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Drafting an Alphabet for the Digital Tradition
- To: Multiple recipients of list BOOK_ARTS-L <BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU>
- Subject: Drafting an Alphabet for the Digital Tradition
- From: Peter Verheyen <pdverhey@DREAMSCAPE.COM>
- Date: Wed, 18 Dec 1996 08:43:05 -0500
- Message-Id: <199612181344.FAA17597@SUL-Server-2.Stanford.EDU>
- Sender: "The Book Arts: binding, typography, collecting" <BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU>
Thought some might find this interesting. Peter
December 18, 1996
[Surf & Turf]
By ASHLEY DUNN [Image]
Drafting an Alphabet for the Digital Tradition
[H] omer, Socrates and Confucius are largely known to
the modern age through the writings of their
These three great observers of [Image]
life lived within the oral
tradition. Their works became Credit: Christine
great because their followers Thompson / CyberTimes
wrote down their words, -------------------------
allowing the information to
transcend the limited span of one lifetime.
The invention of writing allowed for the preservation
and accumulation of knowledge, which freed humans from
the boring treadmill of constantly rediscovering
But there is also a price that has been paid in this
process of preserving knowledge on paper. Once written,
thoughts that evolved in the dynamic world of oral
interaction suddenly become frozen in time. The words of
the speakers no longer changed. They repeated the same
things over and over again, like a looped audio tape.
Only the listeners were different.
Thoughts were meant to change, just as people do. To
freeze a thought brings with it a certain corruption and
perversion. In the general scheme of things, corruption
and perversion of thought are not such a bad trade off
to preserve information. But there is no choice in this
matter anyway. It is simply part of the process of
moving from one form of communication to another.
The transition from the oral to the written tradition
has been the most powerful movement of the past
Now, the rise of the computer has placed us in the midst
of a new movement that is striving to reconfigure the
past once again. It is changing the ways that we
transmit information and thus is changing the ways we
The movement involves the digitizing of the written
material. Today, there is a sharp line of demarcation
between what has been digitized and what has not. County
records, credit reports, newspaper stories and
Shakespeare can all be searched with electronic ease.
But step back to Beowulf or The Great Learning and you
find yourself reinstated in a world of traditional
research. There is no bridge now between the two.
The key to digitizing the past lies with the creation of
a universal coding scheme that allows for not only the
display of different characters, but also a certain
level of electronic manipulation. Storing characters as
images is not enough. There must also be a way to
categorize and identify the characters so that words can
be sorted, searched and retrieved.
[Image] Since the late 1980s, a consortium
of companies, including Apple,
One of the first Xerox and Microsoft, have been
modern thinkers to working on a system known as
grasp the impact of Unicode, which aims to assign a
this speed on the unique binary number to virtually
way that humans all characters ever written.
information was Unicode has largely been seen as
Marshall McLuhan. tool of modern communications,
-------------------- allowing people to read and write a
variety of scripts under a single
standard. But its most interesting potential is its
ability to encode ancient and modern texts that have had
no digital form. It is the bridge between the analog
past and the digital present.
Unicode is a fairly simple system that builds on the 128
characters of the 7-bit American Standard Code for
Information Interchange (ASCII) and 256 characters of
Latin-1, an 8-bit system also known as ISO 8859-1.
With 16 bits, Unicode is capable of encoding up to
65,536 characters, which is enough to represent most
modern scripts. The latest version of Unicode, 2.0,
includes 38,885 characters, covering 25 scripts,
including Chinese hanzi, Korean hangul, Gujarati,
Cyrillic, Hebrew and the Chinese bopomofo phonetic
The full power of Unicode stems from its ability to
partially address a 31-bit code space, known as the ISO
10646 standard, that is capable of representing 2.1
million characters -- enough to encode virtually every
written character ever devised, including Mayan glyphs
and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The benefits of converting knowledge to digital form are
obvious -- you can sort, search, associate and
pattern-search with inhuman speed. One of the first
modern thinkers to grasp the impact of this speed on the
way that humans perceive information was Marshall
"The real job of the computer in the future is not going
to have anything to do with retrieval," he wrote in
1966. "It's going to have to do with pure discovery,
because we use our memories for many purposes, mostly
unconscious...When you can recall things at a very high
speed, they take on a new mythic and structural
perception. So the computer... has, in spite of
itself...revealed the knowledge of the mythic, pattern,
structures, and profiles, all of which are quite
excitedly loaded with discovery."
McLuhan died in 1980, just before the boom in personal
computers. If he had lived longer, perhaps he would have
been less sanguine about computerizing memory.
Like the movement from oral to written, there is a
change in the way we perceive information as our method
of access changes.
Written documents have always encouraged a certain
vertical approach in study since they are difficult to
search. We generally read books from beginning to end
and tend to concentrate on a limited number of topics
because of the vast amount of written information.
Computer information, however, is best characterized as
"morsel-esque." Partly because of the size of the
computer monitor and the blandness of text scrolling
endless on a screen, we tend to sample information on
the computer in small pieces.
That in itself exerts a certain change in how we view
information. I remember searching a list of Jane, John,
Baby and Undetermined Does at the Los Angeles County
coroner's office years ago. The books of the dead were
handwritten and compiled in a set of tattered ledger
books that were stacked on a cabinet. Even today, I can
feel the sadness of looking over pages and pages of
unidentified people inscribed by hundreds of different
hands over the decades.
If I had done the search by computer I have no doubt the
list would still be moving, but I suspect it would be in
a very different way. There is something about seeing
the bulk of information or touching the handwriting of
some long departed county worker or simply being in the
linoleum grimness of the coroner's office that weaves a
tight web of memory. On a computer screen, the list
would only be rows of characters in a font of your
choosing. Where you go is just a matter of the proper
In many ways, it is this topology of information that is
being changed as the past is digitized. The store of
information once seemed like a dark and irregular sea.
Now, the computer extends our sight far over the horizon
in a vast web of links and data points. It is more
shimmering and distant than deep.
There is no good or bad in this change. It is simply a
part of moving to a far more efficient method of
communication and transmission.
The past must eventually be digitized to make that link
with the present. One day, both will exist in a uniform
pool of 1s and 0s that encode the record of knowledge.
The process has been going on for years and by now, I
would imagine that even the names of the thousands of
Does in Los Angeles County have been scanned into
digital form and entered into a variety of computer
databases that I can access from the comfort of my home.
Other people will look at the list in the future to
search for lost relatives or compile information for
historical purposes. They will undoubtedly see far more
clearly than I did, but I suspect they will never feel
quite the same things.
SURF & TURF is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click
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* Unicode Home Page
Ashley Dunn at email@example.com welcomes your comments
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