Poetics of electronic writing

An executable code poem by GreyLau

One of the questions that motivated me while I was working on my master’s degree was the differences between handwriting, printing and digital writing. Dennis Tenen’s new book, Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation, contributes to to that discussion.

Tenen points out that the major change between electronic writing and previous forms is that in electronic writing there is a separation between the act of writing and the support (i.e., what the writing is written on).

This becomes evident when we ask ourselves, while looking at a screen, “Where is the text?” Of course on one hand the text is on the screen; but on the other, it exists in electromagnetic storage somewhere we cannot directly see. In some sense, the writing is in both places. Tenen writes, “One must be translated, transformed into the other.”

This transformation occurs in what Tenen calls the formatting layer of electronic texts, which is where we may find censorship, DRM, ads and even spyware. Thus what we see on the screen is only the tip of the iceberg. Tenen:

At the maximally blunt limit of its capabilities, format governs access. Commands render some words and sentences visible on-screen while suppressing others. … The formatting layer specifies the affordances of electronic text. More than passive conduits of meaning, electronic texts thus carry within them rules for engagement between authors, readers, and devices. … Whatever literary-theoretic framework the reader brings to the process of interpretation must therefore meet the affordances encoded into the electronic text itself.

Tenen focuses on developing theoretical acuity for interpreting digital texts. This is vital, because if we do not develop such thinking, we’ll be quickly be strung along by forces beyond our understanding. We’re already at the point where some algorithm-generated texts are indistinguishable from human-generated ones, for instance.

And when it comes to social media (how we spend more and more of our time), if we do not learn to critically analyze the texts around us, we will miss out on what’s going on. John Lanchester writes poignantly on this in the London Review of Books:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company. … [But] even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Separation between the act of writing and its support, indeed.

From register to blockchain

Stationers’ Register entry for Arden of Faversham, from Shakespeare Documented

In the early days of print, the Stationers’ Company in London had a monopoly on publishing. The guild created a register (the Stationers’ Register) that documented publishers’ rights to produce particular printed works. This served as a way to check the authenticity of printed works in a time when unauthorized copies were beginning to proliferate—if they didn’t correspond to the line in the register, they were probably illicit. (“Probably,” because, in practice, not all works were duly registered.)

The system worked well enough for some time, though there were some problems. As Adrian Johns writes in Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, the Crown could supervene the register by way of royal patent—and so the systems of register and patent sometimes were at odds.

Other things that limited the register’s usefulness: It only existed in one place, so it was in practice difficult and costly for people to confirm its contents. And moreover, it was controlled by the Stationers’ Company, and so it could only be trusted to the extent that the company was trusted.

So much for early modernity. As Johns chronicles, concerns about piracy exploded since the time of the Stationers’ Register. And now that we have digital assets, which in principle can be reproduced infinitely, it’s as big an issue as ever.

For any document or piece of information, we need a way to determine whether we can trust it. This stands for both the legitimacy of the document’s production and distribution (as in say, currency and digital music) and its content (as in news stories).

The invention of print led to new forms of and urgency regarding piracy, and the register was one method of dealing with it. Now, with the world wide web, we are seeing this again. And to deal with contemporary piracy (among other issues related to information trust), we’re seeing the rise of a new technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is one of the world’s most exciting new technologies. As the internet revolutionized information sharing and communications, blockchain has the capacity to revolutionize the economy and many of our social systems. You’ve probably heard of bitcoin, which is the first platform built on blockchain technology, and in the coming decades you’re sure to hear of many more. Experts are likening the situation with blockchain to that of the internet protocol, which was invented in the 1970s but didn’t burst through the popular realm until the 1990s—in those terms, some say we’re in 1992.

In brief, a blockchain is a distributed ledger used to record transactions in a verifiable and inalterable way. As described in The Economist‘s briefing, blockchain “is a way of making and preserving truths.” The blockchain is something everyone can refer to, to determine who owns what and where it came from. This goes for digital goods as much as physical ones—the blockchain prevents digital things from being reproduced infinitely. Importantly, when we compare it to the Stationers’ Register, it can be checked for practically no cost, and it doesn’t rely on an external authority as a grounds for trust.

Blockchain is sure to turn any number of industries upside down. If it relies on documentation, change is in the air. The question, though, is in the details. For a smattering, you can check out:

Original texts: Thinking about the Bible and beyond

I recently read the book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman, on my brother’s recommendation. The book traces the transformations—intentional and otherwise—that gave us the Bible that we have today. Ehrman discusses how copyists over the ages altered the text to, for instance, obfuscate the women and harmonize the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. The book problematizes the situation for those that favor a literal interpretation of the Bible: If we believe the Bible is God’s word, or at least divinely inspired, then it’s a major challenge that we don’t have any of the original texts.

(As an aside, Ehrman doesn’t seem to appreciate a narrative, pathic reading of the Bible as a tome of mythological force. He himself seems to fall prey to the literal reading of the Bible that he denounces. For a literate, rather than literal, view of the Bible, see Rob Bell’s recent book What is the Bible?)

“The original texts”—what does that mean? While this maybe ought to be a straightforward question, it is anything but. Ehrlman describes how, for example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians (part of the New Testament canon) was most likely originally dictated and immediately existed in multiple manuscript copies that were sent out (to the “Galatians,” which demonym is itself a bit ambiguous) and then copied further. Our earliest version of Galatians is from over a hundred years after these “originals.” Since then, the letter was copied and transformed by any number of hands and cultures, generating a family tree of differences.

The printing press, when it came along in the 15th century, lent some stability to textual reproduction. But even with print, it’s no easier to say what the “original” is. Shakespeare, for instance—there’s the perduring question of the original scripts (and also of pronunciation!). In any printed text, which is the original: is it the first edition, of which there may be many and multiple printings? The printer’s proof? How about the second edition which includes corrections of the printer’s errors? How about the author’s final manuscript (if such a thing exists)?

And today, when many documents are “digital native,” our situation is in many ways more like a scriptorium than a printing house. Getting to the “original” is as devilish a task as ever. Think about quotes we come across that appear with some variation and with attribution to any number of people that we can’t pin down where they actually came from.

All over, we’re reaching for originals. What we don’t seem to ask, is why. Why do we care about the original? It’s sure to be a case-by-case question. In some disputes, discerning what the original document actually said is of central importance. But in cases such as the Bible, I am tempted to conclude that it’s irrelevant.