Digitization has impacted on written communications in myriad ways. Researchers, writers and editors have come to rely on word processors, spell checkers and other digital tools as indispensible to their work. However, digitization goes beyond the prevalence of these tools and has implications that are changing the very nature of texts.
This article surveys the benefits, challenges, and hazards of digitalization as pertains to text preparation. Particular emphasis is placed on the differences between text and hypertext and the consequences of the latter’s emergence.
Text and Hypertext in the Digital Age
The digital wave has swept across virtually every corner of the planet and while its full potential is still being evaluated, it has already redefined every aspect of the researching, writing, editing, publication, delivery, and circulation of text works. These activities are now conducted through the extensive use of computer tools and increasing amounts of our time as text professionals and text consumers are spent online or otherwise immersed in digital environments. But digitization goes beyond the mere provision of powerful tools that expedite research, writing, and editing. The very nature of text is undergoing fundamental change as a result of our working, reading, and interacting in digital environments.
Due to these changes, text professionals are encountering new responsibilities that go beyond the familiar editorial processes of the past.
Computers, originally conceived as powerful calculating machines with data storage capacity, emerged from the needs of industry and the military in the post-World War II period. The potential of these devices to regulate and control processes and systems was quickly discovered and harnessed. Commercial uses for data management and marketing functions soon followed.
Miniaturization and other technological innovations aided the adaptation of computers to office and home activities. Personal computers that enabled the manipulation of data, images, and text by using off the shelf spreadsheet, data base, image, and word processing software began to penetrate the consumer market in the 1980s. As a result, the capabilities of computers became widely available and were applied in a variety of text preparation functions, most notably word processing; cutting, copying, and pasting text allowed for changes in a manuscript without retyping, and spelling and grammar checkers were developed that caught typos and similar errors. Formatting operations such as changing font, reconfiguring headings, automatic pagination, and altering tabular and graphic elements became automated. Citations and notes could be adapted with relative ease to conform to different style conventions, for example, those of Chicago Style or of specific publications. Preparing and changing bibliographic information, indexing, and other referencing functions were also greatly facilitated by computer tools. Beyond word processing, it was now possible to insert graphics, tables, and diagrams and to seamlessly weave sections, chapters, and parts into whole works.
Aside from these now pervasive, accessible, and easy-to-use computer tools, there is a second repercussion, conceivably even more potent and far-reaching, that derives from the interface of text and computer technology. Specifically, digitization has altered the nature of text itself, providing it with further dimensionality by linking to other documents or media objects.
To fully appreciate the implications of the digital revolution for the written word, it is necessary to understand a virtual universe, the World Wide Web that the computer age ushered in.
Hypertext in the Age of Connectivity
In the 1990s, modems, devices enabling the transfer of data from a home or office computer to other computers first through cables and subsequently through wireless networks, became widely available. This physical infrastructure is referred to as the Internet. The Internet is a vehicle for the exchange of a latticework of documents, some exclusively textual and others increasingly multimedial, i.e., they carry data, images, photos, and sound. This netting of documents is known as the World Wide Web (colloquially, the “Web”), an ocean of information whose potential—and perils—are still coming into focus.
While most text professionals have integrated word processers, automatic formatting, and referencing into our toolbox, the digital revolution has deeper implications for us both in terms of the functions we perform and the content we craft. We are in transition from text to hypertext and the difference between the two is profound. We find ourselves in the “late age of print… word processing, databases, email and the World Wide Web, and computer graphics are displacing printed communication for various purposes” (Bolter 2001: 2).
Print is part of a chain of text writing tools that began with the chisel on stone. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century represents a cornerstone of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. Print led to the diffusion of knowledge from the privileged to the common classes and enabled knowledge-based economies.
Text in print format has various attributes. It isauthoritative in the sense of being composed by a single or small group of authors, has a unitary form, and has a stable message or narrativethat is inalterable by the reader. As Jay David Bolter (2001) points out, digital texts are very different and are associated with flexibility, interactivity, and speed of distribution. While print texts are characterized by stability and authority, Bolter observes that digital text is characterized by “more fluid structures,” and while the “printed book favors linear writing; the computer makes associative linking easier,” (2001:6). To “say that electronic writing is flexible and interactive is to say that it is hypertextual” (26).
The advent of hypertext, interconnected writing laced with other media, is a watershed in the history of literate civilization.
