The Age of Glosses?

Mitch Ratcliffe (@godsdog) recently posted a lengthy treatment on the future of the book for his occasional ZDnet column. It's an intriguing read, and definitely worth your time if you're interested in such things (as I am). Ratcliffe is a cerebral journalist, and he's likely to invoke theorists like Deleuze or Foucault to support an argument. This is one of the reasons why I like him, and why I follow him on Twitter.

His post, "Books: Entering the Age of Glosses," begins with the following assertion:
Here’s the key to thinking about the future of writing, something straight out of the manuscript era: the humble gloss or “scholia,” for those who prefer the Latin.
Ratcliffe follows this thread, picks up on others (including a very interesting discussion of curation and cryptography that's worth concerted attention), and generally covers substantial ground in his exploration of reader-response in digital environments. However, I'm troubled by the reverse-engineering I see here (and in so much new media scholarship); why should the "key" to the future of writing be formulated from within a paradigm fundamentally at odds with digital discourse? Why should the "key" be found among our print-based past, amongst dusty, closed, self-contained artifacts that talk to each other in only the most rudimentary form possible?

I've been known to comment on blog posts from time to time, and I took a moment to relay my thoughts on the "future of writing" as conceived from within print-based paradigms of the past:
A Normative Approach

Some very interesting insights here, Mitch. I'm excited about your work on the future of writing, and I eagerly look forward to your forthcoming book.

I do, however, have some trouble with the general framework from which you seem to be exploring the future of writing. Based on this entry, you are applying norms of print-based textuality to digital space, and this, I think, is a mistake. It's one that continues to be repeated in a variety of fields (not the least of which is my own--Rhetoric and Writing Studies--which continues to proffer hermeneutic norms of print-based textuality to all manner of meaning-making).

This is to be avoided, I think, if we are ever to effectively explore the potential of writing in digital environments. Quite simply, print-based norms are not seamlessly analogous to digital writing, and remediating those norms brings along all of the baggage of book culture and applies it, ipso facto, to digital writing (even when we pretend or hope that it does not).

In a certain sense, marginalia seems quite a suitable analogy to commenting, for example. But it's dangerous to extend that analogy into discussions of what writing might be in digital environments, because it so profoundly limits what we can see, reverse-engineering digital writing through the framework of book culture. Marginalia and glossing privileges The Text, not user interaction (see for example, C. Davidson, 1986 for more on marginalia). Glosses are furtive, individual acts, isolated and contained. Blog comments, tweets, et al., are fundamentally social and public, privileging interaction between users rather than the hailed alphabetic text. It's not about the book alone, but about the writing that extends beyond.

This is but one example, and the prevalence of normative, print-based approaches to writing in digital environments is overwhelming. So, more than anything, I stress caution in privileging such a framework.

A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.
I am encouraged by novel approaches to writing in digital environments (like the unbook, for example), and am skeptical of those that attempt to seamlessly graft old ways of seeing onto new, and drastically different paradigms. In some sense, this grafting and reverse-engineering is natural--and therein lies the heart of the matter--the "key" to productively exploring the future of writing. We need to rethink what we assume we no longer have to think about (Kopelson, 2008).


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