Old texts in a new world: Meaning production in the digital medium

Paper presented at Materiality of Knowledge in Chinese Thought: Past and Present, Yuelu Academy


Throughout history, technical innovations in the production and transmission of written materials have often had far-reaching long-term consequences for knowledge production – from the standardization of writing forms, to the development of dictionaries and encyclopedias, to the availability and spread of printing and copying technologies. In this paper, I focus on the ongoing impact of the most recent such development: digitization and increasing use of digital modes of interaction with premodern textual materials.

Since premodern Chinese documents first became available to scholars in digital form, the existence of digital texts has caused gradual but significant changes in mainstream scholarly workflows and expectations. Full-text repositories and digital libraries now make available in seconds to anyone on the planet premodern materials on a scale once impossible for anyone other than a determined emperor to obtain, while making similarly fantastic reductions in time and effort required to retrieve certain types of information. At the same time, even more dramatic changes have begun to take place as a consequence of digitization together with the ever-increasing sophistication and power of digital systems. Faced with larger volumes of material than any individual could ever expect to read – let alone claim detailed knowledge of – text mining and distant reading approaches offer the promise of gleaning useful information from exhaustive statistical analyses at scales not achievable through traditional means. Data-driven approaches – already well developed in other disciplines – similarly enable digital approaches to historical studies in which evidence can be systematically assembled at large enough scales to solidly ground statistical claims about broad historical and societal changes over time. This paper explores the development of these approaches, and the consequences for knowledge production in the digital age.

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