Friday, 4 March 2016

week 8 blogging question: content and containers

In last week's class and readings we considered how the relationship between e-books as content and their containers, in the form of various ebook file formats such as EPUB, the Kindle formats, and PDF. 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. It could be from an ebook of some sort, but there are lots of other ways to play with the content/container distinction in digital form.

Here's one exercise to test the supposed fluidity of digital content that you can try at home -- though be warned: if you appreciate elegant XML code, this experiment isn't pretty. Start with a short paragraph written in an MS Word document, ideally with a few formatting elements like italics, bold, coloured text, and accented characters. Then  copy and paste your paragraph into the text field of, say, the wysiwyg editor that your group's blogging platform uses (Blogspot works nicely) -- or, for that matter, one of the similar text-entry boxes on Blackboard. You may want to create a temporary draft of a post to your blog or the BB discussion list, which you then delete -- the point is to be able to past your copied Word text into a wysiwyg editor that also lets you view the HTML.

On the surface, your copied text probably pastes fairly seamlessly with formatting mostly intact. But under the surface, pure horror awaits. 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, gibbering 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. I also resisted a strong temptation to put scare-quotation marks around content and container, but you get the idea.]

Here's another example of a digital container showing up where it shouldn't in printed content. This comes from the 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Ethel Wilson's novel Swamp Angel, published by McClelland & Stewart. If you look closely, with the help of the person who annotated this page, you'll see the thing I mean. (Click to enlarge.)

Actually there are a couple of interesting annotations on these pages, and the one on the verso hints at the novel's complex textual and publishing history. (Like many Canadian novels, it was printed in rather different British and American editions.) But on the recto, we can see something that brings us back to our theme for this post: what is "<ed space>" doing there? Having recently done some research on this small textual mystery, I can give a fairly thorough explanation of what it is and how it got there. (I may touch upon it in Monday's class if there's interest, but I'm also planning to use it as an extended example in my upcoming Toronto Centre for the Book talk on March 24th at 4:00 in BL 728: "Bibliography for a Used Future: Finding the Human Presence in E-Books and Other Digital Artifacts.") For bibliographers and ordinary readers alike, moments such as this when content and container become blurred are like glitches in the matrix, or glimpses behind the curtain as the stage hands set the next scene, or as D.F. McKenzie put it, instances of the "human presence" discernible in "any recorded text" (p. 29).

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

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