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Drafting an Alphabet for the Digital Tradition

Thought some might find this interesting. Peter


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          December 18, 1996

          [Surf & Turf]

          By ASHLEY DUNN  [Image]

          Drafting an Alphabet for the Digital Tradition

          [H] omer, Socrates and Confucius are largely known to
              the modern age through the writings of their

          These three great observers of [Image]
          life lived within the oral
          tradition. Their works became      Credit: Christine
          great because their followers    Thompson / CyberTimes
          wrote down their words,        -------------------------
          allowing the information to
          transcend the limited span of one lifetime.

          The invention of writing allowed for the preservation
          and accumulation of knowledge, which freed humans from
          the boring treadmill of constantly rediscovering

          But there is also a price that has been paid in this
          process of preserving knowledge on paper. Once written,
          thoughts that evolved in the dynamic world of oral
          interaction suddenly become frozen in time. The words of
          the speakers no longer changed. They repeated the same
          things over and over again, like a looped audio tape.
          Only the listeners were different.

          Thoughts were meant to change, just as people do. To
          freeze a thought brings with it a certain corruption and
          perversion. In the general scheme of things, corruption
          and perversion of thought are not such a bad trade off
          to preserve information. But there is no choice in this
          matter anyway. It is simply part of the process of
          moving from one form of communication to another.

          The transition from the oral to the written tradition
          has been the most powerful movement of the past
          two-and-a-half millennia.

          Now, the rise of the computer has placed us in the midst
          of a new movement that is striving to reconfigure the
          past once again. It is changing the ways that we
          transmit information and thus is changing the ways we
          perceive information.

          The movement involves the digitizing of the written
          material. Today, there is a sharp line of demarcation
          between what has been digitized and what has not. County
          records, credit reports, newspaper stories and
          Shakespeare can all be searched with electronic ease.
          But step back to Beowulf or The Great Learning and you
          find yourself reinstated in a world of traditional
          research. There is no bridge now between the two.

          The key to digitizing the past lies with the creation of
          a universal coding scheme that allows for not only the
          display of different characters, but also a certain
          level of electronic manipulation. Storing characters as
          images is not enough. There must also be a way to
          categorize and identify the characters so that words can
          be sorted, searched and retrieved.

          [Image]              Since the late 1980s, a consortium
                               of companies, including Apple,
            One of the first   Xerox and Microsoft, have been
           modern thinkers to  working on a system known as
          grasp the impact of  Unicode, which aims to assign a
           this speed on the   unique binary number to virtually
            way that humans    all characters ever written.
            information was    Unicode has largely been seen as
           Marshall McLuhan.   tool of modern communications,
          -------------------- allowing people to read and write a
                               variety of scripts under a single
          standard. But its most interesting potential is its
          ability to encode ancient and modern texts that have had
          no digital form. It is the bridge between the analog
          past and the digital present.

          Unicode is a fairly simple system that builds on the 128
          characters of the 7-bit American Standard Code for
          Information Interchange (ASCII) and 256 characters of
          Latin-1, an 8-bit system also known as ISO 8859-1.

          With 16 bits, Unicode is capable of encoding up to
          65,536 characters, which is enough to represent most
          modern scripts. The latest version of Unicode, 2.0,
          includes 38,885 characters, covering 25 scripts,
          including Chinese hanzi, Korean hangul, Gujarati,
          Cyrillic, Hebrew and the Chinese bopomofo phonetic

          The full power of Unicode stems from its ability to
          partially address a 31-bit code space, known as the ISO
          10646 standard, that is capable of representing 2.1
          million characters -- enough to encode virtually every
          written character ever devised, including Mayan glyphs
          and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

          The benefits of converting knowledge to digital form are
          obvious -- you can sort, search, associate and
          pattern-search with inhuman speed. One of the first
          modern thinkers to grasp the impact of this speed on the
          way that humans perceive information was Marshall

          "The real job of the computer in the future is not going
          to have anything to do with retrieval," he wrote in
          1966. "It's going to have to do with pure discovery,
          because we use our memories for many purposes, mostly
          unconscious...When you can recall things at a very high
          speed, they take on a new mythic and structural
          perception. So the computer... has, in spite of
          itself...revealed the knowledge of the mythic, pattern,
          structures, and profiles, all of which are quite
          excitedly loaded with discovery."

          McLuhan died in 1980, just before the boom in personal
          computers. If he had lived longer, perhaps he would have
          been less sanguine about computerizing memory.

          Like the movement from oral to written, there is a
          change in the way we perceive information as our method
          of access changes.

          Written documents have always encouraged a certain
          vertical approach in study since they are difficult to
          search. We generally read books from beginning to end
          and tend to concentrate on a limited number of topics
          because of the vast amount of written information.

          Computer information, however, is best characterized as
          "morsel-esque." Partly because of the size of the
          computer monitor and the blandness of text scrolling
          endless on a screen, we tend to sample information on
          the computer in small pieces.

          That in itself exerts a certain change in how we view
          information. I remember searching a list of Jane, John,
          Baby and Undetermined Does at the Los Angeles County
          coroner's office years ago. The books of the dead were
          handwritten and compiled in a set of tattered ledger
          books that were stacked on a cabinet. Even today, I can
          feel the sadness of looking over pages and pages of
          unidentified people inscribed by hundreds of different
          hands over the decades.

          If I had done the search by computer I have no doubt the
          list would still be moving, but I suspect it would be in
          a very different way. There is something about seeing
          the bulk of information or touching the handwriting of
          some long departed county worker or simply being in the
          linoleum grimness of the coroner's office that weaves a
          tight web of memory. On a computer screen, the list
          would only be rows of characters in a font of your
          choosing. Where you go is just a matter of the proper

          In many ways, it is this topology of information that is
          being changed as the past is digitized. The store of
          information once seemed like a dark and irregular sea.
          Now, the computer extends our sight far over the horizon
          in a vast web of links and data points. It is more
          shimmering and distant than deep.

          There is no good or bad in this change. It is simply a
          part of moving to a far more efficient method of
          communication and transmission.

          The past must eventually be digitized to make that link
          with the present. One day, both will exist in a uniform
          pool of 1s and 0s that encode the record of knowledge.

          The process has been going on for years and by now, I
          would imagine that even the names of the thousands of
          Does in Los Angeles County have been scanned into
          digital form and entered into a variety of computer
          databases that I can access from the comfort of my home.

          Other people will look at the list in the future to
          search for lost relatives or compile information for
          historical purposes. They will undoubtedly see far more
          clearly than I did, but I suspect they will never feel
          quite the same things.

          SURF & TURF is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click
          here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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             * Unicode Home Page

          Ashley Dunn at asdunn@xxxxxxxxxxx welcomes your comments
          and suggestions.

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