Toward Abstraction

In “Digital Bibliography,” Ryan Trauman ponders the shift toward abstraction in computing and writing technologies. Inspired by a discussion of “cloud computing” (a term Trauman acknowledges has many meanings), he discusses the ways that our thoughts drifted from the tangible book to the abstract screen to the even more abstract Web.

What I’m talking about is our ontological relationship to texts. The move from static to dynamic. The move from actual to virtual. 20,000 pages of text used to mean a full bookshelf. Two years ago, it might have meant a small USB drive. We can’t possibly understand the modes of a textual “existence” in the ways we used to. It just doesn’t make any sense. First, and maybe most important, is the fact that now, the FACT of a book as paper-ink-binding is now remarkable (as in “worthy of remark”). In fact, almost any mode within which a book is instantiated is worthy of note. It becomes part of the text’s rhetoric. This is the first note I wanted to make. Digital texts tend to bring the “mode of delivery” back into any analysis of a text. There IS no longer any default.
The second ontological consequence of digital textuality has to do with the material existence of a text. To transition from the physical space occupied by a shelf of books to the tiny usb drive is a radical experience. Most people, I think, tend to experience it as a transition from actual to virtual. And while this model has some merit, it’s much more apt to stick with the idea of a shift in size and material. The books got smaller. Not just by shrinking but through reorganization, too. But they still exist in the material world. (Matthew Kirschenbaum probably makes the  best case for this.) We still need to “store” them someplace. We still “send” them from place to place. We cannot make them appear from the ether. Screens. Hard Disks. Processors. Random Access Memory. The are “inside” our computers and portable drives.
But this cloud thing is different, right? Now it really is like our files exist out there in the ether.

These transitions have interesting implications on our perception of writing. Once thought to be permanent and static, writing is now considered dynamic and to some extent infinitely-sprawling and connected. We expect the Web—and therefore what we read—to be ever-changing and impermanent.

The computer is always reread, an unseen beam of light behind the electronic screen replacing itself with itself at thirty cycles a second. Print stays itself–I have said repeatedly–electronic text replaces itself. – Michael Joyce