McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

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Words employ a complex system of symbols and metaphors to translate an internalized human sense or experience into vocalized representations. In this capacity information retrieval is instantaneous. Information about man and his surrounding environment can be retrieved and represented in the form of vocal symbols, with precision and clarity. In Understanding Media, McLuhan refers to words as " of explicitness" and adds that "Man has the power to reverberate the Divine thunder, by verbal translation" (57).

As empowering as the above technology may be, words, in both oral and printed representations, are fragmentary; one cannot express a totality of experience. On the other hand, electronic technology, such as computing devices, evoke the mind's ear; that is, we are not limited to our own physical organic extensions in experiencing the world around us. Electronic communication systems round-out the totality of expression and experience as they act as an extension of our nervous system. Given that "all active media are metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms" (McLuhan 57), electronic text , or etext, is a powerful metaphor for print. Etext media transforms the experiences of the preceding print media into new and fascinating forms.

The word processor lies at the heart of the transformation of print media. The concept of processing words is a product of the electric revolution. From a design perspective, a word processor is a computer program that is specifically designed with algorithms to manipulate objects such as text. From a functional point of view, a word processor enables one to perform many text editing functions which, judged by the tools available to previous new media, impact the art of self-expression to a greater degree.

Unlike document editing on paper, electronic error correction is a virtual playground. Where cover-up chemicals are required in written and print media, correcting words to entire paragraphs in a word processing environment is performed by electrically turning the unwanted characters off - this document contains 534 errors which are not visible to the reader. Another fundamental function of the word processor is that of "cut and paste", any piece of text, can be copied and moved from one area of the document to another; there are no scissors or glue involved. The etext author is literally given carte-blanche as there are no physical boundaries to an etext document. Unlike velum or paper, page size, justification and document formatting are all user configurable parameters.

Adaptively, etext is content insensitive. From the perspective of a word processing system, raw data such as textual information can be manipulated and formatted regardless of the type of content. As opposed to traditional print media in which such factors as size, binding, layout, graphic interpolation, etext is highly manipulative; its virtual format can be adapted to many layers of textual organization. At the lowest level of simplicity, word processors are capable of performing highly sophisticated formatting and print functions. In short, the word processor is a complete editing environment which has restructured print culture. As Paul Levinson writes:

"the personal computer and its word processing, along with the on-line network and its worldwide, instantaneous, hypertext access, seem likely to be every bit as revolutionary and reconfiguring of culture and human existence as the alphabet and the printing press" (74)

Truly, in order to absorb the full impact of etext as a new media, one must analyze the surrounding associations to other facets of electronic media such as electronic information retrieval, distribution, archival, multimedia, navigation, as well as the phenomenological issues.

Information in the form of unstructured etext arises in many situations: news items, brochures, office circulars and memos, scientific abstracts, descriptions of projects and employees, literary indexes, and even personal notes and memos. Information retrieval systems are specifically designed to handle such unstructured collections of text information which we will call textbases. These textbase systems are different from the conventional database systems in the way they index and retrieve the information, and in the kinds of access that they permit. MIT Media Lab identify three main retrieval systems classified as the retrieval of textbased systems: (a) statistical (b) semantic and (c) contextual/structural ( AAG 1 ). The first approach emphasizes statistical correlations of word counts in documents and document collections. Semantic Indexing is another example of a statistical method to capture the term associations in documents (AAG 2). The semantic approach to retrieval characterizes the documents and queries so as to represent the underlying meaning. It emphasizes natural language processing or the use of artificially intelligent inferences .The third approach, also known as "smart" Boolean, takes advantage of the structural and contextual information typically available in retrieval systems.

Etext encourages the decentralization of information. The Internet provides a fertile ground for distributed retrieval techniques. A number of services have surfaced on the Internet to help users search and retrieve documents from servers around the world: WAIS, Gopher and World Wide Web to name a few. Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) is a networked based document indexing and retrieval system for textual data. The servers maintain inverted indexes of keywords that are used for efficient retrieval of documents (Graham 78). WAIS allows users to provide relevance feedback to further specialize an initial query. Gopher is primarily a tool for browsing through hierarchically organized documents, but it also allows to search for information using full-text indexes. In the World Wide Web (WWW), the information is organized using the hypertext where users can explore information by selecting hypertext links to other information. Documents also contain indexes which the user can search for current or archived information.

