Monday, 4 April 2016

Week 10 - Redefining Ownership in the Digital Age : new rules for new objects

Week 10 somehow slipped through the cracks for me and I am making a late blog entry. As an owner of an object, such as a book, it is not uncommon for me to loan books to friends. It's also fun to participate in a “leave a book/take a book” scenario in a cafe, mini library on the street, or in some other context. Lending an e-book, on the other hand, was not initially possible. Amazon has since introduced a lending component to their Kindle whereby you can now lend a book to a friend for 14 days. Even libraries lend a book for a minimum period of 21 days with the possibility of renewal. I’m not sure Amazon allows an lending extension or if it can be lent to that same person more than once. This kind of constraint does not leave you feeling like you really own the object because it is a limiting framework. 

Another example of ownership of a digital object that comes to mind is a bilingual terminology database that used to be called the Banque de Terminologie de l’Université de Montréal (BTUM). This Université de Montréal initiative was eventually acquired by the Translation Bureau of Canada with the goal of standardizing terminology throughout the public service, and was renamed TERMIUM. Fast forward, the database eventually became available to language professionals, largely translators, for purchase on CD-ROM whereby an annual fee was paid and the licence holder would receive updated CD-ROMs every three to four months. As they continued to expand the database and technology changed, the database became accessible online for a monthly fee. For the past six years, online access to the database has been free and it has been rebranded TERMIUM Plus.

At no point did I ever feel like I “owned” this object. I was merely paying for access to it, or renting it. Part of the difficulty in owning this was that it was not a static entity since the database was subject to updates, modifications, and further annotations. 

You are not really buying the “object”; rather you are buying the rights to access and use the object under highly prescribed circumstances. The dematerialization of objects leads to a kind of symbolic ownership of objects. If we can't manipulate them, do we really own them? Certainly protection the measures built into these digital objects, along with digital object identifiers, are indicators of an implicit legal contract and to some extent redefine what ownership is. 

Friday, 1 April 2016

Access and UofT E-mail Systems

     This week’s discussion with Bobby Glushko and McKenzie's reading got me thinking about the UofT webmail system and the changes it suddenly implemented a few years back when I was an undergrad. I am concerned with the ownership of email systems such as UTORMail/outlook and their ability to access, alter, and upgrade my account without my consent. 

     In July 2011, the University of Toronto migrated its students from the old UTORMail email system to the new Microsoft Live UTMail+ system. Prior to the deadline for migration, students received a large number of emails from the university reminding them to transfer their accounts to the new system and warning them that it would not be possible to access email accounts in the old system once the deadline had passed and that any data stored in the old system would be lost. These emails not only left students with the impression that they had no say in the decision-making process for major policy decisions: most students found out about the impending migration from these emails, which made it clear that the decision had already been made. Moreover, some of the information provided to students appeared to be contradictory: students were informed that it was possible to opt out of the migration, but it was unclear how this would work if the old system was to be shut down. Finally, the information provided to students also turned out to be inaccurate: email accounts in the old system and the data stored in them remained accessible long after the migration.

     While investigating the issue of the University of 2011 email migration,  I also began thinking about the role played in university policy decisions by the various corporate interests that interact with the university. Partnerships between the corporate world and academia have become increasingly important, and the University of Toronto has naturally followed this trend. Such partnerships are often presented to the student body as a fait accompli, however, with little communication as to how a particular partnership was formed and what the benefits (let alone the potential drawbacks) of the partnership are perceived to be. 
     Therefore, owning my email account in this context doesn't mean anything because it can be rendered useless or meaningless if it ceases to exist: the old email account can be acted upon and used to threaten me to comply to the new upgrade. Owning text such as personal emails, essays, drafts, campus work schedules doesn't mean anything if I am not able to freely access it. I know that the outcome after the deadline to upgrade passed was such that I was able to access (and still am able to access) my old account -- however, to be threatened that I may not be able to access this content makes me uncomfortable and makes me wonder exactly how much access UofT really has over this type of private space. 

     Some food for thought - [or questions I'm still debating]: What do I really own versus UofT the 'corporate institution'? How come professors didn't have to make the switch? What privacy concerns are seen as far more significant for professors compared to the student body?

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” ― William Faulkner

I wish I could go back in time and inform medieval copyists that the work created by their hands will become some of the rarest, prized, and celebrated possessions of academic institutions worldwide. I would specifically go back to medieval Arabia because that is the area of my specialty, and ask copyists to record and creatively (maybe even deceptively) incorporate their family names or biographical snippets within their work.

