text {isle}

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April 29th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Digital Humanity…?!

{ Robot Grandmother }
Tony Stark

{ Tony Stark }

From The Twilight Zone to Ironman, we are no strangers to the concept of integrating humans and machines.  The links I chose for each of those illustrate the range of human-machine integration, from the soft, warm grandmother in The Twilight Zone episode who is visibly human and whose robotic components are effectively concealed, to the mechanized and weaponized robotic suit that conceals and enhances Tony Stark’s human identity.  For fifty years our culture has been fascinated by the human/machine duality, and each iteration reveals something about our fears and desires – highlighting such themes as artificial intelligence that shows agency and attempts to dominate humanity, attempting to make “regular” humans obsolete (the Terminator films), or attempting to convert humans into a cybernetic collective (the Borg from various Star Trek series and films, and the cybermen in Doctor Who, for example).  There are many examples of upgraded humanity (Chuck) and engineered evolution (Bean from Ender’s Game).

One fascinating aspect of this integration is the divide between applied upgrades and integrated ones.  Tony Stark, for example, has an integrated life support system in the form of an electromagnet that prevents shrapnel from circulating through his heart, and also powers his suit.  But what makes him extraordinary is the iron man suit that integrates man and machine, giving him superhero capabilities.  The Borg, a cybernetic collective that aggressively assimilates those it encounters into the hive mind.  Resistance is futile. . . the borg identity is (usually) a permanent change, involving a networking of mind and cybernetic transformation of the body.  Rather than merely peripheral or external modifications that can be removed at will, integrated or implanted technology changes the constitution and configuration of the human body.  Keira, the Protector on Continuum mentioned in my last post, has more than just her fancy uniform – she is an enhanced human with specialized abilities that assist her vocationally.  She has implanted nanotechnology that gives her enhanced sensory perception, facial recognition, weapons detection, night vision, enhanced strength and speed, continuous visual and auditory recording, and access to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) via an integrated communication system that allows her to communicate with anyone on the network without the use of a phone or other device.

keira sees

{ What Keira sees. }

Keira is a good example of a person not just using the Web, but becoming a part of it.  Previously, I talked about the web as something fabricated from organic materials – but “web” and “network” can also refer to living tissue, like the neural network that controls our body’s sensory and motor functions, or the matrix of living tissue that forms our physical bodies.  In this sense, then Keira’s implants are integrated into her body’s living tissues, and these enhancements to her physical matrix allow her to tap into computer networks.  She is both human and machine, but neither solely human nor merely machine.  She is a digital human.

April 28th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck



Smart fabrics.  High-tech interactive clothing.  It sounds like something out of Back to the Future 2, right?  Remember power laces?  What about the self-drying jacket?  It seems that the movie creators’ ideas about what might be possible in 2015 were not quite as far-fetched as they seemed in 1989.  Sure, they got the fashion predictions wrong (although I have heard rumors that some 80’s styles are returning…), but some of their technological fantasies were not altogether unrealistic.  Powered clothing and smart fabrics are now possible, and even old-school pixellated video games have been given a modern textile twist.


Playing a sweater or knitting a game?  In a story reported by touch arcade a couple of months ago, Eli Hodapp reviewed an iOS game called Knitted Deer.  A standard 2D linear format game, it features nordic-style knitted sweater graphics reminiscent of vintage 1980s Christmas sweaters in place of old school pixel graphics.

Ok, so maybe the idea of a knitting-inspired video game puts you to sleep.  Would you appreciate smart pajamas that are patterned with QR codes that can be scanned with a smart phone or tablet that, along with the accompanying app, will provide bedtime stories and lullabies, complete with cuddly images and read-along text.

Too juvenile for your taste?  Maybe this risque 3d-printed dress modeled by Dita Von Teese is more to your taste.  Made of nylon, this black-lacquered crystal-studded gown’s design is based on the Fibonacci sequence, designed on an iPad, printed out in 17 pieces, and assembled. Will the future bring clothing that we can design and print for special occasions, or even every day wear?  (Although the thought of wearing synthetic fabric every day makes me shudder, even if a whole synthetic lifestyle was predicted for us by New York Times Science Editor Waldemar Kaempffert in 1950.  Really.  And underwear that would be recycled into candy.  Read his article from the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics speculating about life in 2000; it will entertain you.  It was wrong about many things, but it did seem to grasp that we were heading toward a more disposable mindset in relation to our belongings.)

Aside from the fanciful and the novel, it is amazing what is currently possible to do with fabric and clothing.  Take thermochromic fabric, for instance.  Like a mood ring, it changes color in response to temperature changes.  These jeans change from blue when the wearer is cold to white when warmer, but the reaction is localized, so warmer areas appear white, while cooler areas are blue.  If you are more interested in smart clothing than clever fabrics, the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada is currently working on a conceptual project that weaves electronic fabric into clothing.  In the future, this could serve functions like charging a cell phone, eliminating the need for extra batteries and cables, or augmenting the temperature of the wearer.  That would be cool.  Or hot.


So we saw what Back to the Future predicted clothing would be like in 30 years, and we know what Concordia University in Montreal is working on for the future, but how high tech will our clothing be…say 65 years from now?  The new SyFy show Continuum takes a guess at an answer.  Set in 2077, the show focuses on a terrorist group who go back in time to 2012, accidentally taking a Protector (police officer) named Kiera with them.  I have to admit that I am completely fascinated with Kiera’s protector uniform.  Her computerized suit is a completely integrated toolkit that is bulletproof, invisibility cloak, and telecommunications unit that allows her to access data or hack computers from digital screens that appear almost magically from the fabric of her uniform, capabilities that are demonstrated in this short video and this clip.