Archiving of digital information is primarily concerned with ensuring that information in digital form endures for future generations. The question of preserving or archiving digital information is not a new one and has been explored at a variety of levels over the last two decades. Archivists have perhaps been most acutely aware of the difficulties as they have observed the rapid and widespread shift from the use of typewriters and other analog media to word processors, spreadsheets and other digital means. Preserving the media on which information is electronically recorded is well understood to be a relatively short-term and partial solution to the general problem of preserving digital information. Even if the media could be physically well-preserved, rapid changes in the means of recording, in the formats for storage, and in the software for use threaten to render the life of information in the digital age quite short. However, given various technical options, preserving electronic information is not only a technical matter. Selection is an issue common to all archiving functions.

The selection of information which demonstrated high interoperability between analog and digital preservation is an important goal in digital archiving. Furthermore, questions of intellectual judgment, what information to discard and what to carry forward in what structure and format, are always among the more difficult issues in creating and maintaining an archive.

Etext can be distributed in a variety of popular formats. The formats are aptly called "extensions", which include such formats as .HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), .ASCII (American Standard for Information Interchange), .txt (text) and .ps (post script) (Graham 61). The majority of etext formats are word processor insensitive, a format that is universal to all word processors. With the advent of commercial word processors, etext formats have become proprietary and will only by translated by their respective word processing packages.

From a commercial perspective, the principle advantage of etext distribution is not only to ensure currency, but it also allows users or readers to print just what they need, when they need it. Using both traditional print material, such as a book, and on-line distribution for text material, offers the greatest number of advantages because it dramatically enhances the flexibility of the work as a learning tool and consequently expands its market potential. The lure of a "free" information is almost irresistible and will generate much media attention and word of mouth recommendations.

Etext systems have evolved from their primitive unary existence into multi sensorial environments. Developments in video, audio and spatial media provided new ground for etext. The term given to the integration of such a mosaic of media is "Multimedia", and is rather misunderstood as described by Michel Roy:

"Given these fundamental and perhaps unresolveable contradictions that lie at the center of any discussion ...about what is "true multimedia" I would like to explore the these issues within the context of the complex interplay of intellectual, social and technical issues the come to bear n any particular project" (54)

However, from a historical perspective, electronic text based systems evolved from utilizing glowing characters on a green computer terminal to complimenting text with vivid audio and video arrangement. We recall the conditions of the pre-graphic, pre-sound, that is text based, oriented environment of the Internet (Comer 7). Etext on the Internet experienced a "unimedia" infancy; that is, electronic documents were presented in a purely textual format and no meshing of media was observed. "Gopher", a retrieval tool discussed above, is representative of the "unimedia" infancy as it was utilized for the delivery of textual information of the WWW. Similarly, digital sound reproduction as well as graphics and video utilized separate channels for playback. With the advent of NCSA Mosaic we observe the notion of media integration in the initial stages. Mosaic fused the delivery of text, audio and video and gave life to the idea of multimedia over a network.

On a local level, hardware multimedia is also representative of stand alone computers. Peripheral devices such as CD-ROMs, high definition audio and video cards, scanning devices, pointing devices, and high definition video terminals and speakers, create a rich environment for etext. A prominent example of the interplay of multimedia software and hardware is the Groliers Multimedia Encyclopedia in which etext is complimented by motion picture representations and audio clips of the content. In this form, etext is not only a metaphor for print but becomes an allusion. A new high level language of experience is created.

Etext systems provide a rich environment for navigation of textual information. The term "Navigation", in the context of popular electronic media, refers to the accessibility retrieval and searching of relevant and topical information. Navigation of etext systems in both distributed and locally available forms, is a crucial evaluative criteria for the assessing of etext systems. We must be careful not to confuse navigation with information retrieval. Navigating through etext based systems entails a symphony of virtual motor skills; that is, navigation, as the term implies, must steer one to a desired destination. As such, the end objective or the target of a search through an etext document ceases to become the focus. Navigation to relevant links, inferences, and bits of information, elevate print technology to a higher degree of involvement.

