are providing interact with and complicate the ghost of the manuscript.

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Devin Becker, Kristina De Voe, Heather Froehlich, Shanna Hollich, Sarah Nguyen, Hannah Park, and Madelyn Washington (Editors-at-large for the week), Caitlin Christian-Lamb (Editor for the week), and Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara, Sarah Melton, Roxanne Shirazi, and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).