We have come a long way:  from a weaving loom as the first programmable machine and precursor to the modern computer, to sci-fi shows that turn smart clothing into programmable machines.  What is the future for this integration of tech and textile?  What kind of techstyles will we be utilizing and dreaming about in 30 years?

April 27th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Floss, Paper, Scissors

The phrase “cut and paste” probably brings to mind one of two things:  a word processing editing mechanism that involves selecting and moving a block of text, or a kindergarten activity that involves crayons, scissors, and a glue stick.  Either way, the concept is the essentially same, whether it refers to a crayon-scribbled image or digitally processed text.


Cut-and-paste texts predate word processed and typewritten text by centuries.  Recent articles by Rebecca Onion on Slate’s history blog, The Vault, Whitney Trettien’s Diapsalmata blog, and Harvard’s Houghton Library Blog discuss a seventeenth century book called the Little Gidding Harmony, which is now available online it its entirety, courtesy of Harvard University Library.  The book is a harmony of the four biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which have been interwoven into a single narrative.  The book consists of text and pictures that have been carefully cut and pasted from a printed bible and arranged in chronological order.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 6.52.26 PM

But there are even earlier examples of books created from manipulated texts, a process which Ellen Gruber Garvey refers to as “textual poaching” in her article “Scissorizing and Scrapbooks:  Nineteenth-Century Reading, Remaking, and Recirculating.”  Hanneke van Asperen’s article “Praying, Threading, and Adorning:  Sewin-in Prints in a Rosary Prayer Book” from Weaving, Veiling, and Dressing:  Textiles and their Metaphors in the Late Middle Ages tells of MS 14042, a London prayer book that is a compilation of several versions of the rosary with illustrations.  Van Asperen describes the manuscript:  “Except for a few coloured drawings and a miniature, the illustrations are single-leaf woodcuts and engraving. . . . Most of the images are glued to the background; others are sewn in with needle and bright silk thread.  Stitches surround the prints on all four sides of the page.  In this way, the compiler added a layer of border decoration.  Like precious stones in the frame of a painting, the silk threads animate the periphery around the image.  The stitches add colour to the mass-produced images” (82).  The contrasting stitches can be seen in the above photograph, in the alternating colors of the X pattern and the surrounding zig-zag stitches that frame the image.  Van Asperen talks of the distinctive nature of the brightly colored stitchery, noting the artistry evidenced by the attention to color and stitch placement:  “Although the use of needle and thread to attach objects. . . to books was not uncommon in the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, the highly visible red and green silk floss in the British Library codex begs some questions regarding  function and metaphor, attachment and decoration.  Rarely is the method of attachment transformed into a decorative element; instead, stitches usually remain silent and hardly visible.  In this respect, the London prayer book stands out” (82).  The fine detail present in this small volume testify to the importance of this prayer book as both a text and an object of beauty, a work of art.

A book is always more than the text that fills its pages.  N. Katherine Hayles discusses the materiality texts in her book Writing Machines, noting that  “Literature was never only words, never mere immaterial verbal constructions.  Literary texts, like us, have bodies, and actuality necessitating that their materialities and meanings are deeply interwoven into each other” (107).  This materiality is not limited to physical books, but extends to digital texts as well.  “The physical attributes constituting any artifact are potentially infinite; in a digital computer, for example, they include the polymers used to fabricate the case, the rare earth elements used to make the phosphors in the CRT screen, the palladium used for the power cord prongs, and so forth.  From this infinite array a technotext will select a few to foreground and work into its thematic concerns.  Materiality thus emerges from interactions between physical properties and a work’s artistic strategies. . . .An emergent property, materiality depends on how the work mobilizes its resources as a physical artifact as well as on the user’s interactions with the work and the interpretive strategies she develops – strategies that include physical manipulation as well as conceptual frameworks.  In the broadest sense, materiality emerges from the dynamic interplay between the richness of a physically robust world and human intelligence as it crafts this physicality to create meaning” (32-3).

This interplay between human intellect and interaction with physical writing vs. mechanized word processing is evident in Len Deighton’s composition process.  He worked first with physical texts, scissoring and arranging his typewritten books into the form he desired, before later authoring the first novel written on a word processor.  He proclaimed that “One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements,” since it facilitated his composition and editorial style.

Each of these books illustrates ways in which bits of image and text are remixed to fabricate a new literary and artistic work.  Recontextualized and rearranged into a collage, they fashion the previously existing works into a new textual fabric that twines them together in ways that create new contextual connotations.




April 26th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

“New” Media

fiske reading machine

{ Fiske Reading Machine, 1926 }

I am fascinated by the term ‘new media,’ which grants a stiff nod to the elusive and ever-changing concept of “new,” while focusing on what is en vogue in the moment as the relevant bit.  All other media is quaint, old-fashioned, and decidedly outdated.  Possibly of interest to a collector, nestled among a of curiosities in a museum display, or adding a bit of vintage flair to the home of a hipster, these passe items have been relegated to past lives and past ways of interacting with the world.  In the introduction to New Media:  1740-1915, editors Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree think about what “new media” would have looked like for previous generations before listing a variety of well-known forms of extinct media:  “typewriters, vinyl record albums, eight-track magnetic tapes, and the like.”  Their point?  “These are, from our current standpoint, old media.  But they were not always old, and studying them in terms that allow us to understand what it meant for them to be new is a timely and culturally important….All media were once ‘new media,’ and our purpose in these essays is to consider such emergent media within their historical contexts – to seek out the past on its own passed terms” (xi).

