text

Digital text

February 2008 - G. Buccellati
The home for this page is Mozan Sitewide.

1. The notion of digital text
     Browser edition
     Structure of a digital text
     Structure vs. function
     Structure and deconstruction
2. Mechanisms
     Statement of purpose: preface
     The frame: site map and table of contents
     The evidentiary base: links and footnotes
     Tagging
     Portability
     Intrinsic vs. extrinsic integration
3. Four types of digital text
     1. The linear sequence
     2. The tally
     3. The matrix
     4. The inquiry path
4. Urkesh application
     The Urkesh Global Record as a digital text
     The Urkesh Website as a digital text

1. The notion of digital text

     It may seem a moot question to inquire into the nature of a digital text – the obvious definition seemingly being any combination of words and images displayed on a computer screen. Thus any digital composition may be called a "text," however much sui generis: a website as a whole, or an individual page, or a data base, or even a graphic file with plots or images. The structuring and the scope are different in each case: a page has much narrower confines than a website, and so does a single sheet within a larger relational data base. But they share the electronic medium in which they are are communicated.
     If we start, however, from a different assessment of what digital thought properly is, particularly in its differentiation from the electronic dimension, then we will reserve the term digital for a conceptual structure that differs substantially from the standard text structure as rooted in the tradition of writing sequentially on fixed display surfaces (from clay to paper to the screen).
     A database is digital in the sense I am advocating, but it does not in and of itself develop any argument. It is true, and significant, that the very design of the database and the choice of data respond to criteria that must be formulated explicitly, outside the confines of the database itself. But the primary intent of the author is to hand over the key to someone who may then develop a proper argument, within the limitations of the selection and categorization criteria established by the author.
     A website has the greatest potential to be a proper digital text, but in current practice it is so only to the extent that it includes a database. The discursive component of a website, on the other hand, is no different from a printed text,with a regular prose flow, embedded graphics, crossreferences (in the form of hyperlinks).
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Browser edition

     The term "browser edition" (which is also pertinent to a discussion of the global record) may be used to refer to the proper digital nature of a website, seen in its logical and conceptual organization, independently from the (accidental) fact that it happens to be available electronically on the World Wide Web. A browser edition, whether local to a given computer or available on the Web, has a digital potential unlike that of any other medium. And this potential is properly digital. This is what I am seeking to define in the present context.
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Structure of a digital text

     Structure is the formal counterpart of an argument. An argument develops in a linear direction, and is accordingly structured.
     notions of "above" and "below" do not properly apply (though I sue them, see below(!) - links allow instant connections to all points of the compass
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Structure vs. function

     One of the most visible aspects of an electronic text is the search function. Conceptually, this is the major distinction between a printed text and its mirror image in .PDF format. It may well be the only conceptual difference – and I deal with it more at length in connction with the notion of digital reading. But it should be noted that it does not, in and of itself, affect the structure of the text, with which we are concerned here.
     Indirectly, however, the search function is of relevance to the digital nature of an argument.
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Structure and deconstruction

     If an argument is to have structure, it is essentially "constructed," i.e., it proceeds along a path that can be inspected, verified and, precisely, "argued." But how can a structured construction be the model when we are, it seems, called to deconstruct it after all?
     "Deconstruction" is a treacherous term, but treachery is intentionally built into its very referent. For the term is, and it is not, a noun of action: while one is seemingly called to deconstruct a construct, one is in fact called not to construct a construct in the first place. The core of the paradox is precisely that the act of deconstructing ends up being, in practice, a full exercise in structural analysis. For to "deconstruct" is generally taken to mean to break apart a structure in order to better understand it. But what is more "constructive" than to "deconstruct" in such manner, what more structural than to articulate a structure?
     The deeper, and more valuable, meaning of deconstruction is in pointing to the need of producing a construct, yes, but one that instead of being frozen is fluid, one that retains the full dynamics of creative thought rather than suffocating it in all too rigid a mesh, one that is imbued with life at the same time that it opens itself for dissection. The real goal, then, is not to deconstruct in such a way as to produce an alternative frozen constuct, but rather to create a construct that is intrinsically self-deconstructing.
     That is, precisely, what a proper digital text can offer. An argument is indeed constructed, but in such a way that its unfolding is self-declaratory. It is not the dissection of a cadaver, but a self-displaying vivisection. Indeed, structure rules supreme, and its parameters are as sharply defined as any – but they are not static. The argment is shown in flux, and flux itself is arguable, controllable.
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2. Mechanisms

     The concrete embodiment of a digital text occurs through a number of mechanisms. Some should be seen as logical extensions of traditional means of constructing a text: the first three discussed below belong in this catgeory. Other mechanisms have become possible only with the electronic medium, and present problems which must be addressed to ensure a long lasting success of the digital text
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Statement of purpose: preface

     notion of preface - see Harvard Classics volume
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The frame: site map and table of contents

