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Digital discourse: synergy

Giorgio Buccellati – March 2021

From complementarity to synergy

The two modalities, analog and digital, are complementary in the sense that each contributes in its own parallel way to the articulation and comunication of knowledge. They serve the same goal, but in a bimodal dimension.

The implementation of a proper digital discourse brings the two modalities to a higher level of integration, i. e., to a full synergy whereby one modality interacts actively with the other. If complementarity means that the two work in parallel, synergy means that one gives a new sense of purpose to the other, with full reciprocity.

Thus the result is not a hybrid system, but rather a real synergy between analog and digital modalities, one that heals the epistemological split and creates in effect a new epistemological system of constructing (writing) and sharing (reading) knowledge, a system based on the notion of digital discourse. It is for this reason that the notion of digital discourse, with the complex structure that defines it, is of such major significance.

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A sense of structure

What effectively unifies the two modalities is the sense of structure that is inherent in the notion of digital discourse. This sense of structure informs digital discourse is such a way as to give the same sense of purpose to both the analog and the digital modality. The end result for which one aims is the same, and it is the structural cohesiveness of the system as a whole that makes it possible to achieve this end goal. Digital discourse mutuates a given sense of structure from the analog modality and applies it to the digital, and viceversa.

It is fundamental to have a clear perception of this structure. This must be accomplished in the production (writing) in order for it to be available in the fruition moment (reading). And to do so, one must look at a new aspect of the modalities of structure.

It is generally the case that such a perception of the structural whole is lacking, and this lies at the root of a larger problem. Standard online publications appear in fact as ephemeral not only because of issues intrinsic to the medium, but also, and more deeply, because, qua aggregates, they do not develop a proper discourse. The solution to the problem lies in letting a synergy between the two modalities play its full role: it is through such synergy that the aporia is overcome.

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Revised modalities

A digital discourse depends on the four aaspects that charaterize the two modalities, aspects that spell out the diffferences between the analog and the digital modalities. In the light of digital discourse, we can now expand these modalities to include one more column (highlighted) to indicate how the sense of structure can be made manifest through the integration of the two modalities:

analog digital
  aspects   1. contiguity framing whole aggregate
2. continuity closure closed open
3. connectivity tensionality static dynamic
4. sequentiality  directionality   unilinear multilinear

Briefly, we can interpret this chart by saying that we aim to

  1. frame contiguity, allowing us to see an aggregate as a whole, and viceversa, thus resuting in a well defined and self-containede entity
  2. give closure to continuity, allowing us to see a closed array as open, and viceversa, and thus articulating the limits of the array
  3. show how tensionality undergirds connectivity, allowing us to see the static modality of a dynamic composition, and viceversa
  4. provide directionality to sequentiality, allowing us to see how a multilinear route coincides with a unilinear one in their shared sense of a common goal.

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1. Framing contiguity (whole vs. aggregate)

The distinction between whole and aggregate is important. It is the first modality and it seems to exclude the possibility to deal with a whole within a digital modality: a digital modality deals in fact, by definition, with aggregates seen as composites of parts. Let us consider the example of a digital data base: here the frame corresponds to the matrix that defines the cells to be used; it is, in other words, a composite that acquires sense from being accessible in its component parts, the cells. This happens within clearly defined boundaries, for sure, but the matrix remains intrinsically open for an unlimited number of data that can fill these cells. Similarly, with a website there is a site map that outlines the contents, or, more simply, top or side bars that provide direction and thus indicate how to access the information: but this remains hidden, and can again be increased or removed at will.

While, in either case (data base and website), the frame is known, there is no practical limit to how expansive the content can be. This has of course major advantages, in that it allows one to expand freely the data that are marshaled in support of the argument, and to expand as well the argument by including unending parallel narratives. But precisely because of this expansiveness, digitality per se is structurally unsuited for the whole. It does, of course, bring into play the totality of the parts: but it is seen, precisely, as a sum that coincides with the parts, not as a sum that is greater than the parts.

