METHODOLOGY \ PRINCIPLES \ Digital Thought \ 312f
1: G. Buccellati, February 2008
There is hardly a better case where the historical background can more vividly illuminate a present situation than in assessing the deeper nature of digital thought. For the only true parallel, it seems to me, is the introduction of writing, which ushered in what we have been calling history – in much the same way that the computer is ushering in what may be called post-history.
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Premise: OralityWhen humans discovered language, they set in motion a process whereby thoughts could be not only articulated explicitly, but also compared. One speaker could "re-flect" on his or her own thoughts, and two speakers could reciprocally compare theirs. This introduced a dynamics that affected the process of thinking in ways impossible in a pre-oral stage (see also below). The ability to compare is, in and of itself, non-linear: it effectively bridges the sequence. In our schematic graph, a speaker may compare a with d' within the same sequence, uttered twice by him- or herself, or uttered at different times by different speakers.
Schematic representation of sequentiality within oral speech
1. From pre-literate to para-literate
The antecedents of writingWriting in Mesopotamia developed as the result of a long experimental process through which the very nature of symbolic notation was put forcefully to the test, and grew in complexity over a period of some four millennia.
It is important to distinguish two crucial phases in this process. The first is the one-to-one referential linkage between a given symbol and a given item (at first only physical, an then also abstract).
The second is perhaps even more critical. It brought out the power of assigning a syntactical sequence to a sequential chain of symbols. Their reciprocal collocation came to be seen as symbolic, in the specific sense that it was independent of the physical sequence.
The introduction of writingThis experimental process culminated with the development of a writing "tradition" proper that began precisely in the region where Urkesh is located, and at a moment in time in which Urkesh figures prominently, more than 5000 years ago. The fundamental first ingredient of the invention was the grafting of the sequence of symbols on a fixed medium, the surface of a clay tablet. In this way, the sequence itself became permanent, and its symbolic valence acquired a status of its own. The symbol was raised to the double power, as it were.
The other fundamental ingredient in the development of writing was the choice made early on (however unwittingly) to link it with language. It could have remained a parallel system of signification, where the connection among individual symbols would remain implicit, and thus often equivocal. By tying it instead to the linguistic system, it acquired the power of expressing each of the nuances proper of language. An essential benefit of this choice was the ability to combine quantities under single symbols. Thus, instead of physically clustering three tokens to represent three sheep, the numeral "three" would be "written" next to the single sign for "sheep". This could be applied without limits to much larger quantities, in the hundreds and thousands, thus magnifying the power of the system in ways that were hardly imaginable at first.
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A schematic overview
The perceptual impact of writingThe first intent of the new technology was to allow the safeguarding and the transmission of information, and it was driven by administrative and economic needs – keeping track of resources that because of their sheer size, or their wide spatial distribution, or the time differential between moments of use, could not be entrusted to memory. Even more importantly, one could independently verify what the human memory of a single individual might claim as factual.
But writing had the consequence that it allowed what we may call a secondary reflection. Phenomena were viewed not only in their primary state (let us say, sheep as animals in a herd) but also in their secondary state (sheep as entries in a written ledger). This provided not only greater availability of data, but, more importantly, a new intellectual posture towards the same data. They (cuneiform signs on a clay tablet) could be manipulated independently of their referential embodiment (animals in the pens), and thus incomparably higher quantities could be subsumed within the argument itself. You cannot humanly deal with, say, 60,000 physical animals as a meaningful whole. But you can so deal with a mere few strokes on clay that represent the same quantity.
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The concept of para-literateA fundamental result of the new communication technology was the spreading of a culture that presupposed literacy even while literacy was limited to a mere handful of practitioners, the scribes. Even at the lower levels of society, somebody who wanted to send information to a distant correspondent would entrust his or her message to a tablet written by a scribe at one end and read by another scribe at the other end; somebody who needed to guarantee ownership title to a property would rely on a contract written by a professional scribe; a plaintiff who demanded recourse from the law would have the "judgments" of the king, as written on a stela, "read aloud to him" (as the stela explicitly says); a patient who needed help would turn to priestly technicians whose lore was inscribed on tablets; and so on. The new culture, if not literate in the sense of universal use of the tool, was certainly para-literate in terms of its all-pervasive presupposition of it.
This aspect is not generally appreciated, and yet it is of great consequence not only for a fuller understanding of the historical and social impact of writing, but also for a proper assessment of its significance in relationship to our current theme – on account of the close parallel with the concept of "para-digital."
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From prehistory to historyIt is not just a matter of terminological simplification if we make history coincide with the introduction of writing. The new technology had incalculable effects on institutions (for instance, the maximization of organization through an administrative setup that functionalized every aspect of society) and on the record (historiography as opposed to history, e.g. by crystallizing the memory of names and events).
But its impact on perception was, in my estimation, even more formidable. The exponential growth in human culture that follows the beginning of "civilization" (another broad term that refers to the societal transformations of this period) was made possible by the new mental posture that writing had ushered in. Looking at human thought in their extra-somatic embodiment on a fixed medium made it possible to develop methods of analysis that were not only unthinkable, but altogether impossible in a pre-literate environment.