A major issue with studying Medieval Arabic literature is that while the content comes with a detailed historical account of its quality, the copyists who are spending time with authors of poetry, philosophy, and epistle literature are unannounced. This erasure becomes problematic because artistic features of the work such as images, font, layout and even binding decisions are entrusted by authors to their copyists. Furthermore, since the nature of the work requires copyists to listen while they copy, the speed of the author’s narration is an important aspect of what gets copied and what does not. I don’t mean to say that copyists skip lines or sections of text, but that case endings (specific to Arabic) disappear or are altered due to misinterpretation. Mistaking the case ending of a word in Arabic has immediate consequences as it changes the meaning of the specific word. Also, other misspellings and grammatical mistakes make translation and interpretation of manuscripts difficult. Therefore, a thorough account of the copyists’ intellectual level and educational history would highlight their ability to engage with the material they are working with and better copy/convey ideas.

To provide you with an example I will discuss an Aljamiado manuscript. Please refer to my previous post on Aljamiado for context, or here is a brief history!

The T235 manuscript a trilingual copy of the Qur’an founded in 1878 by Eduardo Saavedra is the only one of its kind in existence. This manuscript is especially fascinating not because of its aljamiado Qur’anic transcription, but because of its expert use of aljamiado, Spanish, and Arabic in creating detailed marginalia. In other words, the Qur’an is transcribed entirely in Spanish and aljamiado, and the marginalia is written alternating between three languages. Both the colophons and the lengthy marginalia and notations are written interchangeably in the aforementioned languages, “…and so intimately entwined are the three languages that a word may begin in one alphabet and continue in another” (López-Morillas). The T235 manuscript was completed in 1606 (just one year!), and is believed to be one of the last manuscripts copied before the indefinite expulsion of the Morisos at the hands of the Christians.

T235 highlights copyist’s style and prominence as a scribe who is fluent in three languages and trusted by aristocrats to take on such a challenging project. This manuscript is reflective of the fear that the community has for their contracts and literatures to be found and so transcribing it in Spanish can potentially fool an army-man into thinking that it is a Bible belonging to a Christian convert and the marginalia are his notations.

However, after all this, I’m sad to say that there is no account of the copyist’s name, family, ethnicity, or even who he is working so efficiently for. These priceless and beautifully orchestrated manuscripts become valuable pieces of history but pay no tribute to the skilled workers who have dedicated their lives to this art.

What Jackson Ossea Would Tell Academics Thirty Years Ago Who Declared the Book Dead Because of Digital Technologies

            Let’s go back to a few years, or even a decade before Kirschenbaum and Darnton were first writing about digital humanities and the futurology of the book, when doomsayers were declaring the print book dead because of the presence of digital technologies. It’s not important how we got there, just go with it.
            As tempting as it would be to show these skeptics my Kobo and angrily explain that we have a disagreement about what death looks like, there’s something else that I think they would be more receptive of. It would be too easy to explain to people that just because something is not on a paper page, it does not mean that it is a separate thing from a book.
            I would articulate that, not only did e-books do a very poor job of killing the book, but that it inspired a wave of avant-garde novels that could not be effectively transitioned from print to digital form without damaging the way in which the reader is supposed to experience them. Academics have tried to argue that many of the most popular instances of these experimental book-forms acted as a precursor to the ways in which readers read electronic texts, but that is not true because of the way that these texts are meant to be red.
            Apart from the obvious example that is Mark Z. Danielewski’s bibliography, several authors have written works that transcend and challenge many of our long-held notions of what a physical book is and how it is we read them. When faced with a challenge, it is the artists responsibility to become innovative or their ideas risk becoming obsolete.
            House of Leaves and Only Revolutions are books which require the reader to acknowledge the book as a physical book because the reader must rotate them in their hands in order to properly experience them. The same is true of so many other titles that have been published by these waves of writers. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes also requires the reader to become more physically involved with the book
            I would want to explain to these academic and less formal pessimists who worry about the book’s future that the book will not die because it will demand innovation, and also that electronic reading is still reading. One of Kirschenbaums’ main points was that the digital form of an object is a representation of a theory of that object. The same is true of different translations of texts as well as different editions of books.
            But even if they wouldn’t see eye to eye with me on that notion, they should be able be much more wide-eyed about the future of the book. The only difference is that the reader will not only have a selection from a library in the hands, but the whole collection between their hands.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Week 11 Response - Reading and Writing in the Inca Empire

What a great question to end the course! To answer it, I turn to a paper that I had written about on record keeping in the Inca Empire. As they didn’t have a “traditional” writing system, they used knotted coloured cords known as quipu or khipu to record all aspects of societal data, transactions and distribution. The quipu was used within their administrative areas such as for census, finance, legal, agriculture, labor and more. Research has also suggested that the quipus were also used to tell narrative stories, like about war battles and information on genealogies and place names (National Gallery of Australia, 2016).

