The Orthogonality of Print and Digital Media
Jean-Claude GUEDON

Department of Comparative Literature University of Montreal

Other URL: gopher://arl.cni.org:70/00/scomm/edir/guedon.94
COPYRIGHT (c) 1994 Jean-Claude Guedon, guedon@ere.umontreal.ca
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note:  This article originally appeared in the 4th Edition of the
Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion
Lists, published by the Association of Research Libraries in May 1994.
Why are Electronic Publications Difficult to Classify?: The
Orthogonality of Print and Digital Media

Jean-Claude Guedon
Department of Comparative Literature
University of Montreal

Students of the elusive nature of electronic publishing advocate two
opposing viewpoints.  One is that electronic publishing is so radically
different from print that any reference to print is bound to create
difficulties rather than help in understanding the nature of the new
electronic medium.  The other is that electronic publishing is little
other than print transferred to the electronic medium.  Both viewpoints
are right and wrong, and it will be the burden of this essay to see how a
kind of Hegelian Aufhebung of the two stances can be constructed so we
may begin to approach the phenomenon of electronic publishing adequately.

To affirm that electronic publishing and print publishing are radically
different is to say that the kind of communication permitted by one has
nothing to do with the other.  In a sense, this view is correct, provided
we agree to indulge in a bit of science fiction and, looking far down the
time line, we take as inevitable the vision in which electronic
publishing unavoidably leads to a situation best described by the
metaphor of the permanent seminar.  Logically, that is the direction
where electronic scholarly communications should be going, except that
history shows that society does not always behave logically.
Technological innovations, as historians and sociologists have shown,
interact with complex social constructs and, as a result, the smallest
eddy or draft, however minuscule, can deeply perturb the flow of history
-- the phenomenon is called the butterfly effect in the fashionable
circles of chaos theory.  In any case, knowing what the ultimate, logical
goal is rarely says much about the best path to reach it.

It is difficult to argue in favor of the radical otherness of electronic
publishing, given that it is evolving in multiple ways, all of which have
to take into account existing social systems and social functions of
communications.  The weight of tradition also contributes to the need for
a measure of continuity with the past.  Publishers of a research journal,
for example, cannot ignore the fact that the research community has some
very definite expectations as to the way articles should be submitted,
checked, copy-edited, produced and distributed.  Legitimacy and authority
are built in part on this.

Conversely, characterizing electronic publishing as a linear extension of
print also misses the point.  Exactly as porting a novel to the film
medium generates effects that go well beyond the simple translation of a
text into images, so moving text from print to a digitized medium
transforms its functionalities, the way we relate to it, and the way it
is distributed and received.  For example, a digitized document is
immediately amenable to full- text searching -- a possibility print
cannot offer and which no index, chapter heading, sub-sections or any
other devices invented in the course of the last few centuries of print
could ever hope to fulfill.  Also, print offers only one way to present
information.  Whether the reader is browsing or studying deeply, printed
texts remain wedded to paper.  With digitized documents, the reader moves
from browsing mode, often on the screen, to deep reading, often through a
printout of the document.  In other words, electronic publishing brings
about a distinction between the access to information and the way readers
relate to it.  According to our needs, we materialize the electronic
information differently and we search it or study it or recycle it in
other documents differently.

Electronic publishing both partakes of the past and heralds the future.
But this is not the only difference between it and print.  Other
dimensions are important as well.  For one thing, electronic publishing
does not emerge on an informational tabula rasa, but, on the contrary, it
enters a world overfilled with many powerful communication tools already
fully deployed.

