new forms of textuality in a changing world

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Written by Zachàr Laskewicz in March 2002

for the "New Information Order and the Future of the Archive" conference, University of Edinburgh, March 20-23


Gutenberg’s wondrous machine[1] brought about rapid sociocultural change in its age; it had an enormous impact on the way we approached knowledge transferral and ultimately the way we viewed language. Although writing existed in western culture long before Gutenberg, it is only thanks to the mass-production of texts—in Gutenberg’s case the bible—that our ‘literary’ culture began in any real sense. In other words, the possibility to print books helped to bring about a radical epistemic shift which led to cultural change. This paper concerns a similarly radical epistemic shift that we are currently going through thanks to another technological development—the wonders of computer textuality that have been made possible thanks to the CD-ROM and the internet. I would like to discuss some news of experiencing text in our culture, some of which preceded the innovation of the technological determinism many of us attribute to the internet and recent CD-ROM technology. I also make parallels and comparisons to other cultures which have experienced and/or been experiencing textuality in a similar way for hundreds of years. In other words multimedila textuality is something that has been present in our culture before the actual technological developments had taken place. Here I am referring to texts as diverse as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, role-playing games and Balinese lontar manuscripts.


Our discussion includes some ideas concerning the future of new forms of electronic publishing such as the multimedia interactive CD-ROM and the well known and feared ebook. Speaking from personal experience this fear is tangible and the whole argument a real one. In the future, will the whole notion of the book as we see it now disappear? How are traditional notions of knowledge transferral questioned? What sort of epistemological impact will this have? The internet, for example, makes collaborative work on texts possible, meaning the text is always a work in progress. This stands against the permanent and secure form presented by the printed book. The impact of developments such as these will be touched upon. Will this new and dynamic approach to textuality change the way we think and feel in a similar fashion to Gutenberg’s printing press? I hope to demonstrate that the future is something to look forward to, and that both forms of knowledge transferral will be able to co-exist in a union which will enrich both forms.


Firstly I discuss a number of basic concepts regarding the way we approach text and how this relates to the publishing industry in both its new and traditional forms. We start by looking at the whole notion of text and the different ways we can interpret it. Our contemporary understanding of the notion of textuality is compared to that of other cultures, functioning to point out some of the restrictions implicit in our traditional approach to books, literature and interaction with our textual forms. The purpose of this is to demonstrate some of the ways we can learn from other types of ‘text’, concentrating particularly on the multimedial textuality of Tamil or Balinese culture. The ultimate intention is to demonstrate the similarities connecting these ‘other’ forms of textuality with the new multimedial text which is having an increasing influence on our lives.


What, then, is text? What is the origin of this term? It comes originally from the Latin word ‘textus’ which actually refers to the process of weaving fabric, and so a dynamic metaphor is created for a complex weave of contrasting elements which combine to form a whole. Does this correspond to the traditional western approach to texts? Aren’t books supposed to be permanent and provide us with knowledge we can constantly rely on? Books are trustworthy and safe forms of representation in our culture and there is nothing wrong with that. How did we develop this epistemological condition? Although we can’t possibly attempt to answer that question here, it is most certainly connected to the invention of the printing press. Before this important innovation ‘text’ signified an entire tradition of rewriting ancient works in the safe haven of monasteries. Monks considered this task a creative one where the whole notion of writing and decoration formed part of the same ‘textual’ act. These texts were also ‘interacted with’ in a dynamic fashion: sometimes the texts were elaborated upon and decorated, forming a dynamic part of the lives of the monks. The metaphor of the textus 'weave' seems more appropriate in these terms, and it is thanks to mediaeval culture that concepts such as the 'troping' of texts which also helped to develop the history of musical notation [elaborate here].


The Balinese refer to their texts as lontar or rontal whereas the members of Tamil culture refer to them as olai. Both terms signify texts which are inscribed into dried palm leaves. The spaces left after partly incising lines in the leaf is then rubbed over with some dark substance. Thanks to this the text and drawings become visible. These ‘texts’ have a relatively short lifetime if compared to our own vehicles of knowledge transferral: we still have a number of versions of the first bible printing by Gutenberg. The only long-lasting renditions of Balinese ancient texts were composed in the last century and even then have only survived in western libraries under strict environmental control (whereas in Asia they would have long ago disintegrated). The tradition of the lontar has always involved regular retranscription of the manuscripts. What actually happens is a dynamic reappraisal of the contents of the texts and there are very often changes and elaborations with each new transcription. The Balinese and the Tamil may be ‘literate’ cultures in many senses, but they don’t seem to aspire to the same sense of permanency we connect to our vehicles of knowledge transferral (i.e. books).