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2. Discontinuity and non-linearity
Conceptual correlationsThe ability to connect phenomena that are non-contiguous in reality, and to connect as well discontinuous elements in a non-linear sequential argument has been a driving force of extraordinary power in human development. It was pervasive well beyond the intellectual level, for it radically affected all socio-political structures. This became especially apparent in the way in which the element of function came to dominate human society, by increasing technical efficiency to the nth power, and transforming at the same time the very nature of personal relationships – all of which was highly accentuated by the introduction of writing.
For a discussion about digital thought this is relevant in that it shows how the impact of new technologies is a matter of degree. In other words, human thought was capable to bridge all three disparities (non-contiguity, discontinuity and non-linearity) ever since prehistory, but technological innovations (writing and the computer) accelerated the process in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
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OralityPre-literacy essentially means orality (see already above). The oral concatenation of words and concepts is firmly anchored in linear sequentiality. The sequence itself cannot be inspected and dissected (which is precisely the innovation introduced by writing).
The locus where disparities (of non-contiguity, discontinuity and non-linearity) can surface is not so much in the oral embodiment, but in the initial confrontation with the data. Take the connection between the observation of the repetitive behavior of a given animal and the setting of a trap that would be triggered by a specific action on the part of the animal. The connection would have been articulated as a primitively reasoned argument, based on the observed events and their memory, rather than as an arguable chain of considerations. The same would hold true for the connection between a seed in the fall and the consequent harvest in the summer.
The argument, then, was all in the practical and experiential process of trial and error, and it could be communicated because the results were enjoyed by all, they could be verified and could be repeated. It is true that such oral argument, too, was based on the implementation of the three great disparities, and that it could be formulated as a simple oral argument to be transmitted across generations. But it was tied to the sequential chain of oral expression, and thus it did not have the generative power that human thought acquired when literacy and para-literacy set in. At which point, a major leap was made in the implementation of the three disparities.
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3. Becoming literate
From scroll to codexIt is more than a metaphor to see in the transition from scroll to codex an important moment in the progress towards a greater application of non-linearity in the rendering of human thought.
The scroll is the closest physical approximation to the sequentiality of oral thought: as the word implies, the text "scrolls" continuously from one end to the other. The "pages" (pagina in Latin) on a scroll are columns that follow each other in a physically continuous medium. What matters to us here is that this physical sequentiality makes it difficult, if not impossible, to jump from one detail at one point along the sequence to another at a very different point. The initial linearity of thought is frozen in the physical dimension of the long strip which cannot be inspected unless unrolled for its entire length.
A whole new configuration emerged in the Latin world of the first century B.C., when parchment came to replace wooden tablets, and the individual entities could be assembled as pages in what we know as a bound book. The physical identity of the individual constituent, the page, had in fact been in existence all along in Syro-Mesopotamia, in the form of clay tablets on which cuneiform was impressed. But the physical properties of a clay tablet made it impossible for the Mesopotamians to generate the assembled whole that is represented by our books.
It is interesting to look at some etymological details. The Latin word for scroll, volumen (from volvere, to revolve or scroll) eventually lost the implication of the original signification, and, in its acceptation as "volume," came to refer to a bound book where the pages, instead of sequential columns on a single strip, are physically individual entities that can be inspected with infinitely greater ease. Just as interesting is the etymology of three other words that came to refer to the new configuration. The liber was a strip of bark which could be written on, and this is also true of the English word "book," originally a strip of "beech" wood, also used for writing. Finally, the word codex (originally caudex) is a block of wood, and it came to refer to the original "book" because of the appearance that a bound set of wooden writing tablets would have had, precisely as a wooden block.
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The alphabetThe introduction of the alphabet had occurred much earlier than the shift to the codex. Of extraordinary importance for the development of literacy, it is, however, not as significant as the original introduction of writing itself.
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From Gutenberg to the EncyclopédieThe invention of movable type by Gutenberg can be compared to our current situation in two respects. First, the printed page aimed to reproduce the manuscript page in its aesthetic qualities, but with the added advantage of having many more copies available at once for a fraction of the costs. Second, printed books could be distributed in such quantities as to reach a much wider readership, if not exactly the masses.
But what was the intellectual impact of the invention? How did it impact on the conceptual world view of authors and readers? In comparison to what the invention of writing had done, the impact was in truth quite limited, and then just as slow in coming. To some extent, the intellectual impact was an outgrowth of the earlier development of the codex: citations began to be given according to a newly established bibliographical protocol, with precise references to place and date of publication, and to specific page(s). Typically added as footnotes, this protocol allowed to keep a more clearly defined evidentiary trail than the earlier generic reference to "authorities." The mechanics was made possible by the outward shape of the codex (where pages were indeed discrete entities one could refer to), whereas the whole procedure was elicited by the ever growing number of copies in circulation, due to explosion of printed copies of books.
