Saturday, February 14, 2009

Intrinsic value in the digital era

An interesting short piece in the New Scientist outlines some of the likely consequences of authors' use electronic media to create literary works; be sure to scroll down and read the comments. Among other things:
  • Dealers of ephemera are going to find that, although certain physical artifacts (e.g., President Obama's Blackberry) will have cash value, the perfectly replicable electronic files and computer printouts generated by today's writers won't have the same sort of market value as their predecessors' manuscript and typescript drafts, letters, and other materials.
  • Manuscript curators are, in some instances, going to have to accept authors' assurances regarding the contents of physical media. Moreover, if they accession files such as e-mails, they should prepare themselves for the possibility that some of these files may contain information that could profoundly embarrass donors.
I've long been aware that electronic records lack intrinsic value; owing to the pace of technological change, the short lifespan of storage media, and the proprietary nature of many file formats, we simply can't preserve electronic records in their original form. However, until now, I haven't given much thought to the impact that this lack will eventually have upon the literary ephemera market, which will likely find the 21st century offers slim pickings. This is, of course, not a good situation for the dealers, but they will likely continue to eke out a living peddling materials created by 19th and 20th century writers. It's also bad for literary forgers such as Lee Israel: thanks to the digital age, it's now much easier to counterfeit the work of contemporary authors -- and much harder for them to turn a profit by doing so. Ah, the small ironies of our digital age . . . .

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