METHODOLOGY \ PRINCIPLES \ Digital thought \312def
1: G. Buccellati, March 2009
1. DefinitionsI will here define the basic concepts that underlie my understanding of digital thought. In other pages I deal more specifically with its articulation in terms of procedures (non-contiguity, discontinuity, non-linearity) and mechanisms (writing, narrative, reading).
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The notion of digital thoughtAdjusting instantly to even the slightest technological modification has become second nature for all of us, so as to give a whole new meaning to the concept of cultural adaptation. But does this transcend the level of the techne, the hands-on art or craft? Does the change affect substantially the way in which we conceptualize the world around us, or do we essentially retain, except for enhancing external controls, the same mental templates?
It seems to me that the answer, as it concerns scholarship, is not as clearly in the affirmative as it should be. The very ease of the technical adaptation, whereby we quickly learn to use the tool, seems to blind us to the deeper intellectual potential of the tool itself. Technique blinds us to method.
Such an effort at exploiting the fuller power of the medium is what I consider to be "digital thought" in the proper sense of the term – one that constructs different ways of developing an argument not so much on account of the fuller and more rapid access to data, but because of the very nature of the mental interaction with the data. This approach is at the same time concrete (because it develops specific and very tangible constructs) and abstract (because it ultimately raises the physical tool to the level of a concept).
Gaining some distance from the delight of state-of-the-art innovations leads us, unexpectedly perhaps, to a fuller appreciation and exploitation of the deeper potential, to – digital thought.
The fundamental theoretical presupposition relates to the way in which the tool affects our perception vis-à-vis the very process of critical inquiry. A full exploitation of the method-ological implications inherent in this approach will affect such inquiry in ways for which antecedents can only be found with the introduction of writing, over five millennia ago.
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The notion of digital argumentThe centrality of arguments is a fundamental presupposition for understanding what is meant by "digital thought." Without entering into the details and formalizations developed within the discipline of logic, I would stress here a simple point that is particularly relevant in our context: an argument flows directionally, i.e., through a specifically sequential concatenation of statements.
The reason this is important is because directionality speaks to linearity, whereas digital processes are often equated with non-linearity. So, if an argument is directional, hence intrinsically linear, how can we have a digital argument? I deal elsewhere in greater detail with this question, and suggest that "non-linearity" is but a mode of linearity. In other words, an argument can only be linear, even though the modality with which it is expressed, particularly in the digital realm, may shortcircuit intermediate steps and thus appear to be non-linear.
What is then the distinction between a traditional linear argument and a digital argument that builds on non-linearity?
The answer is suggested by an identification of the the two main underlying and distinctive traits of a digital argument – the juxtaposition of levels, and the self-aggregative organization of the fragments. Taken together, these two aspects help to explain the inner dynamics and the immense new power of this mode of thought. They are seemingly in contradiction with each other. Juxtaposition speaks against linearity (a presupposition of aggregation), and aggregation against fragmentation (which is at the root of juxtaposition). The polarity derives its meaning from a wider issue, namely the nature of the argument when taken as a whole and when viewed in its component parts. We should review each of these two aspects (the whole and its parts) in turn.
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Scalarity and multi-layeringTaken as a whole, the singularity of the digital argument is that it makes linearity possible at a higher level, or across multiple levels. Thus it is that, in a digital argument, linearity can bracket an almost unlimited array of layers, without mixing the levels of analysis, yet allowing each to be in contact with the other. While every argument is potentially multi-layered, it is only digitally that the effective scope of the bracketing extends well beyond the powers of the human mind – in ways not unlike those that intervened when writing was first introduced.
The relationship among the layers may be referred to as scalarity. By this I mean that the pieces are organized in a step-like sequence, as if in a musical scale, where the values of the notes are determined by their places relative to each other. Thus in a digital argument the many layers are not scattered shreds that are invoked at whim. They are profoundly structured in themselves and in their concatenation. The combinatory power is not just between individual pieces, but between larger wholes. On the analogy of a musical scale, each layer is harmonically tied to certain others, as a note is to a chord, and chords to a key. In this sense, scalarity is a function of discontinuity.
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Scalarity and aggregationTo appreciate the full relevance of scalarity one should consider the true nature of linearity (which I discuss more fully elsewhere). The common acceptation of "linear" implies a static sequentiality as proposed by the author and fixed onto a rigid medium (such as a clay tablet, a paper page or a computer screen conceived as a page). Non-linearity, I suggest, refers in fact to dynamic linearity, one that darts among layers but retains the coherence of a sense of direction.
The directionality of an argument is intimately connected with its scalarity. Dynamic linearity, then, (or "non-linearity") is the dynamics of aggregation. A practically unlimited number of arrays (scales, if you will) are "aggregable" by virtue of their structure, not just by virtue of the single attributes of their individual components. A search should not ricochet wildly from one single point to another. Rather, it should build on progressively nested ensembles. There is, as it were, a self-aggregation in action, which calls for a very different confrontation from the one we have towards a statically linear argument.