One of the common misconceptions about electronic publishing is that it
is antagonistic to print culture.  Nothing could be further from the
truth.  On the contrary, electronic publishing offers the
reader/consumer/student of information the possibility of making it
appear exactly when and as she wants it.  In other words, electronic
publishing can be described as a proto- publishing form: "proto" in the
sense that a document is accessed in a form that is potential until the
person accessing it makes it "real" or material in a particular way, be
it screen, paper or even sound.  An interesting consequence ensues.  That
is, although electronic publishing differs markedly from print, their
differences do not make them mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the passage
from potential to real in e-publishing includes the possibility of print
among many other possibilities.  In other words, electronic publishing
relocates print.  Until now, most relations to information were mediated
via paper.  Now, print is not the absolute negative of electronic but
merely a subset of its possible modes of materialization.

That view both clarifies and obscures matters.  The clarification lies in
describing electronic publishing as process of displacement rather than
one of replacement.  Yet print is firmly ensconced in the whole cultural
setup which we call ours, so that it is frequently examined in terms of
resistance to novelty in a most powerful form -- so powerful, in fact,
that e-publication must find ways to establish beachheads which can be
used to buttress its own progress.  It must take on forms and adopt
appearances that, in a real way, ease its penetration into a well-
entrenched territory replete with a dense network of power relationships
that have emerged as the result of decades or even centuries of
protracted struggles and negotiations.  Another, less militaristic,
metaphor is that e-publishing must give rise to materialized forms
susceptible to occupying original niches in the quasi-ecological system
of print publications.  In fact such a mixture of both innovation and
adaptation is displayed by e- publishing as it gains acceptance in our
own culture.  My own characterization of the relationship is that
e-publishing positions itself orthogonally to the existing print domain.
For an earlier example of orthogonality in the development of a
technology, the development of print itself is instructive.  The gradual
transition from manuscript to print culture in Europe brought about
greater levels of literacy and growing numbers of men of letters.  At the
same time, it relegated hand-writing to more limited functions,
particularly letter writing.  In fact, the epistolary habit developed so
strongly that it became the backbone of the "Republic of Letters." [1]

The success of a backbone generally leads to its overload.  Handwriting
is no exception and it was soon woefully inadequate to the task of
keeping European men of letters abreast of the latest intellectual
developments across the continent.  Few had Father Mersenne's stamina and
his uncanny ability of refueling debates under the pretense of
transmitting mere information. [2]  Moreover, quite a few Mersennes would
have been needed to provide the bandwidth needed to respond to the
growing demand for a synthetic, up-to-date synthesis of the intellectual
pursuits of Europe.  It is at this social and cultural juncture that the
serial appeared, first with the Journal des s followed in London by the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (both started in 1665).

With the advent of the periodical, print brought about a momentous change
in the function of writing itself.  Designed initially as a prop for
memory, writing evolved into a virtual discussion space.  To be sure,
print as applied to books contributed to solidifying the canon by
multiplying the number of sites where it could materialize, but in
parallel and applied to periodicals, it also contributed to undermine the
same canon by materializing a process of debate.

Consider the quandary of a librarian at the end of the seventeenth
century.  What could it mean carefully to store a book-like object that
offered the appearance of permanence but only reflected the transient,
conversation-like dialogue of a moment? Up to that point, storing a text
in a library meant consecrating it as part of some canon, be it that of
the Church or the law, for example.  Until the appearance of the
periodical, the library's main function had not been to build a memory of
the process through which certain products became temporarily accepted,
but rather a memory of accepted products.  Until 1665, the library
offered a collection like a finished palace without any trace of the
scaffolding that had allowed building the palace in the first place.
With the "invention" of periodicals, even though the act from the outset
involved selection, exclusion and filtering of all the available
information, parts of the scaffoldings were to remain visible.

As a corollary of this innovation, a deep cognitive shift took place.
The very process of filtering and selection exerted by printed
periodicals was not ignored; rather, it was recast as a process of
legitimation.  Henceforth, what was printed in a periodical was only what
was destined to be part of the legitimate record of human thought in its
unending march toward truth.  Traditionally, libraries were supposed to
preserve the canon as a kind of monument.  With printed periodicals, a
new, different, role began to emerge -- namely storing a kind of
intellectual jurisprudence.  The shift to print had contributed to place
the on-going, collective work of thinkers, soon to be assembled under the
banner of progress, in opposition to the venerable and static monument of
some institutional or ancient truth.  It is probably not far from the
truth to claim that the advent of the periodical both signaled and
ensured the victory of the Moderns over the Ancients.

