Dating back to the first recorded works of written literature, civilized text has been defined as text that is compartmentalized in a distinct way. A block of words becomes a news article because of its form, content, and location, or a biography because of its respective characteristics. Different forms of writing sprung up because of the need to accomplish different goals; histories, tragedies, science fiction novels, self-help books, memoirs, scientific papers, style magazines, and horoscope write-ups all exist as distinct forms that a piece of text can be categorized into. Physical text specifically has the property that it must be contained within a limited amount of other text, and this allows us to create newspapers or scientific journals or literary anthologies. We can categorize, relate, and then group according to our own idea of convenience. However, each piece of writing is limited in this physical way. It is, at some point, limited to being a single unit. A magazine can only contain a certain number of articles, and it is even less likely that the magazine contains multiple articles that relate to each other in more than a superfluous manner. Walk into any bookstore and you will see books organized by section, but the books still cannot exist in a greater web of resources because they are a single item, a physical well that has no physical connection to the next book. We are limited by the physical qualities of written text.
In contrast to this, virtual text has the startling quality that it is not limited by physical restraints. The amount of text available to a computer user with any basic internet connection far exceeds the amount of text contained in the largest physical libraries in the world. The ramifications of this are endless, but we may concentrate on what this implicates in terms of compartmentalizing text. With physical restraints, a text can be archived as an article, or a book, or a single work. It may have context within a collection, but it has an inherent existence as a single entity. It may be referential to other texts, but those texts will most likely be in other physical collections, which limits the ability of the reader to access the background of the text in question. With the advent of hypermedia, however, texts almost always exist in the context of other easily-accessible texts. Because of the ability to link endless amounts of related information, the internet encourages text to be referential and socialistic: it does not exist as a single entity but instead as a node in a web of information.
George Landow writes on the topic,
"This same ease of cutting, copying, and otherwise manipulating texts permits different forms of scholarly composition, ones in which the researcher's notes and original data exist in experientially closer proximity to the scholarly text than ever before. According to Michael Heim, as electronic textuality frees writing from the constraints of paper-print technology, "vast amounts of information, including further texts, will be accessible immediately below the electronic surface of a piece of writing . . . By connecting a small computer to a phone, a professional will be able to read "books" whose footnotes can be expanded into further 'books' which in turn open out onto a vast sea of data bases systemizing all of human cognition" (Electric Language, 10-11). The manipulability of the scholarly text, which derives from the ability of computers to search databases with enormous speed, also permits full-text searches, printed and dynamic concordances, and other kinds of processing that allow scholars in the humanities to ask new kinds of questions. Moreover, as one writes, "the text in progress becomes interconnected and linked with the entire world of information" (Electric Language, 161).
Questions about non-fiction in digital, virtual media
1. How can we utilize the accessibility of related resources to better communicate the point of our work?
2. In what ways does the vast, perhaps over-saturation of information devalue our work?
3. As the written work loses distinct value in exchange for placement with other works, what happens to the role of the author? Is it depreciated?
4. If works exist in context of other works, does the author still have the same creative license that existed in individual written works?
5. Is it possible to predict the audience of a written work in e-space if each work is linked to such a variety of other works?
Last modified 1 February 2008