Friday, 17 July 2009

version alpha/beta - 4581 words

- stop me if you’ve heard this one -

Slow going at the moment, but I'm laying the groundwork for the argument that I'm trying to begin. I want to look at the effects of technology, and how our uses of digital technology in particular fit into a rich history of object-theory and phenomenological study. Our technologies can never be inert, and can never be used without affecting the user in some small way. These uses are cumulative, adding up over time to produce unpredictable effects which can have far-reaching implications. At their most elegant, technologies can function as material/physical metaphors/analogies - I'm trying to decide on the most appropriate combination of those terms, probably 'physical metaphor', as Katherine Hayles uses 'material metaphor' in a specific way in Writing Machines, to describe bound, 'real-world' books as

"artifact[s] whose physical properties and historical usages structure our interactions with [them] in ways obvious and subtle. In addition to defining the page as a unit of reading, and binding pages sequentially to indicate an order of reading, are less obvious conventions such [as] the opacity of paper, a physical property that defines the page as having two sides whose relationship is linear and sequential rather than interpenetrating and simultaneous" (pp22-23)
While that description is great, I'm hoping to extend Hayles' argument for affective tangible interactions to digital books, and digital interactions with media in general, and as such I want a slightly different term. At times 'analogy' might even be the more correct/precise word. Guess it's better to have to make decisions between terms than to not have terms to discard at all.



- from a discussion of alphabetic writing -

"The theoretical endpoint of alphabeticism is to render every possible sound found in common human utterances within the smallest symbol set. This ideal could never be achieved in a naturally occurring evolved script; the conventions of use over time leave their traces, the quirks of history petrified in the phenomena of morphophonemic writing we’ll discuss further in chapter 3. Modern English, however, is still able to cope with the largest known word set using 26 characters (which bear no relation to anything to be found the oral language itself), and some remarkably un-intrusive punctuation. Because of the rules of linguistic formation that we rarely, if ever, consider outside of academic linguistic study - rules such as the frequency of what we now call vowel and consonantal sounds, or the modifiers of tense or emphasis -, this tiny character system is able to keep up with the human capacity for generativity, the ability to create

“combinations from a finite stock of elements to generate a potentially unlimited number of messages, or sentences. It is also important to note the fact that generativity allows us to generate new sentences, sentences that we have never heard before and that we have never uttered before” (Moody, Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence, 114-115).

To sum up then, alphabetic writing is abstract, plastic, and capacious. Regardless of whatever we may throw at it, whatever foreign words we might need to express, whatever new names we may come up with, we are able to codify them in alphabetic script without modifying the script itself, and in such a way that every user of that alphabet will intuitively grasp not only a fair to excellent idea of how to pronounce the new term, but also, potentially, some aspect of its meaning. All of this is achieved in a system which looks like, or relates to nothing else we might find in nature; it certainly doesn’t trigger any relations based on iconic depictions. This is why many scholars don’t choose the Semitic alphabet as the first example of alphabetic writing;

“[t]he reader of the Semitic writing had to draw on non-textual as well as textual data: he had to know the language he was reading in order to know what vowels to supply between the consonants. Semitic writing was still very much immersed in the non-textual human lifeworld” (Ong, Orality and Literacy, 90)

A more liberal attitude to what might constitute an alphabet may well place its invention earlier in history, but I am inclined to agree with Havelock’s criteria in Origins of Western Literacy which places the Greek alphabet as the originary source of all contemporary alphabetic scripts. With its introduction of vowels, Greek writing was able to capture all of the sounds required of it within a complete, closed, and finite system of characters and accents.

We might think that the story of the written word should end roughly here; the Greek script was emulated and refined around the world, producing the distinctive alphabets we see in use today, and despite the printing press and the computer replacing papyrus and velum, very little has changed for writing and its users. But this would be to assume that the technology of writing was inert, that a user, or society of users, could passively deploy it without being affected. And this is not how technology works…"

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