Digital Texts: Virtual or Actual?

Are digital texts virtual? No, of course not. Right? Well, they kinda are, and they kinda ain’t.

Maybe talking specifically will make this easier to understand. Let’s take this document I’m working on right now (past tense for you; I know; sorry for the weirdness). Brief process description: Open laptop. Open Firefox. Navigate to my blog. Read last post. Mentally decide the direction for my next blog post (this one). Open new tab in Firefox. Navigate to Gmail, then to GoogleDocs. “Create” a “new document.” Start typing.

Virtual or Actual? Let’s see…

Virtual: I can’t tear my new document in half. When I “created” the new document, my computer didn’t get heavier, lighter, warmer, or cooler. I didn’t smell or hear or feel anything. If my laptop explodes into a million tiny pieces tonight while I sleep, the document will still be “there” in my Google account. Where? I don’t know where it is. On a server farm somewhere, I guess. But even then, what “is” the “it”? Patterns. Codes. Not exactly the weight of the book or the pleasure of the dog-eared page. Or the long, uneven underlining of something that seems great. And then there’s the GoogleDocs interface. It looks like I’m typing things onto the page. Kinda weird when you think about it, right? Hit the TTT key three times and these three little Ts magically appear on the screen. There is some sort of visual and haptic relationship between the keystroke and the appearance of the letter, sure. But it’s all mitigated by the internal processing of the CPU, RAM, and screen. So what’s with the virtual piece of paper? What is Google trying to simulate? Typing? If they really wanted to simulate that, they should have little virtual metallic typewriter levers swinging up from the bottom of the screen. Digression. Sorry. I just typed half a bad sentence. Then erased it. Where did it go? Where did it come from? So digital texts are virtual then. … Right?

Actual: Ever try typing up a document without the computer itself? How ’bout without a monitor? Ever try retrieving a file when you’ve lost your connection? As much as we’d like to think that these texts are “virtual,” there’s plenty about them that’s “actual.” Even though they’re transmitted through the air? Yep. Even then, they’ve got physical existence. Waves. Materials. Fiber optics. Light pulses. Stuff like that. I can save this, and it does, actually get saved somewhere. This should be nothing new to us. Think about the lights in any room in your house. You hit the wall-switch, and the light on the ceiling turns on. Not magic. Not virtual. It’s pretty easy to intuit the physical connection of the switch, wire, fixture, and bulb. Although infinitely more complex, saving to a server is the same in principle. Cut the physical line and you’re done. Wireless is just a more advanced idea. Still need the connection. Light or air particles or fiber optics, etc.

I guess I want to argue that digital texts are both virtual AND actual. This point is important. It can teach us something really important about digital texts, sure. But what’s surprising is that it can also teach us something about paper-texts, too.

Think beautifully textured, cardstock. Nice tooth to it. Now think a nice, heavy pen. Rollerball. Smooth. Fits in your fingers. Snug grip, too. Now you write something. Words. Handwriting. Maybe a picture or diagram. Maybe an arrow from here to there. Actual? Look at the words. Think Saussure. Signifiers, right? But no on their own. A signifiers within a system of signifiers. And what of that diagram? Kinda “virtual,” dontcha think? And what the hell are those arrows doing? Are they real or virtual? (This really makes me want to go back and read more Derrida!)

My point is that all texts, even at their simplest, are simultaneously virtual and actual. Objects and signs. And this is good. This is great.

The computer isn’t ruining texts. I would argue, actually, that the computer is really just more “texty” than paper texts ever were. They foreground their virtuality more than paper texts do.

The trouble, though, is that some people take this transition too far–right past rational–and start talking about how all writing is becoming virtual. Don’t buy it. More virtual? Sure. Completely virtual? Nope. Not possible.

So is this just the ranting of some coffee-shop know it all trying to sound like he can think really abstractly? Maybe. I hope not. I’m going to try to see how this notion of the actual-digital text might be practical in some ways.

Hopefully, that’s my next post. Focusing on the “virtuality” of print books. Think semiotics. Navigation. Portability. Marginalia.


(image courtesy of seriykotik1970 on Flickr. Creative Commons attribution noncommercial 2.0 generic license.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *