Virtual Text, Virtual Authors, and Literary Computing

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 18-20 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press 1992].

Virtual Text, Virtual Authors, and Literary Computing

The characteristic effects of computing upon the humanities all derive from the fact that computing stores information in electronic codes rather than in physical marks on a physical surface. Since the invention of writing and printing, information technology has concentrated on the problem of creating and then disseminating static, unchanging records of language. As countless authors since the inception of writing have proclaimed, such fixed records conquer time and space, however temporarily, for they permit one person to share data with other people in other times and places. Printing adds the absolutely crucial element of multiple copies of the same text; this multiplicity, which preserves a text by dispersing individual copies of it, permits readers separated in time and space to refer to the same information (116). As Elizabeth Eisenstein, Marshall McLuhan, William M. Ivins, J. David Bolter, and other students of the history of the cultural effects of print technology have shown, Gutenberg's invention produced what we today understand as scholarship and criticism in the humanities. No longer primarily occupied by the task of preserving information in the form of fragile manuscripts that degraded with frequent use, scholars, working with books, developed new conceptions of scholarship, originality, and authorial property.

Although the fixed multiple text produced by print technology has had enormous effects on modern conceptions of literature, education, and research, it still, as Bush and Nelson emphasize, confronts the knowledge worker with the fundamental problem of an information retrieval system based on physical instantiations of text -- namely, that preserving information in a fixed, unchangeable linear format makes information retrieval difficult.

We may state this problem in two ways. First, no one arrangement of information proves convenient for all who need that information. Second, although both linear and hierarchical arrangements provide information in some sort of order, that order does not always match the needs of individual users of that information. Over the centuries scribes, scholars, publishers, and other makers of books have invented a range of devices to increase the speed of what today are called information processing and retrieval. Manuscript culture gradually saw the invention of individual pages, chapters, paragraphing, and spaces between words. The technology of the book found enhancement by pagination, indices, and bibliographies. Such devices have made scholarship possible, if not always easy or convenient to carry out.

Electronic text-processing marks the next major shift in information technology after the development of the printed book. It promises (or threatens) to produce effects on our culture, particularly on our literature, education, criticism, and scholarship, just as radical as those produced by Gutenberg's movable type.

Text-based computing provides us with electronic rather than physical texts, and this shift from ink to electronic code -- what Jean Baudrillard calls the shift from the "tactile" to the "digital" (115) -- produces an information technology that combines fixity and flexibility, order and accessibility -- but at a cost. Since electronic text-processing is a matter of manipulating computer-manipulated codes, all texts that the reader-writer encounters on the screen are virtual texts. Using an analogy to optics, computer scientists speak of "virtual machines" created by an operating system that provides individual users with the experience of working on their own individual machines when they in fact share a system with as many as several hundred others.

Similarly, all texts the reader and the writer encounter on a computer screen exist as a version created specifically for them while an electronic primary version resides in the computer's memory. One therefore works on an electronic copy until such time as both versions converge when the writer commands the computer to "save" one's version of the text by placing it in memory. At this point the text on screen and in the computer's memory briefly coincide, but the reader always encounters a virtual image of the stored text and not the original version itself; in fact, in descriptions of electronic word processing, such terms and such distinctions do not make much sense.

As Bolter explains, the most "unusual feature" of electronic writing is that it is "not directly accessible to either the writer or to the reader. The bits of the text are simply not on a human scale. Electronic technology removes or abstracts the writer and reader from the text. If you hold a magnetic tape or optical disk up to the light, you will not see text at all. . . . In the electronic medium several layers of sophisticated technology must intervene between the writer or reader and the coded text. There are so many levels of deferral that the reader or writer is hard put to identify the text at all: is it on the screen, in the transistor memory, or on the disk?" (Writing Space , 42-43).


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