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Digital Substrate

Last updated on October 17, 2018

Digital interactive text shares its orthography, the lines and shapes, with all previous substrates but where the interactions afforded by all pre-digital substrates are limited or expanded the utility–the interactability–of the materiality of the substrate itself, such as paper making the text easier to annotate and carry than stone or clay, the digital ‘substrate’ (“to spread underneath”) is uniquely powerful and useful:

• On non-digital substrates the textual meaning is contained on the surface of the substrate–in the orthography–the shapes of the text.

• With digital text the orthography is only a representation of the text–the text itself is stored within the computer system.

It’s important to note that digital text is inherently interactable since the very act of summoning the text to be displayed is an interaction (at runtime there is not necessarily a human specifying the steps of the interaction, many are pre-set and pre-assumed). Thus, in the same way that the computer can and must interact with the symbols to display them (must have an address for the text in storage somewhere and must have a specification for how the text should be displayed), the user can, with appropriate software systems, further interact with the text, changing the specification for what text should be displayed by somehow providing an address for the text and changing the way the text is displayed (there is no inherent, only legacy reason that documents on computers look like virtual copies of text on paper) and what operations are done on the text’s symbolic meaning.

This difference goes far beyond the philosophical and into the core opportunities of digital text: The phenomenal potential of vastly increasing our abilities to interact with knowledge through the digital text.

This is crucial because we get the surface meaning from reading the surface and we have always needed to further interact with the text in order to go beneath the surface, through reading several reports or books on the same subject, through annotating and scribbling down our insights–we have always interacted with text to the best of the ability of the substrate–digital text provides a whole new, powerful set of dimensions through which we can go deeper. It is through interaction we ‘get a handle’ on the meaning behind the text and this is how we can ‘change our perspective’ and ‘gain deeper insights’, all terms which reflect our age old experience of physically being able to move around our environment. Now that we increasingly live and work in a digital environment access in large part through digital text, we need to create the means for us to interact with the text as fluidly as we can pick up an object with our hands but as richly as only digital technologies can allow.

This is not just a philosophical point and I am not just playing with words about how interactivity gives us deeper insights, helps us get a handle on things and helps us change our perspective, it is deeply rooted in who we are. An illustrative example is what happens with ‘tactile vision substitution systems’ where someone who is blind has a camera connected to actuators on their skin which allows them with some experience to ‘see’ through their skin. What is revealing is that this ‘vision’ is only achieved when the user can move the camera–interact with what they are seeing by changing their perspective.

If ‘seeing is believing’ then ‘controlling what you are seeing goes beyond superficial belief and generates understanding’.

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  1. […] To simply reproduce the marks on a passive substrate in the digital environment is not enough. We must experiment with various ways of increasing the interactivity of the symbols–as I have written, interactivity is the core aspect of symbols and of the universe. […]

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