 Example of a quipu from the National Gallery of Australia. 

While it is known what purposes the quipu was used for, scholars have yet to know how to read the knotted cords. If I could travel back in time to when the Inca Empire flourished, I would tell them about the great interest people would have on their type of writing system in the future, and how we as humans have a desire to learn and discover the ancient and historical past in regards to the future of books and reading. With the issues people have in trying to decipher the quipus, I would also tell them they should safe guard a "Holy Grail" translator of sorts that can be used to read the artifacts, since as of now it has yet to be discovered. 

Overall, this shows that while the format of the book has evolved from print to digital, we as an advancing society always look to finding ways of understanding the readings and writings of the past, so that we can better shape and preserve them for the future to learn of our evolutionary state.   

All the best,

- Raquel

Image and Source:

National Gallery of Australia. (2016). Gold and the Incas Lost Worlds of Peru. Retrieved from

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A Thousand Years Hence...

Not remembering how I got on the journey, I made my way across what seemed to be an endless salt flat before I happened upon a massive pyramidal structure gleaming like a mirror. Getting closer I realized how titanic it was in scale, the size of a mountain! All of a sudden, what seemed like an animated cloud of sparkles, spreading and folding like an aerial flock of lilliputian pigeons, appeared from nowhere and flew over me, producing a directionless sound, hissing in my ear in an oddly calming diction, it directed me towards a hatchway I had not noticed before in the ground.... what further wonders I met on my way... I cannot recount here, but suffice to say, I found myself eventually inside the the enormous structure, in a room of sorts, sitting across from a black turtle neck wearing individual, that looked human enough, but who's age or gender I could not begin to guess.

“We know how you came here, but WHY have you come here?” Xe asked me.
 “I came for a school assignment, I have important things to run by you about the future of  the book, as was deduced and theorized about in my own time” I replied, earnestly.
 “Books? Hm... I suppose you've got one on you now, don't you?”
“Uh.. Yeah. Here!” I handed Xem my sketchbook and a beaten paper-back Penguin edition of Gogol's Dead Souls.
Xe gave me a curious look.
“Your year of origin is 2016, yes? Aren't these obsolete, even in your time?”
“Well... Not really... Not everybody likes reading on screens or recording everything digitally... there's room for diversity in media formats. Generally we believe the death of the book had been greatly over exaggerated... "
I was going to go on, but Xyrs face seemed to grow serious all of the sudden, as xe thumbed the beaten Penguin's pages, as well as my own sketchbook's doodles, xe remarked:
“All I see when I look at these, are loneliness, cold isolation in time and space. Crippling ignorance. Indulgent self-glorification. Pointless subjectivity.”
“You mean you don't read things? You never take a moment to just be by yourself and read a single text? Or write one, for that matter?”
“In a certain way, archaic stranger, your question is incoherent. But we forgive your ignorance. If I may try and answer what you think you are referring to: In our time, at all moments we are in communication. This 'by yourself'ness you talk about so fondly, is a serious crime in our society.”
“A crime!? That's crazy, what do you do instead?”
“We don't 'do' anything. We are interconnected.”
“You don't seem so different from me.”
“This is an emulator running right now, so that you can interface with us. You're looking at a small and carefully bandwidth lowered fraction of me, or US, really. There's no practical difference.”
“I don't expect you to understand. Not in your present state. Beings of your caliber lived their lives through a pinhole of experience. Even your 'inter-net' was a paltry trickle of inference and nonsense, all of you flaying, blind to the future, deaf to the past, jack-knifing from one terrible half-comprehended moment to the next, without ever being able to take stock of anything outside yourselves.”
“That's some pretty fancy words for a future-man!”
“Really? We've pulled them from your own head as part of the emulation and translation program. We hope they are not too unusual for you.”
I fell silent for a moment. I should have known better then take the Professor's advice about the assignment.
“I think I have to go now...” I said politely.
“OK.” Xe replied, indifferently.

A scampered back across the salt flat the way I came....

