Digital Data, Epistemic Gain and Epistemic Loss: we need to stop seeing digitalisation in epochal terms

I’m reading an interesting chapter, by Paul Longley Arthur in the collection Save As… Digital Memories, concerning digitalisation and its implications for biography and life writing. It discusses the challenges that the dominance of digital data poses for life writing:

  • Some forms of digital data being impossible to access
  • Other forms of digital data being so easy to access, edit and disseminate that it’s hard to know how to evaluate it
  • Digital data displacing more established modes of writing and correspondence on which biographers have tended to rely
  • Obsolescence of early digital formats precluding access
  • Unreliability or non-existence of archiving procedures for digital data
  • The unevenness of existing archiving procedures and epistemic problems that causes
  • Storage of data is conditioned by user-defined privacy settings, inflected through a continually changing series of options within the interface
  • Not all modalities are equally likely to be archived or susceptible to being deciphered: yet digital communication often multimodal and meaning lost if this isn’t recognised
  • Plural online identities complicate inference from available digital data
  • Most people lack adequate strategies for the management of digital data, particularly in the long term

This results in what he describes as a ‘great paradox’:

It is a great paradox that, at a time when there is an unprecedented amount of textual interaction and information about our lives, if the current pattern persist we are in danger of leaving fewer personal textual traces than ever before and those we do leave may well be either inaccessible to indecipherable by others.

It’s so usual to see digitalisation framed as an epistemic gain: we can now see what people do and this observation is unobtrusive. It’s refreshing to focus upon the epistemic loss entailed by digitalisation. Doing so helps us detach a methodological appraisal of the phenomenon from the epochal theorising in which it is too often bound up.