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Explanation of Order of Categories for “Objects of Study”

Classification and taxonomy are not the main work of the Transliteracies Project. However, such work necessarily reflects, or influences, the research of the project as it evolves its working definition of “online reading” and moves toward specifying a full “framework” for research and development. Categorizing the “objects for study” that Transliteracies uses to guide its research is part of the underlying thinking that goes into the research process.

Such classificatory thinking emerges from the purely pragmatic into speculative inquiry at the point where the categories strain the default ordering schemes of alphabetization or chronology (themselves technical innovations in the history of text that are objects for study). At this point, there is a need for logical sequences or meta-categorizations that expose underlying hypotheses about the structure and scope of “online reading” as a topic.

The ideal grouping and sequencing scheme for topics will suggest enough order to be useful, but not be so firm or intricate that it freezes things in place and constrains what can enter into the scheme. Theoretically, of course, a complete taxonomy would be a complex, multi-dimensional matrix viewable from the angle of any of the following key factors: historical precedence, hardware innovation, programming or encoding innovation, interface or formatting innovation, impact on individual user experience, impact on social or collective experience, institutional value, and so on. (An n-dimensional visualization generated by a self-organizing map program might be the ideal means of creating such a matrix.) But the drawback of such a complex matrix if introduced too early in a research project is that it imposes an “overhead” whose creation and maintenance siphons off a disproportionate amount of work.

The current grouping and sequencing of categories for Transliteracies’s “Objects for Study”, therefore, is purposely looser and more dynamic—merely a receiving and holding structure for bottom-up curiosity about the actual “objects.” It consists of just one approximate axis through the multi-variant matrix. This axis may be conceived as a set of topical “stacks” running from hardware through software and interface design ultimately to user (and socio-cultural) experience (as well as the history of reading). Categories convened in any one stack usually have multiple connections to other stacks. But initially it makes sense to situate them where they are because that is the focus that is “dominant” in the research. (The Russian Formalists used the phrase “the dominant” to describe the particular device in a literary work that focalized the active area of experimentation or governed other features. Thus, for instance, all poems may contain lines, stanzas, meters, alliteration, rhymes, metaphors, and so on [or their deliberate opposites]; but in certain periods, poets focused on experimentation with one feature or another and let that experimentation carry the momentum of their overall agenda. In early twentieth-century poetry, for instance, the metaphor or verbal “image” was the focus of experimentation, and tended to suppress such other features as meter or rhyme.) A relatively clear case, for example, is the MIT Media Lab’s plans for a ”$100 Laptop” for developing nations, which (if implemented on a wide scale), would have many socio-cultural implications for online reading. But this object is categorized in the “hardware stack” in the Transliteracies scheme because engineering and manufacturing innovation is the leading edge of research.

The Transliteracies ordering scheme of categories will flex and change as further objects for study suggest revisions.

  ayliu, 01.09.06

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