If ever saw that mirrored pyramid thing again, it would be way too soon.


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Once and Future Book: explaining hypertext to Saint Augustine

Asleep and in a dream I visited Augustine of Hippo. I explained that I was from the future. Being faithful in all things, he believed, asking only that I explain the state of affairs of that time from which I had come. So saying, he sat down on a nearby bench and settled himself comfortably, as if preparing himself for a debate. Considering what might be of consequence to tell such a prolific author, I decided to explain the nature of publishing and reading in the future. So I began to speak.

“We still have books," I said, "but we also read on tablets. And the texts on these tablets are like images lit up from within. They are really fun to use.”

He glared at me from under a skeptical brow for a moment and then said: “There are some things, then, which are to be enjoyed, others which are to be used. Those things which are objects of enjoyment make us happy. Those things which are objects of use assist, and support us in our efforts...being placed among both kinds of objects, if we set ourselves to enjoy those which we ought to use, we are hindered in our course, and sometimes even led away from it; so that, getting entangled in the love of lower gratifications, we lag behind in, or even altogether turn back from, the pursuit of the real and proper objects of enjoyment.” [De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, chapter 3]

“Yes,” I said, “when reading, I often stop to check my emails or watch YouTube videos, er, moving images of people or cats doing funny things. So, I end up extending my tasks and working the whole day long. It is difficult to separate work time from free time.”

When I was silent for a while, he continued: “But in regard to pictures and statues, and other works of this kind, which are intended as representations of things, nobody mistakes them, especially if they are executed by skilled artists; everyone, as soon as he sees the likenesses, recognizes the things of which they are likenesses. And this whole class are to be reckoned among the superfluous devices of men, unless it is a matter of importance to inquire about the purposes for which they were made and by whose authority. Indeed, the thousands of fables and fictions in whose lies men take delight are human devices and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man's own invention than anything that is false and lying.” [De Doctrina Christiana, Book 2, chapter 25]

I thought for a moment about how to describe the act of reading on tablets, so as to make it sound useful and also comprehensible to a mind with no understanding of electronic circuits.

“As I said, the texts of books appear like images on the face of the tablet. And some text is highlighted. The highlighted words are signs which we can associate or link with other information in order to follow particular threads of thought...”

Before I could finish speaking, Augustine barked out in sarcasm, saying: “No one uses words except as signs of something else;...Everything, however, is not also a sign.” [De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, chapter 2]

He looked impatient and so I continued, speaking quickly now: “The highlighted words are signs which serve as indexes pointing elsewhere to other texts. They are like shortcuts to texts from all over the world. It makes for efficient reading, when the reader controls the flow and direction of communication.”

Shaking his head, he explained a little about his theory of signs: “Some signs are natural, others conventional. Natural signs are those which, apart from any intention or desire of using them as signs, do yet lead to knowledge of something else, as, for example, smoke when it indicates fire. For it is not from any intention of making it a sign that it is so, but through attention to experience we come to know that there is fire, even when nothing but smoke can be seen. And the footprint of an animal passing by belongs to this class of signs. And the countenance of an angry or sorrowful man indicates the feeling in his mind, independently of his will: and in the same way every other emotion of the mind is betrayed by the telltale countenance, even though we do nothing with the intention of making it known.” [De Doctrina Christiana, Book 2, chapter 1]

And he looked at me with arms spread wide, shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, ‘What other signs does the average man need in life?’ Then he continued, conceding that such signs as links may well be useful for the studious man:

“For certain institutions of men are in a sort of way representations and likenesses of natural objects. And of these, those which are associated with devils must, as has been said, be utterly rejected and held in detestation. Those, on the other hand, which relate to the mutual intercourse of men, are, so far as they are not matters of luxury and superfluity, to be adopted, especially the forms of the letters which are necessary for reading, and the various languages as far as is required—a matter I have spoken of previously. To this class also belong shorthand characters, those who are acquainted with which are called shorthand writers. All these are useful, and there is nothing unlawful in learning them, nor do they involve us in superstition, or enervate us by luxury, if they only occupy our minds so far as not to stand in the way of more important objects to which they ought to be subservient.” [De Doctrina Christiana, Book 2, chapter 26]

He nodded and closed his eyes. I waited to see what he would say next, but the silence stretched on. Just as I leaned close to see if he was okay, I was startled by the great snore he emitted. This drawn out snarling sound so startled me, that at once I awoke and found myself back at my computer. Such, indeed is the Once and Future Book.

Best, Laura