Gitelman and Pingree make a good point here, and remind us to consider these media not from our own backward-looking contexts – the perspective that views them as quaint and old-fashioned – but from the prospect of those to whom this media really was new.  3D imagery, programmable machines (such as the Jacquard loom, which I wrote about previously), electric messaging, recorded sound files, and social networks are not the products of the last forty years.

Take the Fiske Reading Machine (pictured above), for example.  This reading machine is a roaring ’20s era personal reader that was designed for portability, and marketed using the same arguments for portability that tablet makers use today.  The idea seems like it was somewhat ahead of its time, but the increasing mobility afforded the public via railroads and automobiles must have increased the demand for portable reading material.  According to the explanatory article (linked previously, and well worth reading), the machine used ordinary typewritten copy photographically reduced to 1/100 of the original size.  It required no additional power consumption – no batteries or electrical charge – apart from its fabrication and production of the proprietary texts, and reportedly would decrease paper usage if widely adopted.  Economic (uses fewer resources), portability (easily carried and cheaply mailed) and accessibility (encyclopedias, Shakespeare, and the Bible available for a fraction of the cost of traditional books) issues are touted as benefits of the machine.

Of course, the Fisk machine faded into cultural memory (I cannot imagine why; how would you have looked at the man in the next seat who was squinting into the tiny viewer of this device?), but other ways of producing and re-producing texts arose in the 20th century.  From handwritten drafts to typewritten copy, and eventually to the word processor and personal computer, the process of producing books has changed.

Deighton & word processor

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s article “The Book-Writing Machine:  What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?” discusses one of these technological changes: the creation of Len Deighton’s WWII-era technothriller, Bomber.  Produced on a word processor, IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter) and published in 1970, the mechanized experience changed Deighton’s method of editing from cutting, rearranging, and pasting sections of his manuscript – with scissors and paste – to editing them via the re-codeable magnetic tape.  This particular seminal model cost $10,000 (or $65,000 in today’s economy), weighted 200 pounds, had no screen, and could print at the lightening-fast speed of 150 wpm.  (At that rate, printing out the text from this single post would take 11 minutes.)

But although Deighton states that “One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements,” not everyone so easily adapted to mechanized production of their literary work.  In her article “Russell Banks’ Real-Time Notes on Adjusting the the Word Processor,” Rebecca Onion tells us that “Banks was dubious about his relationship with the technology, saying that the ‘simple mechanics of the task’ were problematic. The experience was ‘an unfamiliar mixture of speed and slowdown.’  But his biggest issue with the new way of writing was the immateriality of the process: ‘Since there is no object, no product on paper emerging as I go, there seems to be no activity.'”  Banks’ comment is telling.  Previously, writers had a physical artifact that provided evidence of their industry:  pages of handwritten manuscript or a stack of typewritten sheets.  The predecessors of our modern word processing programs did not have the fancy tools that we do now:  word counts, number of pages, and easy navigability have all been added in the interim.  The earliest processors were electric typewriters with small screens similar to what would be found on a standard calculator.  Block characters would fill the rectangular display squares and race by as one typed, showing a phrase at a time on the tiny screen, and storing the rest in its tiny memory.  If mistakes were made, one could carefully backspace to it, one character at a time, and fix it, before continuing on.  Writing in this way would make the text seem ephemeral, and reviewing or judging the quantity of writing done was difficult.  A quick tap of the “enter” key and the printing would start, scrolling through the perforated pages connected to one another like a roll of paper towels.  In his remarks, Banks mourns the loss of the  physical artifacts produced by previous methods of composition, and he has difficulty reconciling the virtual representation of his work with his previous mode of production.  He describes this transition as a “transformation from word inscriber to processor.”  This admission reveals that his view of himself has changed from one who inscribes, prints, and marks words on a page to a mechanized processor, a human machine that runs on a program and produces words.

This relationship between human and machine has evolved and become more intuitive as machines become almost extensions of ourselves.  Lightweight laptop computers, tablets, and especially smart phones have become omnipresent. In his Wall Street Journal article “The Science Behind Guessing What You’ll Type Next,” Matthew Lynley looks at the science behind predictive typing programs.  He explains that “typing has evolved into a whole field of science called ‘natural language processing,’ teaching computers to understand how human language works. It’s a field that mobile-device makers are keenly interested in, because it improves the user experience of the phone — leading to selling more phones.”  The android program discussed uses a language modeling program that infers from a string of words which word is likely to come next using probability predictions based on the data collected from user interface with a touch screen.  The goal of such programs is to eliminate as much interference as possible between human and machine, allowing for a more intuitive and streamlined process.

