Finally getting ready to put this baby to bed. Ironically–or appropriately, depending on your point of view–I ended up completely missing the events around this years Day of Digital Humanities to get the final draft out to readers for review. I post it here on the off chance that someone else might be interested (hi mom!).

“Technography and the Soiciology of Texts: Reading Phenomena in the Digital Humanities” [PDF]


This dissertation explores the intersection between digital and material cultures in electronic texts through the critical lenses of textual criticism and book history. Taking cues from D. F. Mackenzie’s “sociology of texts” and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “forensic imagination,” I propose the idea of “technography:” roughly, the bibliography of electronic texts. Successful critical discourse relies on an understanding of textual conditions, but electronic texts have situations and histories very different from those of printed matter and manuscripts. Therefore, I suggest a collection of general methods and techniques that enable discussion of electronic texts as such by examining embedded textual features that enable or prohibit investigations of the creation, transmission, reception, and transformation of electronic texts—an analytic technography and histoire du fichier to complement analytic bibliography and histoire du livre. I focus specifically on two areas. The first is examining electronic transmission and reproduction techniques and technologies in the context of contemporary theories of book history and textual criticism that stress the interpretive importance of physical bibliographic features such as typography. The second is the possibility of constructing historical bibliographies of electronic texts. Taken together these two subjects addressed by technography give a good indication of the implications of electronic texts for textual criticism, critical practice, and scholarly editing. To illustrate this technography I explore several electronic texts, through different textual-critical lenses. I compare the print and electronic versions of N. Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines, a book published simultaneous in print and electronic formats. I examine the impact of technical decisions on editorial policy and production in scholarly archives, specifically The Rossetti Archive and The Walt Whitman Archive. I review the implications of crowdsourcing textual production and the possibilities for historical bibliography in crowdsourced texts such as Wikipedia and the text produced by the Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders. Ultimately I conclude that technographic evidence indicates a radical re-envisioning of the role of the publisher in relation to electronic texts. Where the reader (or “user”) has significant control over the presentation of the text, the ability of text producers to mediate meaning through the physical form of a particular textual artifact is greatly diminished.

Savage’s Theorem

April 14, 2008

I don’t remember where or when, now, but but a few years ago I came across a piece of advice from a respected security expert that ran something like this: “If you treat your users like criminals, they will invariably prove you right.” Even though I don’t remember who said it or where (I think it may have been an article somewhere by Rob Fickenger), it’s stuck with me, because there are a several important ideas packed into it.

The first has to do with administrator mindset: The network exists for the users, and you should be protecting it for them, not from them. If your users are in your threat model, the problem is probably you, not them (of course, we’re talking about sysadmins, not webmasters of public sites, here). If you’re suspicious and go looking for trouble, though, you’ll probably find it. We’ve all worked with admins like that–and at some point, some of us have probably fallen into the trap of being admins like that–so most of us can recognize why that attitude isn’t productive.

The second idea is potentially transformative: policy and attitude influence user behaviors as much as they respond to them. Part of it has to do with the path of least resistance. If the policy makes it difficult for regular users to do their jobs because of fear that some users will abuse their privileges, then even normal users will start looking for ways to circumvent the system. This is why the RIAA approach to copyright fails so miserably. But part of it also has to do with fostering an general spirit of trust, and with the way technocultural knowledge is disseminated. Users look to policy to establish norms. If the policy implies that most users are devious hackers attempting to subvert the system to their own uses, then that is what users will assume they should be. If, on the other hand, the cues point toward a norm of responsible use, the majority of users will pick on that, too.

This is why CYA is a horrible guiding principle for any organization, and why one of the worst things policy makers can do is write policy for corner cases. There will always be bad apples, but write the policy for the general case–for how to use the system, not for how not to use the system–and deal with the exceptions as exceptions.

This insight, of course, has a much wider application than computing systems. It applies in almost any social setting. It is closely related, for instance, to the problems we see throughout the academy with “helicopter parents” and the resurrection of in loco parentis on campus: if you treat students like they’re not adults, they’ll never start to act like adults.

We talk about people “rising to the challenge,” but we never stop to realize that the reverse is also true. Thus, Savage’s Theorem:

People will generally meet your expectations of them.

With a little help from the folks on the Literature and Latte forums, I have been gently massaging Scrivener into something I might want to write a dissertation in. Or, rather something I can write a dissertation in. A big part of that has been learning XSLT, since Scrivener uses Fletcher Penny’s Multimarkdown for LaTeX export. I am agaog. I am aghast. I am a number of other descriptors that imply the combination of unpleasant surprise and simple stupefication.

Who designed this monstrosity? As a culture, programmers share two main features. We’re lazy, and we’re creatures of habit. Whence, then, XSLT? Just because it transforms XML doesn’t mean it has to look like XML. In what world does this:

            <xsl:with-param name="substring">



            <xsl:with-param name="replacement">



make sense? Most text processing (or, if you prefer, “transforming”) lanuages have an idiom for this, and usually it looks more like s/~/\\ensuremath{\\sim}/ or maybe sub('\ensuremath{\sim}', '~'). Where’s the laziness, XSLT? And why are you reinventing the wheel–and a square wheel at that?

copyright DrewVigalIf you have anything to do with web design, you really need to put Yet Another Girl’s <Wax></Wax> blog on your reading list. Why? because she is one of the very, very few people out there talking about web design and “usability” in terms of, well, actual usability. Her latest post, “Are You Designing for These Users?” is a great wakeup call for anyone who wants to increase their traffic, or who sees their user base as “the public,” for any arbitrary value of “public.” In it, she reminds us that public access points, in particular public libraries, still provide millions of users with their main link to the internet, and that the sessions those users initiate violate most of the accepted “norms” that most web designers, particularly “Web 2.0” (can we kill that phrase now, please?) designers seem to assume hold true everywhere and always. The important thing to keep in mind, is that she’s using library sign-ons as an example of an entire class of users. Most of what she says holds true for any public access site, including internet cafes and airports. And increasingly, her observations apply to corporate environments, as well.

Some highlights of her common sense observations that people seem to forget:

  • Not everyone can choose or upgrade their browser, flash version, JavaScript, or Java VM;
  • Not everyone can turn off pop-up-blocking;
  • Not all monitors are larger than 800×600;
  • Not everyone can override bad SSL certs, or change security settings;
  • Not everyone can change their proxy settings;
  • Not everyone can wait for forgotten passwords to be emailed; sometimes access is limited to 30, or even 15 minutes;
  • Not everyone can accept cookies.

I’ll add a few of my own reminders:

  • Not everyone has broadband, particularly not in the US;
  • Not everyone has the most current OS, let alone browser;
  • Users expect the back button to work; this is a legitimate expectation.

Image copyright DrewVigal