The Balinese conception of literacy and the process of semiosis contrasts to our own in some other important ways. The Balinese word for ‘reading’, for example, is actually the same word as ‘singing’ or ‘reciting’, just as the Balinese word referring to the reading of ancient texts uses a term which refers to a musical melody: gendhing. An important fact is that the Balinese consider signification to occur when a text is brought to life in a vocal context. Older Balinese men—considered the most appropriate for the task—can often be heard ‘singing’ the texts together and commenting upon them in a contemporary Balinese dialect. The texts themselves are in older languages such as Sanskrit and Old Javanese, languages which have important inflections and vocal intonations which can only by expressed verbally. So what has this to do with our discussion? A great deal. I am hoping to demonstrate that our contemporary episteme (and that of the near future) will come increasingly to resemble that of the Tamil and Balinese kind, moving away from the traditional approach to books.


At this stage there is still a strong reverence for book and the beginning-middle-end type of literacy implicit in the way we experience things. We can, however, observe some forms of deviation to these generally accepted givens. Non-linear narrative involving active interaction was present while I was still at school: I can still remember the Choose Your Own Adventure novels for children where the reader’s path through the book was based on choices the reader makes him or herself. Many possible endings existed, and the number of conclusions were multiform; the reader was propelled through the narrative by rapidly changing pages with each new decision. In a dynamic active sense, comparable to the Balinese ‘readings’ of inflected recital or singing (and the discussions about its meaning), also has a parallel. Role-playing games (referred to as RPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu have people discussing the choices they will make in an imaginary world created by the ‘master’ of the game, mediating between the players and the imaginary world they have to interface with. Here the text is very dynamic, the outcome of the ‘texts’ depending on their decisions and interactions with others. Similarly, as mentioned a group of old Balinese men can be seen sitting down together ‘performing’ a text. One of the group reads the ancient text in its prescribed style, then the passages are translated and alternative ways of looking at the text are discussed until a consensus is reached. The Balinese have a term to refer to this dynamic form of signification: Desa Kala Patra which translates simply to ‘place’, ‘time’ and ‘circumstance’ meaning that any given event has a different significative potential in each new environment. Perhaps the role-playing game was one of our first major encounters with a non-linear form of narrative and knowledge interpretation and transferral. I hope to demonstrate that new forms of computer-based knowledge interaction show striking similarities to the Balinese (and Tamil) form of hermeneutics.


The whole concept of the electronic book has been in circulation for a number of years, so it’s not as if we are suddenly on the brink of an awesome chasm of dangerous and frightening change. People seem to be either entirely for or against the electronic book, vehemently so. On the one hand, those who have followed the gradual acceptance of the CD-ROM as a means of knowledge transferral through the nineties herald in the glory of the electronic book which will supposedly outdate the traditional book format. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the book itself, as a physical object, will never lose its value, having played such an important role in the development of our culture. Being in the early days, reactions and responses are still fairly emotive and unpredictable. We can already notice, however, the gradual change of the role of the publisher in the production of vehicles for the transferral of information. De Boer has the following to say in this regard:


"Bestond de informatie industrie voorheen uit grotendeels gescheiden segmenten, inmiddels zijn de grenzen tussen uitgeverijen, softwareontwikkelaars, omroepen, telecomoperators, filmproducenten, kabelmaatschappijen, Internet accessproviders, enzovoort aan het vervagen.”

"Whether or not the information industry used to have for a large part separate segments, the boundaries separating publishers, software developers, stations, television operators, film producers, cable companies and internet access providers, etc. are becoming continually vaguer."[2]

(de Boer, 92)


We can see that the position of the publisher in the whole process has certainly changed, meaning that a new form of innovation has entered into the field. De Boer actually refers to a new type of dynamism entering the market, that of the ‘mixed media’ or ‘intermedia’ which actually stands in contrast to multimedia. Where multimedia refers to the adoption of one central programme which provides to its users access to various multimedia, mixed media refers to the adoption of different media used concurrently (but not necessarily in the same product) to reach similar goals. According to de Boer, a mixed media publisher presents to its audience a wide range of products which are essentially based on the same informational contents (de Boer, 94). The problem at the moment is that publishing houses aren’t yet able to produce works which are well enough adapted to the process of mixed media. This means that they are not yet able to produce such complex constructions as CD-ROMs for the presentation of data. Unfortunately the impact upon the industry is a rather negative one. This whole argument is making different levels of the market a little insecure about their future. There is an enormous amount of pressure which is put on the industry as the populace begins to adapt to an alternative form of publishing. For example the traditional ‘text-book’ produced for educational institutions is being superseded because rather than printing off new publications each year as the information is outdated, educators are gradually adjusting web sites which can cater to this constant change. In an article from a recent publishing magazine called The Bookseller, this whole phenomenon is discussed:


"Many people in the industry believe that digitalisation will kill the text book... Why should a student shell out the near 30 pound required for some textbooks in this age of copious handouts and cheaply available Internet material?"