This streamlining of interactions between people and programmed machines by predicting and encoding human behavior is also seen in the resources we access via the internet.  Jennifer Howard discusses the two-way communication phenomenon that allows programs to learn from people in her Chronicle of Higher Education article “In the Digital Era Our Dictionaries Read Us.”  She explains that “with the spread of digital technologies, dictionaries have become a two-way mirror, a record not just of words’ meanings but of what we want to know. Digital dictionaries read us.”  Now unlike me, not everyone has a dictionary at hand at all times.  I consider myself to be a bit unusual in this regard.  I love dictionaries.  And thesauruses.  (Say that word three times fast:  thesauruses, thesauruses, thesauruses.  If you do not know what a thesaurus is, here’s a dictionary definition, although if you read this blog I suspect you might be a logophile like me.) I have a dictionary/thesaurus app on my phone, and I often use the OED to ferret out the etymology and evolution of a particular word.  But dictionaries are all around us, not just available in that book that resides on your shelf, or through a website or app.  Howard explains that “whenever you send a text or an e-mail, or read an e-book on your Nook, Kindle, or iPad, a dictionary is at your fingertips, whether or not you’re aware of it.”  Many tablet readers have functions that allow the reader to highlight a word, then choose to look it up in a dictionary, on Wikipedia, or perform a google search.  These lookups, including unsuccessful ones or those that yield unsatisfactory results can now be tracked, and electronic dictionaries can be adapted to suit users’ needs.

The editor-in-chief of Macmillan Education favors online dictionaries and is no longer publishing printed versions, but Howard contradicts this “argument that digital is ideal for dictionaries, no medium is perfect. Print offers pleasures that pixels don’t. It’s hard to electronically recreate the joy of browsing a printed page of definitions and ‘finding something you didn’t know you were looking for,’ Martin [head of U.S. Dictionaries for Oxford University Press] says. Dictionary makers are working on electronic simulacra. If you’re using the Merriam-Webster phone app, for instance, you can turn your device horizontally and get a scrolling list of words that mimics browsing in the vicinity of a word in a print dictionary.”  Realizing and acknowledging what has been lost in the transition from printed page to digital app, Merriam-Webster has adapted its phone app functionality to mimic one of the lost aspects of physical interaction with a book.  Like the language modeling programs designed to intuit what users will type next, digital dictionaries are also adapting to meed users’ needs and preferences by taking the material evidence of human-machine interactions (encoded data) and using it to predict and encode human behavior patterns.

Vintage examples of “new” media:


April 25th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Cables, Networks, and Webs

{ cables }
Threads and strings, the ties that bind things together into a cohesive whole, join together to form cables.  Cables have an interesting history interwoven in the English language.  According to the OED, the first usage of cable is dated c1275, and it referred to strings and threads that were twisted together to form “a strong thick rope, originally of hemp or other fibre, now also of strands of iron wire.”  This later came to include “cable-stitch” in 1890, which could refer to either an embroidery or textured knitting technique.  After the invention of the telegraph brought additional definitions to the term:  “A rope-like line used for submarine telegraphs, containing the wires along which the electric current passes, embedded in gutta percha or other insulating substance, and encased in an external sheathing of strong wire strands” in the 1850s.  By 1883, the term ‘cable’ came to refer also to the message itself, a shortened form of ‘cablegram.’  As modes of communication changed and television programing could be delivered via a cable connection in the 1970s,  ‘cable’ transitioned again from a mode of transmission to referencing transmission itself – a shortened version of ‘cable television.’
{ cable }
Cables, strings, and threads are integrated and fabricated into webs and networks.  Interestingly, the first use of ‘network’ arises in 1530 and refers to the interlaced fibers that form a net or other porous fabric.  As technology changed, the word developed additional abstract usages in the nineteenth century, referring to systems of interconnected but immaterial things, such as transportation (railroad), telecommunication (telegraph and telephone), and electrical utility lines, before being applied to people with certain academic or professional connections.  As radio, and later television, became popular media, broadcasting companies were referred to as networks.  The term was applied later (1962) to systems of interconnected computers.
{ networks }
Telegraph as social network

The Telegraphic Kiss postcard, in particular, shows the social nature of these new technological networks.  People could

connect with one another across geographic distances in ways that were previously inconceivable.  This particular picture depicts how people were integrated into a network designed to connect machines.  The telegraphs became extensions of the individual operators, serving as a means for communication, while also separating them from one another.  The two lovers are physically separated – they are kissing one another – rather, they are fantasizing about kissing; their connection is a mental and tactile one.  Distance separates, while the telegraph machine serves as a tactile extension of the fingertips, sending messages but also providing some measure of anonymity.

So this use of a network of integrated technology and human agency brings me to the next topical bead on my string of thoughts.  Webs.  The word ‘web’ is tied for the oldest word I have chosen to examine here.  Dating from c725 – concurrent with ‘thread’ – ‘web’ referred first to a woven fabric, particularly a whole cloth as it is being woven or in finished form.  Nearly 900 years later, it comes to include things that are like a woven fabric, particularly of they are intricate in structure or workmanship.  The term could also refer subtly-woven snares, entanglements, and flimsy things that lack substance – from light airy fabrics to fanciful reasoning.  In the first half of the twentieth century, it came to include complex interconnected networks, including radio and television broadcasting networks.

{ Web }

The final two entries for ‘web’ bring us to modern usages of the word in the computing sense: “Usu. with capital initial.  Chiefly with the. = World Wide Web n.” (1991).  This last definition introduces a new variant of the term, and a proper noun at that:  World Wide Web.  Its definition, dating from 1990, reads thus:  “Chiefly with the. A widely used multimedia information system on the Internet, whereby documents stored at numerous locations worldwide are cross-referenced using hypertext links, which allow users to search for and access information by moving from one document to another. Also: the network of interlinked information that is accessible via this system. Abbreviated WWW, W3.Often shortened to Web (see web n. Additions). Although World Wide Web and Internet are frequently taken to be synonymous, the World Wide Web is only one of various systems (including email and peer-to-peer applications) which are facilitated by the Internet.”  Noteworthy here is the role of the Web in connecting people together via these interlinked documents.  The links themselves form the matrix, the tissue, the fabric that is created by intersections of cables and wires carrying data, interwoven together to form the Web.

