Friday, 7 March 2014

this week's blogging question: of content and containers

In this week's class we considered how the relationship between e-books as "content" and various e-book file formats (such as EPUB, the Kindle formats, and PDF) as "containers" isn't so simple. This week's blogging question asks you to share a specifically digital example of a case where the line between content and container has become blurred.

One digital example that we considered in class is what happens when you copy and paste text from an MS Word file into the text field of, say, a Blogspot wysiwyg editor -- or, for that matter, one of the similar text-entry boxes on Blackboard. On the surface, your copied text probably pastes fairly seamlessly with formatting mostly intact. But under the surface, pure horror awaits. As we saw in class -- and I apologize again for the unavoidably graphic nature of the demonstration -- if you view the HTML code after pasting the Word text, you'll see some of the most tortuous and misbegotten XML ever created by human or machine: unnecessary tags, unreadable attribute names, proprietary extentions, bloated code -- it's all there, lurking under the surface of the text like some horrible nightmare on the edge of rationality. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit -- just a bit -- but we can learn something from the tension between the supposedly fluid and transferable "content" on the surface and the madness-inducing, tentacled code that serves as its "container." [Note: parts of the preceding paragraph were written with the help of the H.P. Lovecraft Description Engine.]

Here's another example of a digital container showing up where it shouldn't in printed content, which I learned about only last night thanks to a great CanLit scholar named Jenny. This comes from the 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Ethel Wilson's (fascinating) novel, Swamp Angel, published (and typeset) by McClelland & Stewart. Note the "<ed space>" in the lower-right quadrant (you might have to click to enlarge):

What's that "<ed space>" doing there anyway? My best guess is that it's a digital typesetting code that was supposed to remain invisible, along with myriad others required to help a text become printable sheets, but in this cases was inadvertently printed along with the text. Note that if you read the text around it, this seems like a natural place for a blank linke to indicate an ellipsis in the narrative. A cursory search of quick reference guides to the TeX typesetting system (following a hunch), has revealed nothing, and a broader search for "<ed space>" on Google (incl. Google Books) seems difficult because Google disregards the angle brackets -- though I haven't exhausted that avenue yet. A more sensible approach, from which I'd likely learn more than I would from Google, would be to show this to someone who works with modern typesetting software, who'd likely recognize it immediately. Whatever the specific technical cause, it's a glitch in the matrix, or a glimpse behind the curtain as the stage hands set the next scene, or as D.F. McKenzie put it, an instance of the "human presence" discernible in "any recorded text" (p. 29).

(Incidentally, Swamp Angel has an interesting textual history of its own, having been printed in somewhat different British and American editions. Note the other error -- "want" for "what" -- visible in the image above on the facing page.)

What examples can you think of that show the supposedly seamless world of "content" being disrupted or otherwise affected by that which contains it? Remember, your example doesn't have to be from a book or even textual, but it should be digital.

Works Cited:

D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ethel Wilson. Swamp Angel. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990.

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