18.532 failure of plain text

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2005 08:04:50 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 532.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2005 07:56:55 +0000
         From: Patrick Sahle <sahle_at_uni-koeln.de>
         Subject: Failure of Plain Text (18.519 editing and composition)

Restricting text to plain text is to accept the notion of text as=20
implemented in the ASCII-Code as a reasonable theory of text. But the=20
ASCII-Code is nothing but a historical and technical randomness and=20
completely arbitrary. To say "text is what can be expressed in the=20
ASCII-Code" is one of the least reasonable theories of text I can think of.

> Even without any formatting niceties (especially bold and italics), a=20
text can be well-structured and correctly presented.
** Bold and italics are (in a reasonable usage of textual media) no=20
"formatting niceties" but textual imformation channels. How can meaningful=
bold or italic formatting "correctly presented" in ASCII? Only by=20
translating these information channels to the expressive codeset of the=20
ASCII-Code. But can we be sure to have a "correct representation" in this=20
act of translation?

[... parts skipped]
** of course markup can be used to carry (nearly) all further textual=20
information which is not supported by the ASCII-Code. But a distinction=20
between "text" and "markup" as a distinction between "content/text itself"=
and "form/structure (of text)" doesn't work. The borderline in this=20
technology runs between "character data" and "markup". The "text" comprises=

> Convincing students to use plain text as much as possible isn't merely a=
way to prevent file incompatibilities. It's a way to get them to think=20
about text in a new way.

** In a fatal way. In a way which is determined by the coincidence of a=20
technical standard. I used to think that technology is out there to=20
implement our way of thinking (of text for instance). But here it is just=20
the other way round. Text is here defined as all the codes (signs) and=20
textual modes which are supported by ASCII (or UNICODE) - but for purely=20
technical and historical reasons (think of the 7-bit-limitation and the=20
adoption of the predecessor technology: the typewriter). I wouldn't like my=
students to think of text in such a technology-dependent,=20
pseudo-linguistic, reductionist way.


Patrick Sahle
University of Cologne
Humanities Computing (Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche=20
D - 50923 Koeln

Privat: H=E4uschensweg 2a
D - 50827 K=F6ln
+49 - (0)221 - 2805695
Received on Thu Jan 27 2005 - 03:48:15 EST

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