Monday, December 11, 2006

Web Sites and Medieval Manuscripts

One of my favourite ponderings is about how web sites are much more like medieval manuscripts than they are like printed books, and the more I think about it and discuss it with colleagues, the more ways I find that this is so. The old industrially produced printed book was a single linear stream of code which was processed in our mind as text. Illustrations were regarded as somewhat frivolous unless the topic was art analysis, and were often not placed adjacent to the appropriate text. An index, itself a string of linear code, was used as the only finding aid apart from the general table of contents. The text was fixed, and only changed if the major process of bringing out a new edition was undertaken.
As in a medieval manuscript, graphic elements and spatial mapping are part of the reading and navigating process of a website. Illustrations are placed, or linked, to the appropriate significant parts of the text, and also serve as part of the complex finding aids. Text transferred electronically can be amended and added to, so that, like the many variants of a medieval manuscript text, there may be multiple variant readings.
In the middle ages there was a process called compilatio, in which texts were compiled in various ways from a range of sources to create new permutations and combinations. Sites like Wikipedia, just to pick one huge example, are cherrypicking all our web sites for their own compilatio.
Medieval manuscripts had forms of hypertext. The canon tables at the beginning of the gospels, or the structure of a missal or breviary are examples, where the text was not intended to be read from beginning to end, but selected and combined for a particular circumstance.
Texts were not necessarily copied absolutely varbatim, but were shortened, extended, amended and translated into other languages or even dialects of the same language without any by your leave of the author. I do sometimes wonder what Babelfish or Google translations does to some pages of my website.
I think the time is fast approaching when we regard the industrially produced book as an aberration in the history of writing, and return to the more organic mode of the middle ages. Definitive editions will be a concept with no further validity.