- Niels Ole FinnemannNiels Ole FinnemannDepartment of Communication (Emeritus), University of Copenhagen
Electronic text can be defined on two different, though interconnected, levels. On the one hand, electronic text can be defined by taking the notion of “text” or “printed text” as the point of departure. On the other hand, electronic text can be defined by taking the digital format as the point of departure, where everything is represented in the binary alphabet. While the notion of text in most cases lends itself to being independent of medium and embodiment, it is also often tacitly assumed that it is in fact modeled on the print medium, instead of, for instance, on hand-written text or speech. In late 20th century, the notion of “text” was subjected to increasing criticism, as can be seen in the question that has been raised in literary text theory about whether “there is a text in this class.” At the same time, the notion was expanded by including extralinguistic sign modalities (images, videos). A basic question, therefore, is whether electronic text should be included in the enlarged notion that text is a new digital sign modality added to the repertoire of modalities or whether it should be included as a sign modality that is both an independent modality and a container that can hold other modalities. In the first case, the notion of electronic text would be paradigmatically formed around the e-book, which was conceived as a digital copy of a printed book but is now a deliberately closed work. Even closed works in digital form will need some sort of interface and hypertextual navigation that together constitute a particular kind of paratext needed for accessing any sort of digital material.
In the second case, the electronic text is defined by the representation of content and (some parts of the) processing rules as binary sequences manifested in the binary alphabet. This wider notion would include, for instance, all sorts of scanning results, whether of the outer cosmos or the interior of our bodies and of digital traces of other processes in-between (machine readings included). Since other alphabets, such as the genetic alphabet and all sorts of images may also be represented in the binary alphabet, such materials will also belong to the textual universe within this definition. A more intriguing implication is that born-digital materials may also include scripts and interactive features as intrinsic parts of the text.
The two notions define the text on different levels: one is centered on the Latin, the other on the binary alphabet, and both definitions include hypertext, interactivity, and multimodality as constituent parameters. In the first case, hypertext is included as a navigational, paratextual device; whereas in the second case, hypertext is also incorporated in the narrative within an otherwise closed work or as a constituent element on the textual universe of the web, where it serves the ongoing production of (possibly scripted) connections and disconnections between blocks of textual content. Since the early decades of early 21st century still represent only the very early stages of the globally distributed universe of web texts, this is also a history of the gradual unfolding of the dimensions of these three constituencies—hypertext, interactivity, and multimodality. The result is a still-expanding repertoire of genres, including some that are emerging via path dependency; some via remediation; and some as new genres that are unique for networked digital media, including “social media texts” and a growing variety of narrative and discursive multiple-source systems.