Attributes of Hypertext
The constancy of print text lays in the stability of its unitary form. Though readers’ interpretations might vary, the author’s words are inalterable within the text message. Hypertext, on the other hand, has characteristics unimaginable in the world of traditional text. Among these attributes are dynamism, inter-connection of texts and digital objects (allowing the creation of webs), interactivity, non-linearity, multisequentiality, possibilities for simultaneous co-authoring and community authoring (e.g., wikis), and multimediality.
These features derive from connective devices known as hyperlinks, digital codes embedded by an author in a text which direct the reader to elsewhere. This could be to another place in the same document, for example, a reference in a bibliography, or a definition in a glossary. A hyperlink can also establish a connection between documents. Hyperlinks might direct the reader to another website or even to material in another media, such as pictures or videos and audio components. For example, by opening the hyperlink embedded in The New York Times, the reader will find interactive graphics, slide shows, and videos alongside text.
The inherent dynamism of hypertext is manifested in a number of ways. Through the use of hyperlinks—a mainstay of many if not most documents found on the Web—the reader can go far beyond the surface document. In this sense, hypertext is interactive: the reader decides whether to be redirected elsewhere. By not pursuing the hyperlinks, the reader encounters the document in a linear manner just as in any print format. By opening a hyperlink, however, the reader effectively encounters the document in nonlinear form and proceeds to another level of reading, that is, s/he is directed to information that the author considers pertinent but also in some way parenthetical to the central text message of the document.
The interactivity of hypertext can even result in changes to the original document itself. As described by Sergio Cicconi (2000:3):
. . . a fundamental characteristic of hypertexts is their being dynamic: hypertexts, within certain limits and conditions specified by their authors, are interactive and re-shapeable according to the needs, tastes, and capabilities of the readers/users. As a result, the readers/users become co-authors in all respects.
The interactivity inherent to hypertext allows for multiple outcomes to a narrative. For example, long-form fiction is being written which enables the reader to choose varied story lines, a feature known as forkings. In a murder mystery, the suspect might be the butler or the maid—the reader gets to choose. Alternative narrative directions—multisequentiality—is a possibility afforded by hypertext. In addition, the interactive nature of hypertext allows for a document to be coauthored, co-edited, and even community authored (wikis).
The linking of groups of documents that share some connection to a theme, subject, or discipline has led to an innovative text phenomenon referred to as “webs.” These are not to be confused by what is known as the Web, which is the totality of documents found using the Internet infrastructure. A “web” (lower case) can be thought of as a self-contained part of the Web (upper case) built around an organizing concept.
In webs, documents or hypermedia objects referred to as nodes are connected by links to other nodes in a network of related documents. This results in a network of interlinked text and non-text objects. This network might be simple or complex. An example can be found in Prof. George P. Landow’s The Victorian Web, a scholarly resource which offers interested readers the possibility of exploring not only the culture and literature of the Victorian era but also its social history, its economic and technological dimensions, and issues related to gender, religion, and philosophy.
Such networks of interconnected but discrete hypertextual worlds allow scholars and other readers the ability to navigate through vast amounts of thematically or otherwise related documents irrespective of the physical location or temporal setting of the physical documents. Significantly, web documents are connected by hyperlinks that exist only in digital environments, and the documents themselves are available only if composed in digital formats or scanned (“digitally translated”) into such formats.
The possibilities for hypertextual webs are enormous and offer readers an abundance of information, knowledge, and perspectives that would be impractical to experience without visiting a multitude of scattered libraries and archives. This assumes, of course, that the webs are authoritative, coherent, and cogent, that the hyperlinks are extant, and that the documents are bona fide. Validating webs, the documents in them, and the hyperlinks that connect them is an editorial challenge with no precedence in the age of print.
Text Preparation and the Digital Challenge
The Web has become congested and consumes increasing amounts of time. Navigating this information is often overwhelming and our ability to profit is often cursory. Still, it has become a major focus of our daily lives in this, the Facebook Generation.
Historically, editorial practice confined itself to such functions as developmental editing, line (content or manuscript) editing, copyediting, reference preparation, fact checking, and proofreading. However, as a result of changes in the way text is prepared, published, and delivered in the digital era, the editorial purview will necessarily extend beyond these traditional functions. Text professionals must become proficient at navigating digital environments. We will have to learn to validate the origin and authenticity of linked texts and determine when an item should be hyperlinked or referenced. Identifying the contours of webs and what material falls within and outside of them is likely to become an editorial function.
The transition from text to hypertext requires the writer and editor to acquire a broader range of conceptual tools and technical skills in order to negotiate the fluid boundaries between entertainment, information, culture, and knowledge. Heightened awareness of the text message, its mission, and its readership will be essential in preserving the integrity of written communications in the digital age.
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