The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 1: Instability of Text

It was difficult to choose one article to comment on, as several of the readings for Module 2 inter-weaved together so nicely. I read several together in one sitting and as I began the last article, the ideas suddenly began to synthesize. I was brought to alarm by The Instability of the Text, and the inevitable loss of information and knowledge. Perhaps a great part of the points raised in the readings are common sense, but it is so much more daunting to suddenly realize that a great part of our knowledge today is stored as a series of 0’s and 1’s. And just like a simple virus can completely wipe out a hard drive, something analogous could affect our network servers and delete everything that was stored on the server.

Language itself is ever-evolving. The Oxford English Dictionary documents these changes in the English language by showing various uses of each word with a variety of quotes from different periods of time. This evolution is also evidenced by the fact that reading Shakespeare can sometimes be like reading a whole different language.

Add to this the impermanence of the medium. In comparison to our ancestors’ stone engravings, our ink and paper manuscripts are easily destroyed—hardly permanent. In elementary school, a high interest novel such as the latest Harry Potter paperback cannot last very long before it requires a replacement. With digitization, vast volumes of books such as the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as encyclopedias can all be reduced to one DVD. O’Donnell notes that technology is constantly changing and machines become obsolete very quickly. It is obviously much easier for an archeologist to read a stone engraving than a small, shiny disk.

O’Donnell opens his article with a brief discussion regarding variations among copies of books from the same publisher, same edition. The abundance of multiple copies makes it a difficult task to ascertain reliability—which version is the truest to the author’s intentions? Even if we had all the text down pat, what about the formatting? The use or lack thereof could largely point to the meaning of the text to (i.e. shape poem).

The accessibility to the text is another issue. O’Donnell discusses various types of software used to open data files, but recognizes that some are more common than others (i.e. .pdf) but each also carry their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, some cannot be edited, others provide a certain type of encoding only.

In his article, Kelly describes a dream dating back to the great library at Alexandria, “to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages”, and argues that the Google Books initiative makes this dream seem possible. The only difference is, with digitization, the library is not only restricted to the elite, but becomes “truly democratic, offering every book to every person.” The archival of ‘all knowledge’ is a formidable feat, only possible through digitization with the technology that we have today. Scholars in developing countries can now have access to items that they previously would have needed to travel halfway across the world to get. Patients who want to learn more about their afflictions or the most recent research can access what was previously open to physicians only.

O’Donnell makes a strong case. Text cannot be permanent and reliable if we represent text digitally.

However, in light that language, and life itself is ever-changing, is it imperative that text be permanent?


Brand, S. (1999).  Escaping the Digital Dark Ages. Retrieved from

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan This Book! Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J.  The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J. (1998). Avatars of the World: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.  Retrieved from

October 8, 2009   1 Comment