Friday, 10 October 2008

Notes on writing the future in the digital age

Merchant argues that the production and consumption of digital texts is very different to that of print-based texts. He lists the following characteristics:

  1. A move from the fixed to the fluid: the text is no longer contained between the covers or by the limits of the page.
  2. Texts become interwoven in more complex ways through the use of hyperlinks.
  3. Texts can be easily revised, updated, added to and appended.
  4. Genres borrow freely, hybridise and mutate.
  5. Texts can become collaborative and multivocal, with replies, links, posted comments and borrowing - the roles of readers and writers overlap.
  6. Reading and writing paths are often non-linear.
  7. Texts become more densely multimodal (as multimedia allows for a rich interplay of modes).
  8. The communicative space is shared and location diminishes in significance as the local fuses with the global.
  9. The impression of co-presence and synchronous engagement increases.
  10. Boundaries begin to blur (work/leisure; public/private; serious/frivolous).

    (Merchant 2007, 122)

I think I agree with Merchant on these characteristics but with a couple of biggish reservations:

Firstly, because digital texts can do all these things (e.g. enable collaborative authoring, revision, blur generic boundaries etc.) does it mean that this is how they are actually being used? In essence, is Merchant describing actual manifestations of digital texts or suggesting some of the directions digital texts might possibly take?

Secondly, I think that on a more sophisticated level, printed texts (books) have never been contained by their physical limitations and have always been interwoven and multivocal. Here's Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes ( I should probably cite Julia Kristeva too) on this:

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network... The book is not simply the object that one holds in one's hands... Its unity is variable and relative.
(Foucault 1974, 23)

[text is] ... woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages (what language is not?) antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the 'sources', the 'influences' of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas.
(Barthes 1977, 160)

Do digital texts reveal more explictly the ways in which all texts are constructed? Is the really fantastic thing about them the ways they expose how all texts are produced?


Barthes, R. (1977) Image - Music - Text. London : Fontana.

Foucault, M. (1974) The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock.

Merchant, G. (2007) Writing the future in the digital age. Literacy 41:3, 118–128

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