Initiated in 1991, Gutenberg project is one of the first and foremost initiatives to create a universal library. Based out of the university of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the Gutenberg project's mission is to complete what Johann Gutenberg started; the massive digitization of published literature. This large scale etext project is quite revolutionary. In an environment as rich as ours, flooded by high definition graphics and java powered applet billboards, the Gutenberg project is powered by plain ASCII text files. There is a blatant refusal of the robust technology. This is etext in its most simplest form. Even the electronic distribution techniques lack luster; they utilize file transfer protocol (FTP) in its original UNIX implementation - no fancy web servers.

There is a "redesign of democracy" (Hamilton 5) in the Gutenberg project; public etext is distributed freely. Following the above political allusion, the Gutenberg project enables "armchair" authors to contribute etext versions of such works as the Bible, Hamlet, and Virgil's Aneid. Authorship, as reflected by the publishing ethics of the Gutenberg project, is left in the hands of the individuals who are reproducing the classics. Content relevancy is strongly observed as individual arbitration. Denise Hamilton captures the heart of the issue in her interview with Michael Hart, director of the Gutenberg project, as she writes:

So in one sense, Hart is an electronic David, striking a literary blow against an establishment Goliath that tries to control information through restrictive copyright law, downloading fees, and red tape. (6)

Strikingly, and perhaps unintentionally, the Gutenburg project outlines the phenomenological effects of etext. Etext brings about a new definition of authorship. McLuhan describes the rule of "author-publisher" brought about by print media in The Gutenburg Galaxy: the margins also developed a merely consumer attitude to literature and the arts, such as has lingered until this century...The conformists inclined to the author-publisher, ruler of the new force, It may or may not be significant that most of the English literature since printing has been created by this ruler-oriented minority (237)

and contrasts authorship as a manifestation of electronic media in The Medium is The Massage:

"Authorship" - in the sense we know it today,...individual intellect effort related to the book as an economic commodity - ...Xerography - every man's brain-picker-heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher." (122-123)

Etext enables man, regardless of intellect, race, or wealth, to publish self-proclaimed works of art without literary guidelines.

We find that etext media is approached from the perspective of that of print. As we read in The Medium is The Massage ,"we look at the present through a rear-view mirror" (McLuhan 75). The most visible effects of this "rear-view mirror" syndrome is the lack of new language to express the phenomena; "Our New Culture is striving to do the work of the old"(McLuhan 94). In our discussion on the word processor, we observe that words like "cut and paste", "editing", and "error correction" are borrowed directly from print media. Furthermore, we also find this phenomena present in the notion of a "Digital Library". Many institutions shelve, code, classify and distribute electronic media as they would print media.

There is also a redistribution of power that comes along with the decentralization of information. We read in The Medium is The Massage that "print created the public, electric technology created the masses" (McLuhan 68). The distribution and availability of etext based documents, as discussed above, over high speed networks has virtually eliminated an old class of literally elite. Instead, power, as it pertains the ability to access knowledge bases, is increasingly available (13) to the "global-village" (qtd in Moose 140).

Our digital media transforms the way we live and communicate. McLuhan elegantly describes the phenomena as we read in Understanding Media:

"...since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear (xii-iii).

Etext is a hallmark of our shifting back to a tactile mode of group communication. As such, etext is indeed a metaphor for print since we can now hear what we are writing.

Works Cited

Autonomous Agents Group (AAG).Information Retrieval. MIT Media
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Hamilton, D. "The Hart Of The Gutenburg Galaxy".  Online.
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Levinson, P. The Soft Edge: A natural history and future of the
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Mcluhan, M. The Gutenburg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto
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___________.Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 
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___________and Fiorile, Q.  The Medium is the Massage: An
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Moos, Micheal A.  "McLuhan's Language for Awareness Under
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Negroponte, N. Being Digital. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Roy, M. "How to Do Things Without Words:  The Multicultural
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