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I. THEORY – 2. Websites

Dimensions of website structure

Giorgio Buccellati – January 2022

Dimensions: surface and deep structure

Borrowing the concept from linguistics, we may distinguish two different levels or dimensions at which to look at the structural make-up of a website.

At the surface level, the website appears in its concrete embodiment as it displays on the screen, with a number of constituents that can be described morphologically and syntactically, i. e., in terms of their individual qualifications and their reciprocal nesting.

At a deeper level, the website consists of interactions among constituents, interactions that are hidden and potential but expand immeasurably the epistemic dimension of the website (i. e., its capacity for organizing and conveying knowledge).

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The two dimensions: surface and deep structure

The same website structure can be accessed in either a whole oriented modality or a fragment oriented modality.

The two modalities parallel each other closely, but with different aspects. There is, we may say, a bimodal dimension, in the sense that the data as presented in the websites are designed so as to be accessed in parallel ways depending on the intent with which one approaches them. In other words, each website is so structured as to serve the our stated aims (substantive and methodological) in ways that are consonant but distinct.

In the whole oriented modality, the reader confronts a closed whole, wherein the argument and the data are laid out in static juxtaposition, with the argument flowing in a unilinear path. Is is the modality well establihed in scholarship, whereby the material is physically embodied in a paper publication, which may also appear in an equivalent para-digital format (typically .PDF).

In the fragment oriented modality, on the other hand, the reader confronts an open aggregate, wherein the argument and the data are dynamically interacting along multilinear paths that can be accessed concurrently. I view websites as the digital correlatives of paper publications, and the 4Banks websites aim at implementing this approach.

The two modalities share the same conceptual orientation, and are to be seen not in opposition to each other, but rather in a relationhsip of reciprocal synergy.

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The epistemics of surface structure

Websites are universally seen as informational in nature: they convey the most diverse variety of representations of facts and ideas, which are collected with a view towards making them accessible through effective serch functions. An argument is developed, but one does not generally expect a reader who will go through it from beginning to end. It serves more as a window that displays items to be found in their singularity.

The gathering of these representations into a website is open-ended (hence the dotted line of the frame in Fig. 1). The window is not a fixed point of reference, just like the window of a storefront. The display may change at any time, and consequently the degree of authorial responsilbity and critical weight is fluid and generally very limited.

The emphasis is not on the quality of the content, on knowledge as such, but rather on the spread factor. The very term “information” implies that one is bent on shaping (“forming”) the target, rather than on focusing on the intrinsic value of what is presented. In this regard, “information” is different from “knowledge” (see, e. g., Wolf 2018 Reader). As a result, information can become antithetical to “communication,” which implies sharing a value, something that stands by itself regardless of whom it reaches, or how rapidly.

And thus one aspect that is universally associated with websites currently in use is a marked sense of urgency. It is, for the most part, a fabricated sense. While information does certainly convey knowledge, what seems to matter even more, in current websites, is the rapidity with which that knowledge is made available and the size of the audience it reaches. Here lies the deeper (and most threatening) meaning of McLuhan’s ditto “the medium is the message.”

This leads to a dominance of the ephemeral. Knowledge is indeed obtained (through a query), but the context within which it is found is of limited significance, if any, to the inquirer, and once the piece of information is “mined” the “mine” from which it comes looses all interest. In fact, the “mine” had no epistemic value in the first place.

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The epistemics of deep structure

It is precisely with regard to this context (the “mine”) that the aituation is very different with type 2. Here the underlying system that governs the organization of knowledge is in itself an object of interest. We may say that the epistemic dimension is raised to the power of two: the structuring system is as relevant as the structured data. We still have a window that displays items to be seen in and of themselves, or a “mine” from which to “mine” an ore of interest, but now the window or the “mine” as such calls for attention and for our critical judgment. This structuring system, this window, is in effect like an argument which we are invited to study. This invites two considerations.

(1) This approach is particularly evident in a website that presents data in a tabular formt. Here,the categorization system needs to be knwon in order to study the data in their totality, not just as a single piece extracted from the others and seen in tis singularity.

(2) A systemic webstie places the emphasis on the knowledge content, without any sense of urgency. Knowledge is presented for its own sake, not for the impact it may have on the audience. This sense of distance, this epochè makes for a more objective and dispassionate representation of facts and arguments.

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Complementarity of the dimensions

The two dimensions, fragment and whole oriented, or kifrmational and systemic, are by no mens mutually exclusive and in opposition to each other, as if the informational were expected to supersede the systemic. Rather, the two are to be seen as concurrent, on the basis of a productive complementarity.

Currently, this happens to a very limited extent, essentiallhy only in scholarly websites that present a data base that is structured in a tabular fashion: here the categorization system serves as the frame that gives access to the system as a given whole. The dichotomy that I have stressed above is really the rule

It is the goal of digital discourse to correct at the root this dichotomy, and to show how the digital medium as avakilable through websites may be exploited to its full extent. In digital discousrse, the whole and fragment oriented dimensions come together structurally, through an active synergy that blends together the bimodal dimension into a new epistemological system. A full explanation is the goal of Chapter 3 in this website.

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