(Haynes, 30)


The internet has been the primary impetus for the dynamic new approach to textuality. Thanks to the internet, authors are able to go directly from their writing to the public, totally unmediated by publishing houses. It is interesting to note that the internet was originally created for academic use. From this environment it spread through international academic circles .After this it eventually began to influence the general public where it is continuing to gain in popularity for any manner of communication. It is logical, therefore, that text-books are one of the first symbolic vehicle to fall into the dark chasm of change. Another important medium benefiting from the change thanks to the influence of the internet is the library. Today as electronic publications and journals are increasing in popularity the library is falling under the influence of the internet. Catenazzi and Gibb comment on the fact that “in the context of electronic publishing, a new actor has emerged which was not encountered in the traditional publishing process: the server” (Catenazzi and Gibb: 165). Libraries are becoming more and more ‘virtual’, which is a sign of foreboding for traditional forms of knowledge transferral such as the book. For many this is a worrying development seeing that the library has always been a bastion of safe permanence.


It is also thanks to the internet that the whole phenomenon of hypertext has entered our vocabulary. It is, though, far more than simply a word. It is an approach to reading that has assisting the bringing about of a gradual epistemic change in our culture. The term itself describes a unique way of navigating oneself through a given document. What is unique about it is the fact the path through the text is not necessarily ‘sequential’, i.e. beginning, middle, end as prescribed in our traditional approach to narrative. Instead, the reader can navigate his or her own way through the document by clicking on any of the options. The function performed by hypertext isn’t entirely new. In this document I’ve already referred to the ‘choose your own adventure’ books for children which provided the reader with a range of options sending them through the book non-sequentially, meaning that the ‘ending’ of the story depended entirely on the choice of the reader. Hypertext however has had a far wider impact because of its presence as an essential element of the internet and other forms of computer-mediated communication. In addition to this, it is becoming a more typical educational media meaning that today’s children are being educated on an entirely different textual form than the teachers. This is threatening to publishers because its general use will shift the attention of a generation of potential readers to hypertext-influenced means of communication (such as the ebook). Catenazzi and Gibb comment as follows:


"In the context of electronic publishing, a new actor has emerged which was not encountered in the traditional publishing process: the server. Servers include all those online services which offer access to electronic information from a user’s workstation. These include the commercial online information hosts who have mounted both primary and secondary information products, as well as group-oriented services such as bulletin, lists, newsgroups and electronic journals. Servers and electronic libraries are the main ways for users to obtain electronic information.”

(Catenazzi and Forbes, 165)


This provides a great deal more possibilities for communication than are made possible by traditional publishing houses. There are in fact many different ways that the role played by the publisher is being extended, and in this article we can only skim over the surface of the amount of contrasting technology. Basically, there are two major forms which are now actively being produced. On the one hand we have information which is accessible (sometimes for a price) via the internet, and on the other the ubiquitous CD-ROM. These two forms deal with the same type of information, but surprisingly connote an entirely different epistemological viewpoint.


This contrast is an important one. The internet, as discussed, is a constantly changing medium, expressing an epistemic shift and a new way of approaching textuality. The CD-ROM seems to be part of this expression, especially thanks to its possibly ‘interactive’ nature. It is surprising, then, that the CD-ROM has come to represent the permanence which used to be held by the book as a safe form of knowledge storage and transferral. Although there are present doubts as to whether we can actually rely on the CD-ROM as a permanent means, there are many of us who have developed the feeling that the knowledge is ‘safe’ if it is on CD-ROM, safer than being on a computer, a computer-diskette and even perhaps safer than in a ‘book’ as is meant in the traditional sense. For many of us the CD-ROM represents a permanence that has come to represent a form of knowledge which will outlive our culture after we have become extinct, a form of knowledge more reliable and permanent than the human brain, the perfect form of untarnishable knowledge which is longed for by empirical science.


Publishers are attempting to grasp these new options and take advantage of them for their own economic advantage, some more successful than others. We are beginning to notice experimental writing styles which involve audience interaction (on the internet) or communicational ‘texts’ which come to exist through interaction with others. Here I’m referring to two possible situations. The first is a text—such as an introductory booklet or a technical manual—which can be adjusted by a number of people who are authorised to have access to it. The other is involved with bulletin boards or chat rooms where individuals can contribute to a discussion in some way. Both forms involve the internet and express dynamic ways of contributing to a ‘living’ text. Although such texts on the internet are relatively scarce when compared to more traditional websites, the potential is phenomenal considering the amount of people who will have access to this information.


