Friday, January 15, 2010

scripta manet verba volat (post in progress)

This aphorism has come to mean, what is written remains, what is spoken flies away. It seems quite logical for us to endow the written, printed or carved word with a permanence inherently absent from the spoken (unrecorded) word, but for many centuries after the development of written text the reverse was true. According to Alberto Manguel*, the written word was mutely locked while the spoken word could purposefully take off and fly.

This raised some questions for me.

(1) A character, say an "a", carved in stone or printed on paper using movable type is both a discrete entity, and one which has duration in the sense that it will remain an "a" so long as neither it nor its substrate suffers any damage. The same character "a" rendered black on a screen is not a discrete entity in the sense that it is made up of dots of no/little light, it is flickering on/off (is this latter an accurate description or is it more a case of a sort of throbbing?), and it is only rendered visible by the persistence of vision. So the question is - does the screen "a" have any physical presence/existence in the same way that the stone/paper "a" does, ignoring quantum vagueries? Would the screen "a" better be described as having a variable "state"?

(2) The character "a" when stored digitally is stored as binary code, and thus cannot be said to have any existence as an "a" as such? Can the storage itself can better be described as a (variable) "state" rather than anything physical such as the physical state of the carved "a"?

*A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel, 1996
(image is a Sumerian limestone tablet, c2450 BCE)