So, with web, we see a transformation that is somewhat akin to network.  Like network, ‘web’ begins with organic matter – a cobweb or threads of cotton, linen, wool – but the meaning changes to incorporate abstract interconnected systems.  At first those systems may not directly include humans in their structure (although their fabrication is enacted by humans) – crisscrossing lines of wire cable, miles of intersecting railroad tracks, snares and nets and traps – they are all built by humans, and require human intervention and utilization.  These networks and webs, then, link people together into webs and networks.  Eventually humans become incorporated into the mesh of the intersecting threads and strings and cables.  We layer ourselves in the data, coding our thoughts, words, and images, connecting with others across countries and continents.
April 25th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Threads and Strings

parliamentary tax receipts{ A file of parliamentary tax receipts from 1649-1653. }
National Archives, Kew, SP 28/296. Source.

Have you ever wondered about filing systems?  (If you are not a detail-oriented person or organizational freak, I’m guessing probably not.)  But humor me and entertain the idea for a bit.  How did these systems originate and develop?  Obsolete card catalogs were organized alphabetically by topic.  As homes and businesses rely more heavily on computerized filing systems, filing cabinets of tabbed dividers and manilla folders organized alphabetically have become somewhat less common.  These systems – whether digital or physical – have a common feature:  they are organized alphabetically.  But people did not always organize information alphabetically.  Heather Wolfe, in her article Filing, seventeenth-century style, examines the ways that documents were organized in early-modern England.  She mentions the “boxes, chests, drawers, pouches, pins, spikes, thongs, and cords that helped keep material organized and safe” – a list which gives us a glimpse into how documents were stored.

She also explains that in a special collections library, “sometimes intact collections have made it through the door only to be separated once they arrived because they contain mixed materials (a practice we now resist): the printed items go to the book collection, the manuscript items go to the manuscript collection, the graphic material goes to the art collection, everything re-connectable via the accession number alone. Nearly invisible clues, such as holes,” (see article for pictures) “have often been repaired because the reason for the holes was not known or understood.”  So, essentially, modern systems of filing and cataloging archival materials undoes the organizational system that originally bundled items together.  The holes she speaks of are particularly intriguing.  The absence of a piece of a document is a clue that something once made (and filled) that space, but is now absent.  Rather than searching for a source of the space, the hole was repaired.  The holes were formed by a filing methodology whereby documents such as letters, receipts, and the like, were strung on thread or wire and subsequently hung.  Some of the strings used for filing were reinforced at the ends, like metal-tipped shoestrings.

The concept of organizing files into threads fascinated me:  physical documents held together with threads – like beads on a necklace or layers of fabric that have been stitched together. I could see a parallel in the way we also organize digital files into threads – online forum posts and email exchanges, for example.  Intrigued, I began thinking of other related words, and ways that usages had evolved from a textile context to a technological one.

dew web

{ Web.  Source. }

Net.  Network.  Web.  World Wide Web.  Cable.  String.  Thread.

I was thinking about the language we use to describe the technology we use while reading a BBC News Viewpoint article:  Why Do Neologisms Make People Angry? by Tom Chatfield.  [Note: a neologism is a newly coined word, or a new usage of an old word.]  But rather than examine newly minted technological terms, I’m fascinated by the evolution of old ones.  I mentioned ‘thread’ above…so I decided to do a bit of sleuthing in the OED.

{ Threads.  Sourcewikimedia commons }
For ‘thread,’ the earliest incidence dates to c725, and the definition is unsurprising:  “A fine cord composed of the fibres or filaments of flax, cotton, wool, silk, etc. spun to a considerable length.”  Later, in 1642, the term is being applied more abstractly to thinking, as “that which connects the successive points in anything, esp. a narrative, train of thought, or the like; the sequence of events or ideas continuing through the whole course of anything.”  Later, in 1818, the definition gains the functional sense of uniting things and providing a means for connecting them.  So the definition expands from referring to a specific physical item (a string) to encompass the item’s function (joining items or concepts together).
{ String.  Source wikimedia commons }
‘String’ also had a similar start to ‘thread.’  Beginning as a reference to a specific physical item, it gained a definition that was linked to a more abstract concept: “A cord for actuating a puppet.  Also fig., esp. in to pull the strings, to control the course of affairs, to be the concealed operator in what is ostensibly done by another; to pull strings, to exert influence privately.”  This usage, from 1860, illustrates that string’s definition also expanded to encompass a function of the item.  This is particularly interesting when linked to the definition as it is linked to computer functions:  “Computing. A linear sequence of records or data.”  So the definition has changed from a piece of thread to a sequence of data, but that sequence of data is what controls or pulls the strings of a computer (or in one case, a puppet).  This re-definition, then, encompasses both previously mentioned senses of the word.  ‘String‘ refers to both the sequence of data that forms a coded command, as well as the action that subsequently occurs as a result of the command.

Next post. . . I’ll expand this discussion into the fabric created from threads and strings:  webs and networks.