One way to look at this is to think in terms of perception. While we have at best a perception of the matrix of a data base or of a website, we do not have a perception of its contents. This is in the very nature of things: with a printed chart we gain immediately a sense of its contents, however many pages it may occupy (unlike what happens with a digital data base); and with a book, however voluminous, we gain immediately a sense of its contents, even apart from looking at its table of contents (unlike what happens with a website).

It is this perception of the whole that the analog modality brings into play: it frames contiguity by inviting us to look at the aggregate from the outside, gaining distance from it and embracing it in its multiplicity of adjoining cells. The expansiveness of the aggregate can be seen as such, as potentially undending in its tendency to add more elements simply stretching contiguity ever beyond its current limits. But defining it as such, framing it with a clear perception of its very expansiveness, is in itself a step towards seeing the aggregate, from without, for what it is from within.

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2. Closure to continuity (closed vs. open)

Closure is the temporal correlative of wholeness. It refers to the moment when, in the eyes of the author, a publication can be considered complete. At this juncture, the “publication” is truly “published,” i.e., it goes beyond the private sphere and is consigned to the public. It is an important step, which does not merely affect the surface of the process. It rather contributes in an essential way to the definition of what a digital discourse ultimately is.

In the current use of websites, this moment is typically deferred indefinitely, or rather, it is not even considered as a real, desirable possibililty. Websites are considered to be by nature in constant flux: the fact that they are constantly being brought up to date is attractive, but it is at the same time very problematic. Such fluidity is possible only because one gives up on the notion of closure: chameleon-like, a website is never expected to remain the same through time. It is thus, inevitably, never expected to be whole.

There is a universal awareness of this situation, but, when it is recognized as a problem, the solution that is generally adopted compounds the problem instead of solving it: the solution is that of citing the date when a website has been accessed. This compounds the problem because it consecrates it: we accept as final the lack of finality. How counterproductive this solution is, emerges clearly from the fact that the assignation of a date of access does in no way “publish” the website in question: in most cases, the website is not there to be verified any longer, and the semblance of publication is entirely entrusted to its citation – which in most cases does not quote the text, but simply refers to it indirectly.

The real solution is to recognize and to declare a given moment of closure, and thus to consign to the public the current result, in its perceived wholeness. This is how we can properly achieve a “publication” status. At the root of the problem is that one does not typically seek to establish a digital discourse in the first place, and for this reason the notion that one should look for closure seems to beg the question.

The analog modality provides canons and protocols. In preparing (writing) a website, one should think of it in terms of having a temporal ending, a closure, and develop the website with that in mind. The notion of “surfing” a website gives a sense of unboundness and openness, but any wave one surfs comes to an end; so it should be for the metaphorical wave that carries us when surfing. One of these protocols is the notion of a conclusion.

The conceptual correlative of the temporal aspect of closure is the notion of “publishing” a conclusion. Given closure, one should reflect on the website seen as digital discourse, i. e., as a self-contained compositional whole. And this reflection should be part of the website itself, it should appear as a conclusion, something which we normally expect in an analog publication, but which is is not expected, and is never found, in a digital publication such as a website. And that is because there is no proper digital discourse behind a standard website. This I have done for the current 4banks website.

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3. Tensionality within connectivity (static vs. dynamic)

A discourse offers a broader scope within which tensionality obtains. It is this tensionality that creates suspense in a novel or in a complex logical argument: one expects a final “denouement” of the plot or the final point of arrival of the argument. Tensionality is an essential factor of discourse in general, and of digital discourse in particular. As a simple example of what tensionality means, we may think of the rhyme in a metrically construed poem: the rhyme comes to life only if there is a larger composition (the poem), where the flow of the verses is punctuated by repeated phonic patterns. Clearly, a single verse, or scattered lines of text that do not follow a pattern, do not qualify, even if the phonic repetition were to occur. It is such patterned recurrence that creates tensionality.