By stressing the process of debate over canonization, print, through the
emergence of the periodical, was developing modes of communication and of
diffusion orthogonal to the practices of manuscript culture and its early
extensions in print.  This evolution is particularly interesting because
it shows that print both extended and increased the ambit of tradition
while opening entirely new possibilities that, in the end, affected the
status of tradition itself.  Orthogonality refers to these new
possibilities, generally unpredictable until they start manifesting
themselves, sometimes in baffling fashion.

A similar type of development can be seen in the novel in print.  Because
it began as popular culture, the popular novel was able to explore new,
uncharted territories of imagination and of fiction.  It was a subversive
development: until this point, writing had developed to maintain a
tighter contact with reality across time and space.  Suddenly writing
served to create entirely imaginary realms.  With the practice of silent
reading that also developed with print, the first operational prototype
of virtual reality energes.  "Le bovarysme," the maligned practice
allegedly affecting mainly young, impressionable women in the nineteenth
century, is nothing more than the realization of the fact that reading
novels may subvert reality, even in the name of realism.[3]  It must be
resisted.  That was a losing battle as too many interests, daily
newspapers in particular, were finding the force- feeding of imagination
to be a lucrative source of revenues.  Hollywood is the direct heir of a
development that has now reached well beyond print.

Against that historical backdrop, we approach the present phenomenon of
electronic publishing and learn that our tendency to feel puzzled and
even annoyed by the elusive nature of electronic documents should be
expected.  Now we need to move beyond irritation or sense of loss and try
to understand what is happening.  If we keep in mind that electronic
publishing is as orthogonal to print as print was with respect to
manuscript, while remembering that elements of print can also enjoy a
second electronic life, we probably have in hand the right conceptual
tools to greater understanding.  Paying attention to the notion of
orthogonal positioning should help classify electronic publications while
unveiling their intrinsic nature.

Historians often approach their research area by raising two simple and
simultaneous questions: continuity and change.  We follow a similar
strategy here by appealing simultaneously to continuity and
orthogonality.  The latter refers to change, forms of change that are
specified in some manner.

Now, it is useful to recall the functions of printed text.  These
functions may vary in relative importance from sector to sector, so that
a tabloid's cocktail of functions will be quite different from a learned
journal's.  Yet, the same functions coexist in all of print and beyond it
as well.  The functions are: communication and diffusion, legitimation
and authority, archiving and memory.  Looking at these three pairs of
functions closely should help us manage the labyrinth of electronic

That print should facilitate communications appears common- sensical
until we examine learned journals closely.  Publication delays in
journals have become such that real communication takes place through
other channels: preprints of all sorts, from letters to faxes, including
photocopies.  Printed learned journals play less and less of a
communicational role these days and at best they diffuse research results
at a slow pace so that journals serve an archival rather than a
communicational function.  In all cases, print serves diffusion rather
than communication because it does not lend itself readily to two-way
dialogs.  Readers' feedback sometimes appears, but in the best of cases
it remains a minor part of the printing enterprise.

By contrast, electronic publishing, even when designed to look as much as
possible like traditional print, lends itself naturally to dialogue and
feedback.  To be sure, diffusion is done effectively through electronic
means, but communication is such an essential part of the medium that
electronic publications are better characterized as tools of
communication than tools of diffusion.  This change in emphasis defines a
first dimension of the orthogonal positioning of e-publications with
regard to print.

