Mesopotamia
Digital Venues

The digital medium

June 2020
UNDER CONSTRUCTION

The physical medium
Fragility: durability and portability
Impact on use of websites in scholarship

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The physical medium

     A cuneiform tablet requires only a tactile and visual interface: one only needs to be able to hold the tablet in one's hand and see it. The same goes for a book. There is an immediate perception of the whole even before one seeks to go through the details.
     A website, on the other hand, requires a host of concurring elements, which mediate profoundly the perception one can gain of the whole – from an instrument that transfers signals to another (a computer) and a source of energy that keeps it operative (electricity) to a set of operational mechanisms that allow in the first place the computer to access the signals (a platform) and a similar set of mechanisms that interpret my specific signal (a browser).
     At any time in the future, a cuneiform tablet or a book will still be accessible to humans in the same way in which they are accessible to us today, in the same way in which they were accessible to their originators whether millennia or centuries ago. The interface is human.
     At the same point in time, on the other hand, even just a few years from now, the website I read today will require a different set of mechanisms for it to be accessible to me, let alone to others. The interface is not human.

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Fragility: durability and portability

     It is the difference between the analogical and the digital dimension, and it is a difference that underscores the respective fragility of the two systems.
     Even in the analogical dimension there are degrees of fragility: a clay tablet is physically more durable than a papyrus scroll, a leather scroll, a paper book: which is why we have the original manuscripts of a poem composed more than four millennia ago, but have no originals of European authors before the late Middle Ages (save public documents that were consigned to some more durable medium like stone).
     The fragility of digital work is incomparably greater, on two counts, durabiity and portability. Durability entails the static availabilty of physical elements (electricity, a computer of a given type). Portability entails the dynamic reconfiguration of factors (operating system, browsers) that give a viable embodiment to what the original authors intended to convey to their intelocutors.
     All of this applies to the website as a finished product. Equally complex is the updating of existing websites or the production of new websites that make use of the old ones. Data are not consigned to a physical medium through a single human act (tapping the surface of a clay tablet with a sylus or drawing continuous lines with a pen on papyrus, leather or paper). Even printing is a relatively simple event, where a machine performs a task that can be encompassed visually by anyone who sees it in operation.
     It is very different with a website. Here we speak properly of "input," whereby we mean that elements are consigned, in their most elementary format, to a system (the program) that transdfers them into a visible "output."

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Impact on use of websites in scholarship

     These problems are at the root of the basic reluctance to adopt websites as a permanent type of scholarly comunication. The underlying sense that websites are tansient and ephemeral is made evident by what has become a standard practice of indicating, in publications, when the website has actually been accessed.