Monday, December 3, 2007

Text and technological change

In the previous post on literary texts and hypertexts, I had meant to make a fairly mundane point, but got sidetracked in the fascinating details of the particular texts I was using as examples. At least, I found it fascinating.

The mundane point was this: The web has given rise to new textual forms, things like wikis, blogs and for that matter ordinary HTML web sites. Some aspects of these are new, but the general notion of a text as a multi-layered, interlinked structure, possibly with multiple authors and a less-than-clear history, is not.

This is a general point, not limited to literary criticism. For example, the question of what constitutes a derived work, important in software copyrights, musical sampling and elsewhere, has a long history. This history happens to include Ulysses -- one of the charges leveled against the 1984 corrected text of Ulysses was that the publishers had pushed to include as many corrections as possible in hopes of obtaining a new copyright.

We sometimes like to think that a new technology changes everything, that the old rules cannot possibly apply because the game itself is so different. Technology does change things, but our social tools for coping with the change remain largely the same. The flip side of this is that the problems a new technology appears to raise are often older than one might think.

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