From the very beginning, print was associated with authority and power.
The cost of the machinery involved, the unusual combination of skills
needed by printers who, in effect, had to know classical languages and
metallurgy, the societal implications of the new technology, particularly
in terms of political power, all converged to transform the act of
printing into one of social consecration.  From the very start to be
printed was to be, and the present academic slogan "publish or perish" is
but the echo of this state of affairs.  Committing texts, documents or
information to print was equivalent to endowing them with a formidable
dose of societal influence.  Conversely, relegating a text to manuscript
form meant destroying most of its social effectiveness.  (Meslier's
testament in the eighteenth century to twentieth- century samizdats in
Communist countries illustrate this point. [4])  Access to print has often
been limited, considered a privilege and often strictly controlled.  One
of the side effects is that the authority inherent in the printing
process lent legitimacy to all forms of print.  If we say that all that
is printed is not necessarily true, it is precisely to try and counteract
the strong legitimizing effects of print.

By contrast, electronic publishing has emerged as a direct extension of
electronic means of communication.  In effect, anyone able to use
electronic mail can become an electronic publisher with the result that
electronic publishing does not derive any authority from its
technological base.  Thus, its legitimacy must be constructed through
purely social and institutional means.  The electronic medium, in effect,
can accommodate the most legitimate as well as the most questionable
forms of communication with great ease.  To be sure, with time, print
technology has also evolved to the point that it carries many
questionable forms of diffusion, but, once again, what we see here is a
shift in emphasis: print ultimately learns to diffuse what the electronic
medium starts with.  The meandering path leading from the Gutenberg Bible
to Fanny Hill in the print world stands in stark contrast to their
quasi-simultaneous publications on the net.

The fact that electronic publishing is essentially devoid of authority
and has to struggle for legitimacy points to its essential
vulnerability.  Anyone involved in electronic publishing has to address
the very important question of authority even before looking at the
economic dimension of the enterprise.  The place of authority underscores
a second dimension of the orthogonal relationship between electronic
publishing and print.

The third significant aspect publishing for our current consideration is
archival value.  Print holds a powerful archiving position, as the
material form of books and journals seems to testify to the durability of
the information.  Yet, behind the apparent solidity of paper fragility
lurks, especially given the type of paper used in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries.  Its acidity is such that assured
self-destruction takes place within a century.  And beyond the paper
problem stands another one: paper books are stored easily enough, but
storing is not enough to ensure archiving value.  Retrieval of the
information is equally critical to the archival function, and there print
appears very weak indeed.  Despite tools developed in the last few
centuries (e.g., tables of content, quotation protocols, indices and
bibliographies) print tends to bury information as much as it archives it.

By contrast, digitized documents lend themselves to retrieval tools as
well as to various, simultaneous forms of storage (plain text, database
form, hypertext, etc.) so that, curiously, the virtual nature of the
electronic text potentially provides a much more efficient tool to
archive knowledge than print with all of its apparent solidity.  As in
the previous two axes of analysis, it is not a question of either-or, but
one of emphasis on this or that capability.  Despite its inherent
deficiencies, print has played an important archival role and digitized
text is about to play that role even more efficiently.  In fact, the
efficiency of the digitized document is such that it does approach the
ideal of a fully functional memory as against a mere archiving
capability.  In the shift from uneasy archiving to full memory lies the
third dimension of orthogonality between print and electronic publishing.

In summary, it can be seen that print emphasizes diffusion, authority and
some archival functionality while the electronic medium emphasizes
communication, including interactivity, memory.  Currently, electronic
publishing has to strive to establish legitimacy.  Therein lies the
nature of the orthogonal relationship between print and electronic

At this juncture, we return to the problem announced in the title- -that
of classifying electronic texts.  No solution is offered here because
much more thinking is required to solve so difficult a question.
Moreover (and if I were writing an electronic letter, I would be tempted
to place a smiley here) the solutions that could be advanced might not
correspond to the choices made by the editors of the fourth edition of
the Directory of Electronic Journals.  That said, looking at the three
major axes identified above could provide an overarching principle of
classification that distinguishes the archived results of discussions on
a listserv from a refereed electronic journal trying to fulfill all the
roles of its printed counterpart (and more).  Such a first order of
classification should precede any attempt to create sub- categories, for
example disciplinary ones, all the more so because electronic publishing
seems also to favor interdisciplinary ventures over purely disciplinary

