If Shakespeare had a hard drive, would we look differently upon the playwright? Matthew Kirschenbaum asks that question in The Chronicle Review, and his thumbnail answer is hard to dispute: “Details of his writing process and his life currently a mystery might be pitilessly exposed.”
If Shakespeare had had a hard drive, if the plays had been written with a word processor on a computer that had somehow survived, we still might not know anything definitive about Shakespeare’s original or final intentions — these are human, not technological, questions — but we might be able to know some rather different things. We might be able to know, for example, the precise date on which he began composing Hamlet indeed the precise minute and hour, time-stamped to the second. We would be able to know how long he had spent working on it, or at least how long the file containing the play had remained open on his desktop. We would very likely have access to multiple versions and states of the file, and if Shakespeare had “track changes” turned on while he wrote, we would be able to follow the composition of a soliloquy keystroke by keystroke, each revision also date- and time-stamped to the second.
This is more than a simple thought exercise, writes Mr. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. Since almost all contemporary literature is “born digital,” today’s authors “will not and cannot be studied in the future in the same way as writers of the past.”