     The frame of a website is generally conveyed by the site map, which provides with a tree-like structure the logical concatenation of the pages within the site. It is, for the most part, a stenographic notation that helps the author in keeping track of where the various elements belong.
     I privilege the notion conveyed by the traditional term "table of contents," which I develop in the sense of an outline. Here, emphasis is placed on articulating, at the same time, the substance of the components and the coherence of the whole. One can then develop a perceptual relationship to the "long argument" that is developed as a central thesis or complex of theses, within the website.
     side bars - page from Erasmus
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The evidentiary base: links and footnotes

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Tagging

Vivisimo Alexandria project
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Portability

     It seems fair to say that digital publishing has not yet gained full acceptance in the academic environment. And this in spite of the enormous outlay of funds and the incalculable proliferation of websites. The problems that I have stressed above (and in relationship to digital reading) pertain to the intellectual level. But there are also important practical consequences to be considered.
     The major one is portability, i.e., the degree to which data can maintain permanence by being imported into progressively newer formats and support systems. These two aspects may present unexpected difficulties.
     Format conversions are far from satisfactory, especially when the base structure is complex. The best solution seems to be to have the basic data in the simplest possible format (we have chosen ASCII for texts, and JPEG or TIFF for graphic files). An extra measure of safety is to have the data available in a non-digital medium as well.
     Support systems should serve two parallel needs. The first is to guarantee current access on any platform. In this respect, a web based online server, with one or more mirrors, provides the best assurance. Second – for the sake of future upgrades, it is important to rely on strong institutional support, one that would guarantee regular maintenance and migration of data.
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Intrinsic vs extrinsic integration

     Integration is an overriding goal of all computer projects, particularly at the level of the interface between programs and data entry. But, even when successful, it is often limited because it remains essentially extrinsic. By this I mean that different components are indeed assembled, often with sophisticated equipment – but the correlation happens through a process of juxtaposition. Thus photographs are taken, points in space are geo-referenced through total stations, 3-D models are produced, detailed typological inventories are drawn up. Each set of data is inserted in a database system that is rich of attributes. At best, these are interconencted in a relational mode. But each remains essentially a universe of its own, juxtaposed to the others. This is what I call extrinsic integration.
     The goal of intrinsic integration, on the other hand, is to achieve the correlation of (1) all the pieces, (2) automatically, (3) from within and from the start, and (4) at the highest level of the pertinent universe. As for (3), the correlation among the components is invoked from within each component at the very moment that the component is first produced, rather than being superimposed after the component's data base structure has been achieved. As for (4), all components, however heterogenous in either substance or format, must end up in a structured whole where the coordination happens at the level of the whole, not of the parts (which would result in mere juxtaposition). The Browser Edition of the type proposed here is the concrete approach I follow in order to meet these requirements.
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3. Four types of digital texts

     We may distinguish four different ways in which a digital "composition" or "text" may be construed, depending on grammatical coding (tagging), degrees of complexity, display format envisaged.
     Each of the four approaches is briefly described below. The following chart gives a synoptic overview of the criteria used to differentiate the various types of "digital reading," and adds simple examples taken from everyday experience.
grammatical coding model example
1. pre-configured narrative absent linear normal web page
2. tally simple sequential list telephone directory
3. matrix complex non linear matrix tabulation online bank statement
4. self-generated narrative complex hyperlinked -
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1. The pre-configured narrative

     Reading a linear text channels attention in a preset direction, the one proposed by the writer. Obviously, this privileges the writer's point of view, which is, after all, what writers intend to do in the first place – proposing a given argument. In a printed version, footnotes and cross-references help readers redirect their attention along parallel registers, and thus to initiate and pursue alternative paths.
     We may distinguish two types of electronic format, PDF and browser. The former is a perfect mirror of a printed text with added advantages such as search capabilities. The latter is conceived digitally, and exp A drawback of an electronic version of a linear text is that it weakens the perception of the whole, except within a single page. In other words, one does not have a sense of the larger scope within which the individual pages fit. (A detailed table of contents in outline format helps to obviate this drawback.) On the other hand, there are the major practical advantages, in particular minimal costs, ease of access, practically unlimited possibilities of graphic documentation, and the power of search functions.
This important intellectual function (which started only relatively recently, in the nineteenth century) is addressed in the electronic format by hyperlinks.
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2. The tally

inventory/list approach
     The simple example given above is that of a telephone directory. The level of organization is at its simplest: a large amount of data is sequenced through a single sorting key, the alphabetical order. The reader can randomly checking data for an argument that is being developed outside the digital medium itself


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3. The matrix

      data base: systematic search on the basis of organized data

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4. The self-generated narrative

     the argument is developed from within, through a systemic following up of links
     related to inventory approach, in that one seeks evidence for argument, but from within (DEFINE THIS)
INTERACTIVE, more developed than footnotes and cross-ref
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4. Urkesh applications

     
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The Urkesh Global Record as a digital text

     I conceive of the Urkesh Global Record as a properly digital text in the sense mentioned above, namely as operative on three levels. The near totality of the pages is generated automatically from an input that derives from a large variety of sources (including plain text, file directories, database outputs), written at different times and by different people is in plain ASCII format. What I believe to be especially significant is the fact that this input is
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The Urkesh Website as a digital text

     
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