An overlong and repetitive paper by Terje Hillesund gives a new way of looking at the lifespan of language and writing, a text cycle.

In addition to being regarded as both a product and a structure, a text is also part of several processes such as writing, distributing and reading. The text is part of a text cycle…. The term text cycle covers text production, circulation processes and dialogical processes…. A text cycle, I will argue, consists of the basic phases of writing, producing, storing, representing, distributing and reading…. The processes involved in writing depend on whether you use a chisel, a quill, a typewriter or a computer keyboard. Furthermore, in handwriting, the phases of writing and producing a text are executed in one process, whereas in print, writing and production involve several processes. Despite these differences, a text must in some way be written, produced and distributed, before it can be read. […]

And there is essentially a Microsoft Typography articulation of the problem of long uninterrupted reading of computer screens:

This weakness of computer screens is related both to hardware and software issues. The heavy and stationary screens of desktop and laptop computers give static and tiring reading positions. Low resolution and poor type representation causes eye strain. In addition most applications and text formats are designed for the production and distribution of texts (word processors, Web browsers) with little or no concern for the typography of screen reading. It is probably true to say that lengthy digital texts are usually made to be printed.

While computer screens are legible, ordinary screens and applications do not have the readability required for sustained reading. As long as, for longer texts, the reading phase is dominated by printed paper, we cannot yet speak of a fully developed digital text cycle. It is rather the case that most of what is called electronic publishing still has one foot in the printed text cycle. The text is digitally written, stored and distributed, but when the text reaches its destination it is read in a printed version. […]

It is the reading phase of the text cycle that keeps paper going. In principle, we no longer need paper for writing, storing or distributing texts. In print production all pre-press processes are digital. This reduced role of paper makes it vulnerable. When, as is likely, digital reading technologies achieve a competitive level of performance, they will oust printed paper and pure digital text cycles will become the norm.

At this point, some of the advantages of digital texts, such as E-books, will become more obvious. Most E-books have re-flow capabilities, which means that the layout of the pages adjusts to different font sizes and to varying screen sizes. This is generally useful, but especially so to the visually impaired.

Then there’s the mention of exactly the workflow that made my life miserable with the first book:

Text versions prepared for print in page-layout applications are prime sources for converted structured documents and later cross-media text publications. Through this workflow, print dominance continues.

In my case, the upconversion from XHTML to Word to Quark made corrections a nightmare. We had two marked-up printouts and everything had to be input twice. I know for a fact I missed a few things.

Now, do you really think you write the same way for the Web as you do in E-mail, chat, and – if you still use it – print?

A text always conforms (more or less) to the norms of a text genre. At macro levels, genre norms define the overall organization of themes and issues, and at meso levels genre norms prescribe ways to dramatize, describe, make an argument or tell a story. At micro levels, authors, depending on genre, use different words, metaphors, expressions and technical terms, creating all kinds of language styles. A text is thus affected by genre norms at all levels. Bits and pieces of texts cannot be suitably rearranged and reused in an automatic creation of new texts belonging to other genres.

In other words, stop complaining when we have to use b or i to mark up old texts in creaky HTML 4.

Indeed, can we always separate content from presentation?

When XML experts analyze existing (printed) text genres, they extract structures consisting of element types like <title>, <paragraph> and <table>. These element structures obviously describe some sort of content structure of the texts. The point is that these content structures are communicated by the layout and typography of the texts, by visual means. The elements extracted are combined content/presentation elements. The structures of the elements, as described in document type definitions, are abstract descriptions of the way content of texts are visually presented (as titles, paragraphs and tables).

In printed texts, as in all texts, visual presentation and (many of the) content structures are intrinsically interwoven and indistinguishable. While this interdependence between form and content is important in publishing, it is hardly discussed in the XML literature…. On the contrary, experts tend to hypostatize the XML elements and structures and treat them as parts of logical content structures of texts, separated from any presentation…. These text structures do not capture important argumentative, narrative and other semantic content structures of texts. Another objection is that visually manifested text structures (based on principles of print) cannot be treated as logical content structures of texts in general, independent of media and format. […]

New innovative digital text genres will clearly draw on many of the most readable typographical features of print. But the presentation and structure of verbal information will be shaped by the formats and communicative potential of digital media, rather than those of print media. We have earlier seen that digital formats and capabilities are based on re-flow, inclusion of multimedia and interactivity, hypertexts and linking to specifically defined (and updated) local or remote information resources. These features will give rise to new text genres with new linguistic styles, element types and element structures, many of which are incompatible with print.

What’s going to happen to digital rights management with E-books? Well, it’s doomed, of course.

Readers can hardly be expected to accept such a chaotic plethora of formats, and it is not likely that any of them will survive.

What most readers want is a simple system that allows them to purchase E-books from any retailer or publisher and read them on whatever device, operating system or reading software they choose…. Instead of agreeing to such a standard end-user format, big companies like Adobe, Palm and Microsoft seem to be willing to fight (a futile fight) over markets. This policy will certainly not speed up E-book interest among readers.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.04.15 16:49. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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