Avatars of the Word – O’Donnell– 2: The Instability of Text

O’Donnell, J. J. (2000). Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace: Harvard University Press.

In this chapter, O’Donnell discusses the instability and, in some ways (un)reliability, of the written word in both printed and electronic form. The printed format is generally a far cry more consistent than the pre-Gutenberg manuscript format. However, upon closer examination, there exists a possibility for much inconsistency and even access ephemerality. “It is surprising what variations can occur between one printed edition of the same book and another…” (44).

Another issue he raises is one of access to electronic texts due largely to changing standardization. In the basic format, there are 128 combinations of binary code that form the English characters and punctuation. But even looking only to Western languages, this does not address additional characters, such as the umlauts in German and accents in French. So, IBM doubled the amount to 256, which accommodated the majority of Western languages. Later, Unicode arrived, creating a consistent representation and handling of text from most of the world’s writing systems. Along the way, there have also been many both hardware and software storage formats. From original cards through 5 ¼” and 3.5” disks, tape drives, zip disks, CDs, and Flash drives, we’ve carried many files with us. In regard to file types, there are too many too list here, even in text files alone (remember WordStar?). We now have certain standards, such as Microsoft Word (.doc) and Portable Document Format (.pdf). However, those too will likely become outdated eventually.

The point here is that those files we once used so ubiquitously are becoming increasingly unusable as access to them wanes. Somewhere in your closet, you likely have information on some older disk format. Do you know where you go to extract data from a 5 ¼” floppy or a Zip disk? How about were to go to open an STW, MCW, or UOF (that’s StarWriter, Microsoft Word for Macintosh, and Uniform Office Format)? Me either, and the formats we currently find to be standard are likely to go extinct as well before long.

“Give us another generation of proliferation and surely vast quantities of information will slip away from us this way. We will no longer be able to depend on survival of information through benign neglect. There are medieval manuscript books that may have lain unread for hundreds of years, but offered their treasures to the first reader who found and tried them. An electronic text subjected to the same degree of neglect is unlikely to survive five years” (48).

In this way, books are more consistent and predictable in what one can expect to find and in their longevity than are electronic files, yet books can still eventually fall prey to crumbling pages and bindings, fire, and loss. Electronic information can now be stored in the Cloud, but still can be in a format that becomes outdated.

A recorded video originally held much of the same downfalls as textual file formats; tape and disks could become damaged, etc. However, with an online video recorded directly online, the physical media is no longer an issue. One still has the consideration of file format and compatibility, but these issues are becoming increasingly standardized, and like text, graphic, and other formats, that hey are in the Cloud, we will likely be able to convert currently and future outdated formats for quite some time.

The recorded video offers a unique blend of access and consistency not found in the manuscript, book, or electronic text. A digital video is consistent in that no matter how many times it is played and copied, it does no lose quality or alter in any way. Of course, one could edit a copy of it, but that is true of textual files as well; however, what is unique about the access aspect is that one need not copy such a file. In the example of a video posted to a public site, such as YouTube or even to a private location, such as in the case of the OVC, one need not download or copy it; it remains accessible from that location and hosted either on the individual’s server space or on a company server. This point brings up another feature in that the recorded video, like a manuscript is personally made. So, it brings back that public persona of the author (see Yesterday’s post). The difference between this and the manuscript is that with the electronic video, only the one copy need be made and posted for all to see, whereas manuscripts must be manually (re)created with each copy. Books, too, must have separate copies made for each individual.

The feature that can be touted as a benefit–that only one copy need be made and posted live–is also a downfall to the recorded video in that it is somewhat ephemeral. Its instability and unpredictability lies in the fact that it is a single copy that can be unexpectedly and unavailable (permanently or temporarily) due to the individual who posted it taking it down, a system/server crash, a video hosting company going out of business or changing its policies, etc. It is worth noting that this issue also extends to videos, which one can embed in another site. For example, I can legally embed a video from one location in my own site or blog. However, since I do not own (the rights to) that file, I have no control over it’s storage longevity and, while I may (or not) be able to physically download the file, unless I have express permission, I cannot upload it to my own site. So, in this way, a file that is suddenly unavailable is unlikely to ever be again made public by anyone other than the original poster.

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