Remediation, or how digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 1)

Digitisation is an inevitable process of modernity; more and more books are being digitised and there seems to be no indication of it stopping. This week saw the discovery of, or at least a potential candidate for, the Higgs-Boson Particle. The most interesting part for me was the choice to reveal it in the Comic Sans font. Comic Sans is not the most popular font with many vocal critics who have urged for it to be stripped from usage at all. The most interesting point about the typographical  choice of the scientists was that it showed a neglect of how the font that is chosen alters the way it is read and understood. Digitisation alters the typography of historical texts, and in this post I want to explore some of the ways in which digitisation effects how we read texts, and ultimately we understand and find meaning in them. To do so I will explore a famous text from the history of science: Galileo’s A Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems, partly as it is canonical and has been printed in various editions and forms. The process of change from print to digital is known as remediation.

Remediation is the changing of an artefact from one medium to another. It is the shifting of a song from a vinyl record to an mp3, or the transfer of a journal article from paper to PDF documents. Remediation most often is found in the digitalisation of physical media such as books, songs, films, and even art. The change in format brings with it subtle alterations to the product. Most remediation does not have dramatic changes in the experience; listening to an MP3 is not that different from listening to a CD, or even a record. Books, however, when remediated do seem to change the experience significantly as reading a book is very different to reading an e-book. This transfer from formats has implications on the experience of using them and how one studies and understands them as the author Steven Johnson said ‘the book’s migration to the digital realm would not be a simply matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways.’ These changes are significant, for in the future, it is likely that scholarship will draw more and more upon online and digital resources. Studies like mine that use EEBO would not be possible without digital documents, therefore the following shall consider some of the implications of remediation for books and the digitalisation of them into online texts.

The first change that digitisation does is it alters the way we read, and the locations that we read texts in. The nature of digitalisation means we encounter books and texts in new ways – we see them now as part of a list created from search terms rather than as part of a topical, disciplinary or chronological section. As Joad Raymond pointed out in The Invention of the Newspaper: 

“In this creative encounter the material construction of the book its typography, binding, the feel of the paper, the situation in which it is read, whether silent or out loud, in a library, a crowd, or secluded room; in youth or in age; patiently or urgently; in cloistered or revolutionary world; all these play upon the meanings which a reader and a text can produce between them.” (The invention of the Newspaper, p3)

Through digitization the meanings that are made possible through the phenomenological experience of the material book are lost as one reads it as a virtual image on a screen. The digital text alters the structure, font, typography and orientation of the book giving the reader a whole new experience of the text as it distorts the traditional creative encounter with the book. These important factors are eliminated when a book is read as a digital text as the structure, font, layout and tangibility of the book is eliminated.

For instance, reading Galileo in a book that looks like this:

In a place like this:

Is a very different experience from reading it in another format or place. Such as reading it as a microfilm copy:

Or reading it as a digital document on a computer screen:

The difference between the different ways of reading is that the book in the first instance above highlights its importance and significance whereas the other ways do not convey this same message. On a computer its hard, at a distance to distinguish an old book from a twitter page, without looking at the content. In the original binding it is in an expensive large format book that shows its importance to the reader. A modern edition is a very different artefact then the book above. It has a completely different structure and pretext. It is framed by an introduction that highlights how significant the book is and its place in the history of science. It has footnotes that explain the different points, these are all alterations to the book and change its meaning to the reader. The first readers did not have the academic paraphernalia to assist them in reading the text. In adding it it alters the way it is understood. It can also be read in far less formal settings, it can be read in front of the TV, on the train, or in a busy library. This contextual change of reading changes how its read, and in turn the books meaning.

A second change that occurs is how the book is found and encountered. In a traditional library the books is classified with other similar texts a digital text this is stripped away and it is found in a list along with books that may have no relevance to it. The location of a book impacts upon how it us understood and ultimately what the book means. When the location of a book in a library is changed or altered it has an impact upon how the content of the book is understood and how the book is orientated with the other works. For instance placing a copy of Galileo’s Dialogue in a non-fiction section filled under either philosophy, religious,  or scientific, is very different to placing it with other fictional dialogues such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. The section of library it is found in alters the way the book is read, and what the content of the book is taken to be. The physical artefact remains the same but the way in which it is understood alters when its context is changed. ReadingThe Dialogue as a religious book will result in a very different meaning derived from it, then if one read took it as a fictional dialogue. Likewise finding it in classics section is different then it was in a popular fiction section. This shows that the context a book is placed in has the power to alter how it is received and understood.

The difference is not only in terms of its classification. It has a very phenomenological difference. Finding a book with other books like this:

Is a different experience to finding a text like this on EEBO:

And is very different to finding it in a more abstract way through using a corpus linguistic tool like this:

In each of these ways of finding the text the physical aspect of it is erased, becoming more abstract and less connected with its initial object. It is obvious that reading a book on a computer screen is different from reading a book. As Roger Chartier explained:

“Texts are no longer prisoners of their original physical, material existence. Seperated from the objects on which we are used to finding them, texts can be transmitted in a new form; there is no longer a neccessary onnection between where they are conserved and where they are read,”  (Roger Chartier, The Order of Books, p89)

However, it is less obvious that this change alters the meaning of the text in subtle, but significant ways. One such way is the way the book is structured and the typography of it. Forms effect the meaning of the text and when a text passes from the codex to the monitor screen the same text is no longer truly the same because the new formal devices that offer it to its reader modify the conditions of its reception and its comprehension. In the next series of posts I will consider some of the ways that the modification of the text through digitisation alters the reception and comprehension of the text.

In Part 2 I will explore the way in which digitisation changes the order of books, and the impact this has on how we understand the value and meaning of books.


4 responses to “Remediation, or how digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Order of Books, or How Digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 2) | Early Modern Dialogues·

  2. Pingback: Editors’ Choice: How Digitisation is changing the meaning of texts Parts I & II : Digital Humanities Now·

  3. Pingback: Remediation, or how digitisation is changing the meaning of texts (Part 1) « Bibliolearn·

  4. Hi, this is great. REmediation is a perfect word for this process. It is not a standard definition in OED or other dictionaries. Do you have any citation for this use of the word? I’m writing a grant on remediating interviews into digital formats….thanks.
    Libby Bishop – UK Data Archive

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