The strong interactive bias of the electronic medium also means that even
the more "monumentalized" forms of publishing, e.g.  learned journals,
will tend to evolve into something that will ultimately resemble the
present workings of an academic seminar more than the relatively hardened
document of the printed journal.  The "preprint continuum" identified by
Stevan Harnad [5] may well reach full deployment in this kind of context,
reuniting into a single process research dialog with its diffusion.  If
so, the electronic medium will have to marry the research dialogue with
the strong legitimacy of scientific publishing presently guaranteed by
processes such as peer review.

The strong ability of electronic publishing to fulfill memory functions
that print can never hope to achieve offers another way to classify
electronic publications.  In some cases, deep memory may appear
completely superfluous because of the transient or frivolous nature of a
great deal of what is published, but in other cases memory capability is
underutilized.  In other words, the attempt to design a classification
scheme may also help in the design of specific electronic publications.

Finally, the legitimacy problems that adversely affect electronic
publications can also assist in their classification by helping us focus
on the particular elements that might bring some relief to inadequacies
of the print medium.  In particular, the visibility of electronic
publications from the perspective of those who are not yet members of the
electronic network is a key matter, and in this regard, indexing in the
traditional bibliographic tools is crucial.  Explicit and transparent
reference to a peer review process wherever it applies (particularly in
the case of learned electronic journals) is also very important.  Visual
appearance, whether on screen or on paper, is also a crucial crucial
element because readers are used to the accumulated typographic and
layout expertise of five centuries of print culture.

How to reconcile all of these parameters and arrange them hierarchically
is a task we will leave to others for the moment, but the final lesson is
that electronic publishing will need a classification scheme that is
specific to its own nature.  However, as that nature is still partially
in question, it is clear that the evolution of these classifications will
closely follow our understanding of the full potential of this new
medium.  Consequently, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of
these classificatory schemes to learn how much understanding we have of
this new, complex and fascinating form of publishing.
Jean-Claude Guedon Professeur titulaire, and Editor of the Electronic Journal Surfaces Departement de litterature comparee Universite de Montreal Montreal, Qc H3C 3J7 Canada Tel. 514-343-6208 Fax: 514-343-2211 guedon@ere.umontreal.ca
1 Pierre Bayle's 17th century series (almost a periodical) Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres gave concrete expression to an image very similar in power to that of the "information superhighway" today, and it too was made possible by the technological advance of the development of a reliable postal system across large parts of Europe. Back> 2 Mersenne (1588-1648) was a contemporary and a friend of Descartes and of many other people. He studied with Descartes at La Fleche. Well versed in mathematics as well as other sciences and languages, he could follow the research of the time and raise valuable objections without discovering anything significant himself. He undertook a gigantic correspondence with literally dozens if not hundreds of people and so was effectively a "node" in the Republic of Letters. See Robert Lenoble, Mersenne et la naissance du mecanisme (Paris, Vrin, 1971, 2nd ed. The first edition dates from 1943.) Back 3 Le bovarysme (after Flaubert's novel) imputed to the novel the same insidious detachment of the reader from reality that we now impute to Nintendo and escapist video. Young, dreamy damsels were particularly affected. Back 4 J. Meslier (1678-1733), French clergyman upon whose death a testament in manuscript form was found in his home in which he declared that he had never believed in religion, etc. Voltaire edited it and published it in 1762 under the name of Testament de Jean Meslier. Back 5 Stevan Harnad, "Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Inquiry", Current Contents 45 (November 11, 1991), 9-13. It was reprinted in Psychological Science and is available online from Princeton University by anonymous FTP. Back ====================== E N D ===========================================
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