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Sequentiality and connectivitySequentiality is then different from linearity. It speaks to a linking potential that goes beyond the syntactical contiguity of statements. What is intrinsic to sequentialiy so understood is connectivity: how do the steps of the argument connect even beyond any immediate contiguity? how is in turn a connection established between these steps and the supporting data?
To identify the ways in which this is made possible is to define the structure of digital thought. Which I attempt to do by describing in more detail the concepts of non-contiguity vs. capillarity, discontinuity vs. aggregation, non-linearity vs. multi-linearity. Note that in each terminological pair, the first term is negative and refers to the seeming lack of connectivity, while the second is positive and refers to the new (digital) way of bridging the gap and of creating a new whole. Which is, precisely, the nature and scope of digital thought.
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ExamplesAn analogy. In English, when speaking the phrase "I read," a cluster of correlations (scale) is immediately set in motion – to other pronouns (you, he,...), other verbal forms (I am reading, ...), other items within the same semantic range (I consult, I review,...), etc.
And an example. When, in the Urkesh Global Record, information is entered about a given object, say a spearhead, a vast array of clustered records (scale) is evoked by virtue of the object simply having been defined in a certain way – the full set of pertinent photographs, other objects of the same kind (weapons), other objects from the same contexts (floor, room, stratum, ...), a quantitative correlation to different objects (how many other weapons, vessels, figurines, in the same contexts ...), etc.
These scalar correlations are not added after the fact, they are rather intrinsically given the very moment the object has been identified in a certain way. And this because of the scalar multi-layering structure of the data, and the self-aggregation that this structure makes possible.
I will give a more extended example when seeking to explain the nature of digital thought on the basis of the specific aspects of its structure.
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2. CorollariesSome background observations that may be introduced here, which deal with certain aspects that especially come to mind when thinking about discontinuity.
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The "secret kinship"The great linguist Roman Jakobson adopts the term "secret kinship" from a Czech poet to describe the way in which the various elements of complex poetic structures are integrated naturally into a harmonious and necessary whole – a phenomenon which Paul Valéry describes in turn as having an intrinsic regenerative power, whereby a poem "does not die for having lived: it is expressly designed to be born again from its ashes and to become endlessly what it has just been" (references will be found in an article I wrote on stylistic analysis, p. 831).
Digital thought may be said to share with poetry this dimension of a "secret kinship" whereby a multitude of filaments are bonded with the urgency of necessity and yet retain an essential intrinsic lightness. This results from the concomitant dimensions of distance and proximity that the digital medium makes possible in a very unique way, through mechanisms that I am here endeavoring to describe.
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Electronic vs. digitalIt will be clear in the perspective I have outlined why I feel that it is important to make a distinction between electronic and digital texts.
The computer is such because it "computes," i.e., because it breaks down the universe of data into digits that it can reorder at will (hence the French term "ordinateur"). In this sense, everything the computer performs is digital. The distinction between digital and electronic is neverthelss useful in that the term "electronic" refers more directly to the hardware aspect, while "digital" implies more specifically the software, or properly computational, power of the machine.
The term "electronic," then, may be used to refer to the technical, and "digital" to the methodological, use of the computer. What the digital (as opposed to electronic) dimension entails is precisely the full implementation of a discontinuity that is so structured as to carry within itself the power of re-aggregation, along multiple channels. And this is what can properly be considered as digital thought within the realm of scholarly discourse.
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"Ontologies"A fundamental issue with regard to digital thought pertains to the articulation of the known. Data cannot be amassed indiscriminately. There must be an underlying principle that defines the components according to a multiplicity of parameters, and allows then an interlacing among and across these parameters.
To describe these structured universes the term "ontologies" has come to be tyhe norm. They are generally defined as representations of shared conceptualizations within a particular domain. It is on this basis that the notion of a knowledgeable or semantic web rests.
However, it seems better to me to retain for the word its original meaning as in classical philosophy, and if so, inasmuch as it centers on the very nature of being, ontology cannot have a plural, and there cannot be many "domains" of being.
The concept behind the term intends to convey two realities for which there are acceptable alternative terms – conceptualization and representation.
Conceptualization is the abstract enterprise whereby categories are recognized and developed: this I like to subsume under the notion of grammar, for reasons that I explain under that heading.
Representation is the actual embodiment taken by the data. It is in fact the text, which is to categorization what an utterance is to grammar. A fundamental aspect of this embodiment is tagging, whereby the individual constituents are implicitly inscribed onto the underlying categorization system.
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This side of artificial itelligenceI do not intend, by any means, to equate the notion of digital thought with artificial intelligence. I only mean to say that (a) a new type of narrative is produced where the development of an argument has a genesis all its own (automation playing a large role), and (b) the organization of the data is arranged in ways that are especially suited to the electronic medium and differ from those otherwise used in normal scholarly discourse. It is, however, the human mind that remains in control through the same procedures that inform a traditional argument. In this sense artificial intelligence is, as it were, upstream of digital thought.
Rather, I am talking about a mode of thought that
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