METHODOLOGY \ PRINCIPLES \ Digital thought \312c
1: G. Buccellati, February 2008

Chapter 3 of the digital monograph: Digital Thought


Back to top

1. The nature of discontinuity

     While non-contiguity refers to the data and phenomena as the starting point of analysis, discontinuity refers to the way in which the argument is built. Some fundamental concepts in this respect are those of scalarity, multi-layering and aggregation. But we must look more closely at the notion of discontinuity, in particular as it applies to the perception on the part of the reader, and the construction of the initial argument on the part of the writer. (More will be found elsewhere about reading and writing.)
Back to top


     What exactly is discontinuity? A first definition is the difference between the way data are intrinsically structured and organized (a sort of deep structure) on the one hand, and, on the other, the way in which they are displayed and perceived (the surface structure). The display meets the needs of perception, the underlying data are structured in function of substantive needs of categorization and organization. In a digital dimension, there is a perfect conversion between the two orders, through an interaction between deep and surface structures that is made possible by the functioning of programs. I will call this "structural discontinuity."
     A second definition views discontinuity as the dynamic interaction of displayed segments , i. e., something that happens within the surface structure alone. I will call this "perceptual discontinuity," and I will first look at this type
Back to top

Perceptual discontinuity

     Let us consider a mirror image of a text printed on paper, such as a text displayed in Portable Data File (PDF) format. Aiming to be identical to the printed page, it does in fact safeguard much of the perceptual impact that the printed page has. Data are etched into an immutable format, which has been designed to channel the perceptual response of the reader – an aspect about which I say more under the headings digital reading and linearity. Rather than digital, these are properly electronic texts.
     A digital text, on the other hand, is an altogether different construct – even when it resembles at first an electronic text. It is so because it does not freeze the perceptual response of the reader in a univocal direction. It does, to be sure, propose a preferential channel. But it also proposes, at the same time, multiple registers where alternative channels can be pursued with a degree of ease that is on an altogether different plane than the single channel presentation of the printed text. This perceptal discontinuity is then at the basis of a new continuity and rests on the full application of non-linearity.
     Take as an example this page on Digital Thought. On the one hand it reads as a fully sequential argument, and for readers to fully understand my point of view, I would expect them to follow the argument from beginning to end. At the same time, however, the built-in hyperlinks and the constant fluidity of the frame, whereby the reader can invoke an unlimited number of alternative points of view, establish a discontinuity that can be both constructive and distracting. It is constructive in that it facilitates the recourse to alternative paths of inquiry, and yet distracting if it prevents the reader from understanding my point of view.
Back to top

Structural discontinuity: The three levels of interaction

     While the author of a printed text has exclusively the finished (paper) product in mind, authoring a digital text entails a multi-level approach, on account of the discontinuity just noted between the data and the display. If one considers the impact of automation, one may distinguish three levels: input, output and display.
     The distinction of the three levels is clear, for instance, in the case of a graphic file of the type processed in a program like AutoCAD. An ASCII input file is processed through a script procedure in such a way as to generate an output suitable for elaboration into a graphic display, typically a plot with lines connecting points. I will make a special case to indicate how, through automation, the same three levels of interaction apply also to a Browser Edition such the Urkesh Global Record. At this point, I wish only to explain further what the three levels are, using as an example the database model, with which everyone is familiar.
     1. Input. A specific format and coding system has to be devised and adhered to strictly: it is what I call a grammatical approach, which conditions the value of the outcome. An important aspect of the input is that it need not be entered directly into a fixed matrix, but, given proper formats, may also be entered in the form of sequential ASCII strings, which are then imported into the matrix. The significance of this feature cannot be underestimated, as I will emphasize elsewhere.
     2. Output. Once the data are entered according to the input protocol, they may be manipulated at will in a number of different formats, typically utilizing different sort keys within the purview of a given program (such as Access or Excel). These outputs serve a heuristic purpose in that they suggest alternative sort possibilities, and are also very useful for proofreading purposes.
     3. Display. This same program, or others of the same type into which the structured data are imported, produce a variety of displays, both alphanumeric and graphic, such as bar histograms or pie charts – all of which are designed in function of a "reader."
Back to top