April 23rd, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Encoding Epistles: New Contexts, Old Artifacts

The Flagg Letters

So now that I have (very, very briefly) explained the technological underpinnings of digitizing old documents, I want to talk about an encoding project I have been a part of.  Our university library has a collection of letters shared between a father and son in 1853.  The father, Gershom Flagg, was a farmer in rural Illinois, not too far from St. Louis.  His son, Willard Flagg, was a student at Yale.  He later became a prominent Republican IL state senator, as well as one of the founders of Illinois Industrial University, which later became the University of Illinois.  These letters chronicle the aspects of daily life of a farmer vs. daily life of a student; Gershom tells of the apple harvest and how many barrels of cider have been made, while Willard tells of the people he has met, things he has seen, and the books he is reading, accompanied by occasional requests for more money.  These letters, aside from providing information about the writers, also showcase their shared referents – people, places, other mutual correspondents, and publications such as books and periodicals.

In order to begin the project, as a group we had to decide which letters to choose, and provide a rationale for the choice.
Individual students read the letters and shared the contents with the class, and 18 letters were chosen for the project.  Then high-resolution images of the chosen letters were created, which were subsequently converted to smaller web-ready versions and uploaded into a shared file.  Summaries of each letter were compiled, and each of us transcribed our assigned letters.  We also learned about the TEI guidelines and the XML encoding process.  After being sucked into a whirlwind of information and being swirled around in a cloud of TEI guidlines, XML, elements and attributes, and a constellation of letters which dealt with a wide variety of topics, we had to make some decisions.
What gets encoded?

That is determined by our editorial rationale, and the decisions we make as a group.  (See an example editorial rationale at the Wide, Wide, World Digital Edition website.)  We can decide to code anything (and everything) – names, places, events, punctuation (or lack thereof), linguistic anomalies, and pertinent physical details about the documents such as holes, wax seals, illegible writing, etc.  Since that is a monumental task, we have to decide what matters most for our project’s purposes.  So what is important?  Do line breaks matter?  In poetry, maintaining line breaks is essential; but in a letter?  Probably not.  Punctuation?  Well, in these letters, there was a lack of punctuation – Gershom’s sentences begin with capital letters, but never have periods.  Rather than artificially inserting them, which would require editorial decisions that could affect the meaning of the letters, we decided to leave the (lack of) punctuation as written.  So what else is important?  Because of the nature of the letters, we chose to tag people, places, events, organizations, modes of travel, and media references (other letters, books, and periodicals).  This analysis shifted our focus from looking at the documents as data, rather than solely as literature or historic record.

XML markup

The markup explains how and why something has been coded, defines different attributes (name, date, place, etc.), denotes textual features (line and page breaks, paragraphs, etc.), and allows for cross-references and search functions.

The process of coding is a long and arduous one.  Many lines of code precede and follow this example, but this gives an idea of how the opening information – place of writing, date, and salutation – would be encoded.





<placeName>Paddock’s Grove Ills.</placeName>

<date>27 November 1853</date>


<salute>Dear Willard</salute>



As you can see, there quite a few lines of code for a very simple first two lines of the letter.  As you can see, every item has been labeled with opening and closing tags, which define not only what type of thing it is (placeName, date, etc.), but also what role it plays in the letter (opener, dateline, salutation).

Another example shows how different items may be tagged within an epistolary context.  If you follow the link, the example shows many different types of items being tagged, from people and places to periodicals and poems.

As I worked on the Flagg Project, I discovered that these letters are documents that provide a physical link between father and son, bridging the geographic divide between them.  Books, periodicals, and other media mentioned in them provide a wider context and background information for the letters, as well as a shared frame of reference between father and son.  They read the same newspapers, periodicals, and shared letters from loved ones.  These these texts provided the common context for their writing, and framed their communication.  But as the letters are passed along from father and son, saved by generations of their descendents, and were eventually given to the university library, the chain of custody widens the contextual sphere with each transfer, and each receiver has a new frame of reference and context for viewing the letters.  As the letters are passed along, they serve as a common referent for a successively broader audience.  For an online community of readers, the letters provide the same benefit that the shared media did for the Flaggs: context.  By creating digital media versions of the letters, the digital screen becomes a shared contemporary context for perusal.  These embedded shared contexts are like nested Russian dolls, with ever widening contextual spheres, but also with some gain and loss with each changing context.  Each new audience contributes a different contextual understanding, and a redrawing or widening of the boundaries of the letters’ community or public.

nesting dolls


April 22nd, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Encoding Epistles: Old Artifacts, New Concepts

I presented this information at the 2013 CAS Colloquium:  Thinking about The Book, but I wanted to share it here as well.  I want to talk about the Flagg Project – a project that involves converting 19th century correspondence to a digital format – but before delving into the topic, I want to present a bit of background information about digitization.

Why (or why not) digitize?

It seems quite simple, really.  Converting static texts to an digital format provides accessibility for a wide range of people, while physical documents can only reside in one place and be handled by people who share (or travel to) that place.  But there are some differences in the ways that people perceive these two types of objects.  One is a physical document with a particular texture, smell, size, weight, and form.  We can see the subtle nuances of light and dark ink shading where pen nib pressure was inconstant.  We can feel the texture of the paper, see its true color, and view a watermark (if it has one) by holding it up to the light.  Any embellishments that have been added to the document are also detectable in a way that is not possible via a virtual image; in short, we can engage in haptic exploration of the object.  When we create a virtual facsimile of this same object, we give up our 3D exploration of the item itself in favor of a 2D image of it.  What we gain from this exchange, then, is the ability to have a dynamic, malleable, and searchable version available to a much wider audience.

