Digital text: risks, advantages, perspectives

Progressives against conservatives, innovators against traditionalists. The attitude of the community in the face of any kind of novitas seems to have always been oriented in a two-faced way: those who tend to welcome change by emphasizing its merits and those who, instead, show a skeptical attitude, highlighting the threats that would be hidden behind a subversion of the status quo.

The paradigm shift produced by the advent of the digital medium in the world of humanities seems to have fragmented in the same way not only the scientific and academic community, but also novelists, poets and simple readers. In this context, Michelangelo Zaccarello, Professor of Philology of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa, is placing himself with the prudent attitude of those who analytically investigate the pros and cons of this revolution with the prospect of reaching a constructive conclusion capable of resolving any extremism. His book Teoria e forme del testo digitale, published by Carocci in 2019, includes ten essays by leading experts in the field of editorial theory and textual scholarship in Italian translation by Greta Mazzaggio, preceded by an unpublished contribution by the same author and followed by an afterword by Wayne Storey. The non-random order in which the essays are placed within the volume allows an agile journey through what, according to Zaccarello, are some of the lesser known themes of digital textuality. They are not only about philology, ecdotics and textual criticism, but also involve the world of law and economics.

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Copyright, social editions and born digital texts

The reader interested in this last area will find some interesting ideas in the sixth chapter, in which Maurizio Borghi and Stavroula Karapapa reflect on the issue of the introduction of copyrighted works into the analog world without any authorization by the rightholders, an operation that is linked to the name of Google Books, which “is and remains a profit-making initiative” (2019, 99). The essay, then, comes to sketch a worrying picture of the freedom of the user in relation to the risk of a monopoly on access to knowledge exercised by increasingly large and powerful companies: what could be the extreme consequences of entrusting our cultural heritage, for centuries kept more or less safe within established structures (archives and libraries), to new subjects whose purposes are essentially commercial? 

The extreme opposite to this form of elitist privilege is what Peter Robinson calls “social ecdotics”, whose purpose is to create “social editions” produced by a community of members in the collaborative space of the web platform. Although the “democratic” ideology at the base of such projects is praiseworthy, their greatest weakness is the total lack of the decision-making component, which is usually linked to the author’s authority.

The atmosphere seems to be darkening again in the contributions of Diana Kichut and Paul Conway, which any scholar, researcher or student should tackle. The theme is precisely that of the possible poor quality and accuracy of text files coming from the electronic conversion of images through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software located in digital archives or libraries. The observation of this risk does not lead, however, to forms of pure skepticism or abstention from judgement: a well-structured pars destruens, in fact, is followed by a confident pars costruens. While the first scholar concludes the essay with the hope of a fruitful collaboration between technology and man, so that human proofreaders can reduce the error rate from text files, Paul Conway talks about the challenge of the project conducted by Besiki Stvila, namely “the creation of an efficient tool for the revision of specific volumes and the evaluation of the latter in terms of more or less significant errors” (2019, 194).

A further curious and interesting investigation conducted by Matthew Kirshenbaum concerns the impact of word processing on contemporary writers, spectators and actors, perhaps unaware of a revolution similar to the one that affected authors in the period of transition from manuscript to print, and then to the use of the typewriter. The need for recognition of a “literary history of word processing” must sooner or later be imposed on the public of specialists who will have to “start […] from today’s complex scenario of writing (and rewriting), in which the text is distorted and transformed into the media passages that characterize almost every phase of the process of composition and publication” (2019, 94).

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Between tradition and innovation: the role of philology

The wide range of themes is resolved in a coherent and homogeneous structure whose pivot can be identified in the problem of conservation, accessibility and fruition of our book heritage. The volume, therefore, certainly does not leave the humanist (digital and not) dissatisfied, especially in the first chapters. Susan Hockey and Paul Eggert, specifically, are interested in the problems related to text encoding in relation to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Both scholars emphasize the inability of such a markup system, which requires documents syntactically defined as an ordered hierarchy of content and is partly deficient in the representation of complex texts such as literary ones, in which different elements overlap. The observation of this limit, however, does not translate into any kind of discouragement, but into concrete proposals for improvement.

The volume opens and closes, in a sort of ring structure, with the name of Jerome McGann, great pioneer of digital humanities. His contributions appeal to key themes not only of the digital environment, but also of philology without appellations. In the first chapter the scholar questions the validity of the last will of the author as a parameter of choice of the curator in the edition of modern printed texts. This conclusion derives from the analysis of some specific cases, including that of Lord Byron’s Windsor Poetics, which collects a series of writings born for a private and manuscript circulation. It is, however, in the tenth and final chapter that seems to be the ultimate goal of Zaccarello’s entire volume, that is, the wish for a return to philology as knowledge aimed at the preservation of memory.

The crucial point is that philological attention continues to be applied even when it is recognized that the value of what is preserved will “never again” be reconstructed. This “never again” is very important: for the philologist, primary materials are preserved because their very existence attests that they once had a value […]. For the philologist, the dead and the traces of their memory are precious and honorable in themselves […]. This is the knowledge to which philological science is consecrated: it is – I believe – the foundation on which all the human sciences must take root” (p. 207).

Jerome McGann, Teoria e forme del testo digitale, a cura di Michelangelo Zaccarello, Roma, Carocci, 2019, p. 207

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