The flattening of the three levels

     The discontinuity among the three levels of a digital text is what gives it its real distinctiveness – and intellectual power.
     Typically, however, the trend has been to steer away from this discontinuity, aiming instead for a WYS/WYG approach (What You See is What You Get). In so doing, the input is as close as possible to the final display, a procedure which in effect freezes the potential dynamics inherent in the three-level approach.
     In the case of website editing, programs like Microsoft FrontPage (now discontinued) allow to easily create a text to be read through a browser without recourse to underlying codes, in a way similar to what word processors do for normal text editing. This obviously makes the task incomparably easier as to short term results. But it also severely limits two great potentials of a properly digital approach. The first, pertaining to the intellectual sphere, has to do with the flexibility that automation provides, as I will illustrate in the comments below about the Urkesh Global Record. The second, of a practical nature, pertains to portability: data entered through formatting programs (rather than as ASCII) are much more impervious to being exported to other programs, and therefore are also more likely to become unusable once the governing programs go into disuse and pertinent conversion programs fail.
Back to top

2. The new continuity

     For an author to be mindful of the three levels requires a new type of mindset. To the extent that the levels are made available at the receiving end, readers have to develop new mindsets as well – if they are to make the most of the "text" as presented. Dealing at will with the fragments elicits, as it were, a special sense of freedom: the fragments can be reassembled in a variety of new configurations, and it is the reassembling as such that acquires independent status.
Back to top

The role of perception

     It is interesting to reflect on the perception we have of the larger "work" being produced. While we think of books, monographs or articles as "publications," we are less likely to do so for websites. In fact, we do not think of a website as a self-contained whole which we expect someone to ever "read from cover to cover."
     And yet, if we are to fully integrate web publishing into scholarly discourse – not just as a reference tool, nor just as an electronic repository of disiecta membra, but as a full-fledged digital publication –, then we should give thought to just such compositional matters. Questions of intent, structure, readers' access are just some of the issues involved. The broader task is to develop new mental attitudes, both as authors and as readers. At the root, there is the role that perceptual discontinuity plays.
     I am not blind to the fact that a new perception has indeed taken root already vis-à-vis the electronic medium. Navigating websites, clicking on hyperlinks, responding to game stimuli, are only some of the ways in which our motor habits have already adapted. More importantly, there are aspects that go beyond motor habits and do impact on our mental templates: we relate to statistics more readily than ever before because we know intuitively how to extract and sort data from databases; we expect explanations and documentation to be instantly at our fingertips because we have mastered search functions that tap unexpectedly broad universes; we leapfrog over seemingly unconnected data with the ease with which flat pebbles skip over water surfaces. All of this has undoubtedly affected our attitude towards communication, and our perception of the electronic medium.
     It has not, however, – and this is my argument – affected as deeply as it should the structure of scholarly discourse.
Back to top

"One long argument"

     "As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated" – thus reads the first sentence of the last (15th) chapter of The Origin of Species, p. 404. The same words are repeated at the end of Darwin's Autobiography, p. 140: "The Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end."
     Does any auhor feel this way in constructing a website? Do readers expect it? Not so, as a rule. We do not expect a website to have a central thesis, nor do we typically plan on developing an argument while "writing" a website. There is, of course, a coherence of subject matter and a sense of aesthetic harmony in the display, but there does not seem to be a particular concern to achieve a logical concatenation among the parts so that, through the progression of the conceptual flow, the underlying secret kinship might emerge from beginning to end. There seems to be no room for Darwin's pride in constructing "one long argument."
     But well there should be. And it is in this respect that I feel we should aim for a new perception of the scholarly digital construct.
Back to top

Reconfiguration: the frame and the fragments

     The new perception, the new continuity, the new "long argument" should emerge with properties that are specifically suited for the digital dimension. The question, then, is: having claimed a special role for discontinuity, how can we see such new continuity emerge from the disaggregated constituents?
     The answer draws its strength precisely from the premise. The fragments derive value from their specificity, both because they are so constituted at the origin (by the author) and can so be retrieved (by the reader) in their full individuality, even when embedded in a wider frame. The answer, in other words, must be applicable to both terms of the equation, author and reader. We must aim for a perception of the whole, of "one long argument," that is not presented in linear fashion, but is neverheless homogeneous. The new perception is one whereby we relate to discontinuity and continuity at the same time – the discontinuity maintaining the autonomy of the fragments, the continuity making clear at all times what the overall frame is and all the subframes embedded in it.
Back to top

Articulation of digital thought

     What the concrete embodiments of this proposal might be I suggest elsewhere – when dealing with non-linearity as the process through which the fragments are dynamically interwoven; with the digital text as a construct that brings together in a single configuration the dynamic and the static dimensions of digital thought; with digital narrative as the specific procedure that binds the fragments into a discursive whole, the compositional moment that produces the fluid linearity in expression whereby continuity arises from discontinuity ; with digital reading as the moment of fruition, the perception that must develop at the receiving end, so as to be in tune with the full potential of the system.
Back to top