The confluence of the two factors (the codex format and the proliferation of copies) led to two further developments that may be seen as affecting the intellectual posture of scholarship in the world of the Enlightenment – the specialized journal and the Encyclopaedia. Journals provided an ever more narrowly defined avenue for the presentation of data and arguments in selected fields: their intellectual impact was to help define these very fields, and to offer a stage on which the relevant discourse could unfold at full depth. The Encyclopaedia, on the other hand, served an important intellectual function as the overall conceptual frame within which the pieces could be seen in the higher coherence of the broad human intellectual effort.
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FootnotesThe history of the footnote is instructive as well. Conceptually, the footnote is the equivalent of the hyperlink: it offers readers support in their effort at following inquiry paths that are parallel to the one proposed by the author. Often, footnotes develop an alternative path of their own, proposing different points of view. The import of the footnote as a concept, more than as a mechanism, is discussed under the heading of documentation.
One seemingly minor technical aspect is interesting with regard to the concept of linearity. In earlier monographs, a work was cited in full the first time it occurred, and then a reference to it would simply say: op. cit. ("the cited work"), loc. cit. ("the cited place"), or ibid. ("at the same place"). This assumed a perfectly linear and continuous reading of the work, in such a way that when a work was cited the first time it would then be remembered by the reader. Eventually a change occurred whereby the citation would refer to the last name of the author and the date of the work cited, with a list of the cited works at the end. This approach facilitated a quick visual scanning of the text, in a way that was not as tied to the sequential and continuous reading as in former times.
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The spread of literacyThe progressive spread of literacy was probably not as significant, in terms of what interests us here, as the original impact of para-literacy. The latter had molded the perceptual dimension of thought in very radical ways: whether or not individuals could read and write, their view of the world was inalterably changed. Few people may have had direct control of the medium, but the medium had developed a far-reaching control over mental templates. Literate or not, everyone was para-literate. The use of seals to identify the seal owner is an important instance of such blending of the two spheres, the para-literate (the seal) becoming integrated with the literate (the tablet).
From our perspective, it is interesting to see how parallel institutions continued to thrive next to those brought about by writing. For example, witnesses would be summoned in person even when they were already listed in contracts to which they had affixed their seal. This brings to mind the parallel use of the analogical and the digital medium, such as paper printouts as back-ups for digital files.
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4. From pre-digital to para-digitalBack to top
From history to post-historyElectronic data processing has brought this process one step forward. The two divergent processes of analysis and synthesis (as represented earlier by journals and Encyclopaedias) can now be made to converge within the same medium. One can go instantly from the highest node to the minutest of details, and the other way around, and one can draw on the totality of knowledge in its broadest sense. The worldwide web provides the stage on which the process unfolds at its fullest, the search function being the primary mechanism through which this actually takes place.
For the first time, we are truly going beyond Nisaba.
The concept of para-digitalIn the light of the relationship between the literate and the para-literate dimensions, it will be apparent what I mean by "para-digital." It refers not only to the ease with which we adapt to the electronic dimension, but especially to the transformation in our mental templates as we readily absorb the presuppositions of digital thought, even when we cannot articulate their theoretical import.
When navigating through a news story, we know how to pursue links in their capillary interrelationship, eventually descending to the original source that gave rise to the derivative account.
When looking up a bank account, we have learnt instinctively what discontinuity means by navigating between spreadsheets and graphs on the one hand and the minute pieces of evidence (the individual checks or transactions) out of which they are constructed.
When searching for a given keyword and are presented with countless references, we have developed a critical sense that establishes a series a parallel, multilinear tiers to which the multitude of search "hits" can be assigned.
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The articulation of digital thought properWhat digital thought ought to do is to articulate in an explicit way these mental attitudes and to achieve a digital dimension that exploits to the hilt the potential inherent in the medium. In a historical perspective, the task is to construe texts that are truly born digital, where one goes beyond the mechanics, i.e., beyond the electronic dimension; where one harnesses fully the power of the medium in order to develop a new and properly digital narrative; where a conscious attitude unfolds that brings to reading the same kind of new intensity that emerged when the scribal protocol became established at the beginning of history.
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It is interesting to reflect on a specific moment in the recent history of the confrontation with the new medium. The year 1984 (which coincidentally marked the start of our work at Tell Mozan – besides, of course, being marked by otherwise ominous literary overtones...) saw the release of one of the earliest games that fully implemented two guiding principles of a digital argument, discontinuity and re-aggregation. It was the by now classic King's Quest. The game marked a highly significant break precisely because it was based on a structure that was discontinuous and multi-layered, but profoundly structured at the same time. The multi-linearity of the adventure nurtured a truly new perceptual posture vis-à-vis a narrative, in a way that can be viewed as iconic and emblematic of my central argument. That the appropriation of this new perception within the intellectual field may have lagged behind is not unlike what happened, precisely, at the dawn of history with the introduction of writing.