Another important facet in contemporary internet communication is involved with both access to the web and CD-ROMs: the enormous body of knowledge held on a single CD can be made available to a wide variety of clients via the internet. The licence to such products are very often sold with certain products, allowing the buyer, for example, in some way to update with new information downloaded from the web. These licences are sometimes permanent and sometimes valid for a restricted period (after which the buyer has to pay some type of subscription cost). This is a clever marketing tool which makes the amount of knowledge attainable by one purchase incredibly large, perhaps undermining most of all the attractiveness of a book collection so large that it wouldn’t be able to fit into one room only (or perhaps an entire house). CD-ROMs, of course, are also accessible via networks, sometimes through the internet and sometimes through libraries.


There are also practical factors which need to be considered. Catenazzi and Gibb have the following to say over these new possibilities:


"Electronic publishing offers a number of advantages over traditional publishing. One of the main benefits is the elimination of the editorial and production delays associated with paper documents. Other benefits are associated with the rapid delivery of information which can be guaranteed by network technologies.”

(Catenazzi & Gibb, 161)


Here it is important to mention the two major forms of electronic publishing. The first resembles most clearly traditional forms of publication. Scanned pages are recorded as .pdf files (files which can be opened with ‘reading’ software such as Abode’s Acrobat Reader). Downloading of these files is only part of the work. The pages are then printed and it is treated as a regular publication in that it is read silently and not interactively (even if it’s read on the computer).


On the other hand, however, there does exist another form of electronic book which could endanger the traditionally accepted form. It basically resembles the well-known PDA which is becoming increasingly popular. The eBookMan available at present in Belgium has the same size of the contemporary forms of Palm and Pocket PCs, but offers a contrasting function. With the device one is able to read entire novels by either downloading them from the web or communicating it to the device in some other way. The unique thing about this device is the way the public can interact with the text: like Netscape Navigator and other programmes which interface with the World Wide Web, the text can be enlarged or diminished in size, bookmarks can be placed at certain places and large passages of text can be copied and edited in other programmes when it is uploaded to a PC. The term hyperbook is used to refer to texts which can be interacted with thanks to devices like the eBookMan. It is an intimately portable book which offer the user an interactive format which will undoubtedly have an influence on a public which is gradually growing used to the idea of electronic media.


Despite the many foreboding signs presented by this new technology, I am of the opinion that publishers needn’t panic as far as their redundancy is concerned, at very least for the time being. Catenazzi and Gibb help us to better understand this situation by demonstrating to which degree the new electronic forms of knowledge transferral are taken on by publishing houses (Catenazzi and Gibb, 163), noting that “the principal mechanism for authors to dissseminate the results of their work will continue to be through publishing houses” (ibid.). We are a book-based culture in that our conception of knowledge is based on our traditional acceptance of the permanency of books and of the whole issue of literacy. We are also possessive: we like to know that we can have what we use, and that we can hold it physically. Downloaded texts don’t have this physical characteristic at all. All the same, there are two other streams of virtual reality which must be considered. The first is involved with the decay of the multivolumed encylopedia. People are buying these less and less considering the fact that we can fit an equal amount of knowledge on one or two CDs. MP-3 files are also becoming more and more popular, and they exist as streams of digital information sometimes stored in an impermanent form on a device purchased deliberately to play music downloaded from the web. As you can see, a whole new generation of young people are growing up with highly contrasting ways of approaching knowledge. Is this a difficult point for the traditional book? Yes to some extent. Young people of today may be becoming adept at accessing computer knowledge, but I still think the way we approach and disseminate our literature—very much involved with the reading process and the beginning/middle/end epistemological condition—will command respect amount young people and foster a positive attitude to books. I am of the opinion that the ebook, internet and CD-ROMs may change the way we approach the book in certain contexts, but I think that this will function to enrich our understanding of communication rather than restricting it. The traditional book will therefore retain an important communicative vehicle in our culture.








DE BOER, Michiel, “Organisationele innovatie door traditionele uitgeverijen” in Onderzoek in New Media, Van Tilt, Amsterdam, 1998.


CATENAZZI, N. & GIBB, F., “The publishing process: the hyper-book approach”, Journal of Information Science, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 161-72.


HAYNES, Anthony, “Textbooks – dead or alive?”, in The Bookseller, August 2001, pp. 30-32.





[1] This is of course the world’s first printing press. Gutenberg (1400?-1468) was responsible for inventing it and therby creating the world’s first printed bible. "Gutenberg, Johann," Microsoft (R). Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall’s Corporation.

[2] Translation by Zachar Laskewicz, September 2001.





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