It follows that one does not have a sense of tensionality if one does not have a perception of the compositional whole within which tensionality may occur: in this regard, and somewhat ironically, we may say that, if there is no tensionality within a compositional whole, hyperlinks do not evoke tensionality, but rather diffuse it no matter how many of them there may be in a digital text. Random hyperlinks lead to a target that is only minimally expected: we know there is target and we expect to get there, but its connection to the larger composition is missing because there is no such compositional whole in the first place. In other words, the individual threads emerge as dominant, and the frame serves only as a container of loose connections.

Tensionality makes it possible for connectivity to achieve its full potential. It means that hyperlinks should be seen not as sparks discharged by electrical current, but rather as a nervous system, which integrates through its dendriform structure an organism consisting of multiple mutually interrelated elements. This is in fact inherent in the notion of digital discourse, seen as a set of organically liked narratives and data sets, where the linkages are not anecdotal, but systemic.

Tensionality can only be dynamic, and in this regard the digital modality excels. What the analog modality adds is the awareness of the framework within which this dynamics ought to take place. It is the organic relatedness of the elements in tension that lends unity to the system.

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4. Directionality for sequentiality (uni- vs. multi-linearity)

Of the attributes of the digital modality, multilinearity is the one that more clearly brings out the high degree of complexity of digital thought. This complexity derives from the concurrent unfolding of multiple arguments, a concurrence which is subsumed and implied at each stage by each of the individual narratives. Multilinearity refers to the presence of parallel narratives, each developing its own argument but in ways that relate it to a core underlying narrative.

In a non-digital setting, multilinearity, while only potential, is of fundamental importance: all critical thought is in fact multilinear, in the sense that it is the process that governs critical and creative thinking. In critical thinking, we follow the argument set by a pre-set narrative (whether oral or printed), and we develop in our own mind parallel arguments that come to be more or less formalized in narratives that accompany the one being the object of our critique. In creative thought, we develop our own narrative relying on data which we arrange in parallel narratives so that we may come to see how they may or may not coincide and overlap. In these two cases, critical and creative thought, multilinearity is the parallel course of arguments that develop in our own mind as we “think” (critically or creatively).

In a digital discourse, on the other hand, multilinearity presents us with preset parallel narratives which can be formalized with varying degrees of explicitness. What is important in the construction and fruition of a website is the awareness of how these narratives proceed sequentially in a parallel mode: they should be seen precisely as paralell within a coordinated system, and not as stray narratives going in different directions.

What the unilinear modality of the analog system contributes is the sense htat there has to be a single direction forward. The arrows in the various narratives in the diagram that describes digital discourse are indicative in this regard: sequentilaity has to have a sense of direction, and multilinearity must be built on a sense of sequential coordination.

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Bibliographical status

Being so temporally “closed” and conceptually “concluded,” a digital online publication must also achieve a status of public accessiblity, it must, in other words, become a full fledged “publication.” To have a full bibliographical status, a website must not only be self-contained in and of itself, from within, it must also be identifiable as such from without. Just as with the implementation of a proper digital discourse, so, too, a proper “publication” addresses the issue of an explicit definition of wholeness. A website is declared “whole” in the sense that it has reached a level of internal coherence that calls for an equivalent commitmente on the part of the reader. One can expect the website to be studied, not just browsed and queried.

This is eauivalent to providing a firm and stable bibligraphical status, which is otherwise missing (the indication of a date when a website has been accessed being wholly inadequate to this end). This is achieved in the cluster by creating firm and stable successive editions of each website, using the concept of ephemeris to create well identifiable archives.

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Critique 11.5
our two articles on digitality – refer to UGR as different from 4banks
Thurlow and Mroczek 2011
Jiang 2019 Discourse_and_Digital_Practices_Doing_Discourse

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