There are an abundance of digital exhibits featuring the correspondence of noteworthy people:  The Walt Whitman Archive, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, Mapping the Republic of Letters, The Willa Cather Archive, and Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, to name a few.  These sites give access either to the wider public or to academic communities, allowing individuals who would otherwise not be able to handle the documents to view them online.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s work provides a reminder of what may be lost and/or gained through digitization.  She manually produced, edited, and embellished her letters & poems, a topic that I have discussed previously.  In short, she was strongly opposed commercial printing and editing of her work, and her embellished letters are valuable reminders that documents are more than the sum of their words.

Encoding the Text

The TEI – or Text Encoding Initiative – is an international organization that develops and maintains guidelines for encoding physical, linguistic, and textual attributes of a document in a digital format.  TEI coding schemas utilize XMLextensible markup language – as an HTML-style tagging system, but to a much different end.  HTML tagging allows the user to use tags within arrow brackets to alter the physical appearance of the text.  For example, the opening and closing tags <strong> </strong> can be placed around a word or phrase to change the text to a bold typeface.  Other tags can change font types and sizes, underline text, and display superscripts and subscripts (likethis or likethat).  The XML markup allows us not only to alter the physical appearance of the text, but to provide commentary about it and describe the content of that text.  For example, when a person or a place is mentioned, we can define the name type as that of a person or place.  We can be specific enough to include biographic or geographic information about it, or define the referent that a particular pronoun represents.

This form of encoding changes the way we think about both the data and the text.  It gives us a “scientist’s view of text,” which Buzzetti and McGann explain consists of “‘information coded as characters or sequences of characters’ (Day 1).  Coded information is data and data is a processible material object. . . . Digital text is a physical thing residing in the memory cells of a digital computer in a completely disambiguated condition.  That precise physical structure matters for digital text, just as the very different precise physical structure matters for paper-based text.”So, we gain data as a material object, as well as the information encoded within the text of the data, and the associated metadata. As a result, we have to conceive of ways of thinking, talking about, defining, and encoding our simulated objects, the information we attach to them, and the materials and means we utilize in this process.  This drives scholars to focus microscopically on each aspect of an object, from its form, to its function, material composition, history, and the language and technology necessary to communicate these characteristics in a digitally simulated format.


[To be continued…]

March 20th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck


One of the great advantages of the internet is the unprecedented access it grants us to objects and ideas that were not widely and publicly available before.  In order to view, read, or handle a particular book, manuscript, or work of art, one would have had to travel to a university, museum, or private collection where the item was held, particularly if the item was old or rare, or read about someone else’s investigation of the item in a book or journal.  Now, the digital collections are widely accessible via the web.

Just last week, Trinity College Library Dublin announced that the Book of Kells is now viewable online.  Their proclamation celebrates the endeavor, but acknowledges the digital representation’s secondary status: “The Book of Kells transparencies, originally captured by Faksimile Verlag, Lucerne, Switzerland in 1990, have recently been rescanned using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.”  According to information published on the library’s blog, the images are essentially copies of copies – so they are twice removed from the primary source.  The original 8th century illuminated manuscript consisted of colored inks on vellum (calfskin) with gilded edges.  In 1990, transparencies of the book were created, and these transparencies have been rescanned and displayed in the digital exhibit and its accompanying iPad app.

I recalled Trinity College’s announcement while reading Dino Buzzetti and Jerome McGann’s article, “Electronic Textual Editing:  Critical Editing in a Digital Horizon,” when I encountered the following assertion (bold emphasis is mine):

“The advent of information technology in the last half of the 20th century has transformed in major ways the terms in which editorial and textual studies are able to be conceived and conducted. This has come about because the critical instrument for studying graphical and bibliographical works, including textual works, is no longer the codex. 6 Because the digital computer can simulate any material object or condition in a uniform electronic coding procedure, vast amounts of information that are contained in objects like books can be digitally transformed and stored for many different uses. In addition, information stored in different kinds of media—musical and pictorial information as well as textual and bibliographical information—can be gathered and translated into a uniform (digital) medium, and of course can be broadcast electronically. We go online and access the card catalogues, and often the very holdings, of major research archives, museums, and libraries all over the world.”  

This blanket statement that “any material object” could be digitally simulated caused me to pause.  Any object?  Dictionary.com provides a definition of ‘simulate’:

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 12.40.34 PM

So, a simulation would create a likeness of the (any) object, which would have the characteristics of that object.  Which brings me to the question:  How possible is it to translate the physical characteristics of an object into a digital medium?  Sure, we can read about a book created from gilded calfskin pages, but how do those pages feel?  How similar or different are they from the paper we are used to?  Some information can only be communicated through haptic exploration of objects – that is, by touching them.  In digital form, size and weight can also be difficult to assess from an image.  Consider the Book of Kells, for instance.  How big is the book?  The exhibit, of course, gives dimensions (33 x 25 cm), but how effectively does this convert the two dimensional simulation on a screen to a three dimensional object I am trying to mentally construct?  How much does the book weigh?  Does it weigh more or less than a modern book of roughly the same dimensions?  No data is provided about weight.  I considered similar questions while working on my Omeka exhibit, Knitting for Victory.  Most of images I used were already available digitally, or I scanned them from a book.  How different are these digital representations from the originals?  How large or small were the posters, and what kind of impact would they have when displayed publicly?  Were they thick and sturdy cardboard, cardstock, or a lighter weight of paper?  Were they glossy or matte?  There were many versions of some of the Red Cross posters, and the shading and intensity of the colors varied widely.  Which one is most true to the original?  How can one tell?  How effective are digital simulations?

Ok, now that I have mentioned what may be lost by digitization, what can be gained?  I have already noted that increased accessibility is a major benefit of digital media. The ability for people around the globe to have greater access to information, or to a digital representation of an object in a particular geographic location without leaving their homes is unprecedented.   Buzzetti and McGann also note that a “scientist’s view of text” consists of “‘information coded as characters or sequences of characters’ (Day 1).  Coded information is data and data is a processable material object. . . . Digital text is a physical thing residing in the memory cells of a digital computer in a completely disambiguated condition.  That precise physical structure matters for digital text, just as the very different precise physical structure matters for paper-based text.”  So we gain data as a material object, as well as the information encoded within the text of the data, and the associated metadata.  We have to conceive of ways of thinking, talking about, defining, and encoding our simulated objects, the information we attach to them, and the materials and means we utilize in this process.  This drives scholars to focus microscopically on each aspect of an object, from its form, to its function, material composition, history, and the language and technology necessary to communicate these characteristics in a digitally simulated format.


March 13th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Knitting for Victory

Life How to Knit

Not her (grand)mother’s knitting: the next generation joins the fray during WWII

What role did knitting and knitting-related media messages play in WWI and WWII?  I examined knitting-themed propaganda to answer that question in my Omeka exhibit, Knitting for Victory:  Transatlantic Propaganda in WWI & WWII.  Essentially, knitting provided a way to measure patriotic support on the home front.  Knitting in public or in communal settings was a way to publicize support, and knitting at home was a convenient way to labor for the war effort, while garments sent to soldiers communicated concern and dedication of those at home and helped to boost morale.  Knitting also served to pacify the masses anxiously awaiting news from the front or the return of their loved ones.

However, though I was able to include items to illustrate these messages, I did run into some roadblocks to my project.  I knew some of the images that I wanted to include, but spent a lot of time searching for additional ones.  I was forced to exclude several of the images I had hoped to include, and usually this occurred because I could not find a clean high quality version of an image that was usable.  Tiny thumbnail pictures, heavily pixelated images, or digitally watermarked photos were unusable.  Many images I found were falsely tagged.  For example, posters blatantly emblazoned “American Red Cross” in bright red letters were often tagged as British. I thought that sites like the Library of Congress would be helpful, since so many images are cataloged there, but the sheer volume of tiny thumbnail images that had to be clicked multiple times (once to open the page for the item, another time to make it larger once the page opened) just to determine whether or not they were useful was a cumbersome process.  Another issue I encountered was a difficulty in locating British images.  Many of the items I located were outside the scope of this project, or – again – were of poor quality or too small to be used.

Though I encountered some frustrations, I also encountered other items I would like to add in the future.  Canada provides an interesting perspective, particularly on WWI.  As part of the British Commonwealth, Canada entered the first world war when Britain did, but since it was geographically closer to the United States, Canadians were also heavily exposed to American media.  I found a few distinctly Canadian contributions to the wartime media.  I would also like to add some literary samples, such as Siegfried Sassoon’s Glory of Women, the Khaki Knitting Book, Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Knitting, and the poems in Sock Songs, among others.

Ultimately, I found the project interesting and enlightening because while a search for WWII Red Cross posters will return a variety of results – including predominantly WWI images – there is a distinct difference in the types of images used for each war.  These differences underscore the different perceptions of women’s roles in the war.  Nursing posters, in particular, illustrate this evolution.  WWI nursing recruitment posters depicted nurses in habit-like uniforms and poses reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, while WWII nurses wore a feminized military-style uniform.  These changing roles carry over into the knitting propaganda as well.  In WWI media, women are presumed to be in the home, but a generation later the WWII media acknowledges college educated and working women.  The focus shifts from knitting as something that could be done as a means of (unpaid) employment to an activity that may be done in addition to job duties.

So, take some time, browse the Knitting for Victory exhibit, and let me know what you think!

 *   *   *

ETA (3/18/13):  I realize that I neglected to provide a rationale for the structure/design of my exhibit.  Once I figured out how, I tried quite a few of the available themes.  I prefer a clean minimalist look, because I want the viewer to focus on the items in the exhibit, rather than a decorative background.  I first chose the “minimalist” theme, based on the assumption that it would be the most neutral.  Dissatisfied, I tried others, and finally opted for the “default” setting.  Despite my minimalist leanings, I would have preferred a template a bit more exciting and customizable than the offered options.

For the page layouts, I wanted the images to be the primary focus when the pages loaded, so I placed large (rather than thumbnail) images on the left side of the page, with expository text to the right.  (I also decided not to use any of the formats that would automatically crop my images into squares, since they were all rectangular.  I did not want either to omit important information from the initial view of the image, nor did I want the viewer to have to click each picture to view the full image.)  Embedded links provide additional support for my arguments in the form of images, articles, music, and even a facsimile of the “Make Do and Mend:  Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations” booklet.  My goal was for the collected images to tell the story of how women’s roles were perceived/reinforced/subverted by the knitting-related media produced during the war effort, so that viewers could get a sense of the message from the combined images both with and without the accompanying explication.  In the interest of providing a preview of the full exhibit, I also added a gallery page within my about section.  This gallery showcases captioned thumbnail images; clicking an image will reveal the Dublin Core info, while clicking the caption will take the user directly to the item’s page within the exhibit.  I wanted viewers to be able to contemplate the entire constellation of images and the ideological threads that unite or separate them, or to be able to select an individual image to browse from the entire collection, rather than accessing it solely through the section where it resides.