Christoffel Plantin in Cyberspace

Abstract and geometrical pattern on a copper door in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv (Israel), which illustrates the labyrinthine structure of a hypertext (personal picture)

Analog vs. digital: Thoughts

After hours and days on the World Wide Web, Christoffel Plantin had noticed a couple of characteristics intrinsic to books and new media and he had discovered quite a few differences between printed matter and electronic data. First, a printed text had a stable and permanent form and a digital text a fluid and tentative form. While a text which was printed could not be changed, a text which was available digitally could be corrected or adapted. Second, a printed text forced the reader to follow a linear and logical course from the first page to the last whereas a hypertext encouraged a reader to seek his own non-linear or labyrinthine way. Third, a printed text was definite and a digital text indefinite. Once the sheets of paper were folded, the sections were gathered, the book-block was sewn to the cover, the book was a finished product and a self-contained object. Every text on the internet, conversely, could in principle be linked to every other text out there with hyperlinks and thus was potentially unfinished and incomplete. Fourth, in the printing world the use of pictures and the choice of colours was limited while in the digital universe the number of illustrations and the mix of colours was practically limitless. Fifth, in print only word and images could be combined with each other, but on the electronic highway words, images and video could be integrated harmonically. Sixth, a printed book was difficult to duplicate in contrast to a digital file. A printed text could be reproduced only less faithfully by hand or with a machine at a nominal charge or with considerable effort, but a digital text could be copied almost at no cost and without any loss of quality with one click. Seventh, the variety of texts which could appear in printed form and could be stored in libraries was limited in scale because of physical constraints, but the amount of digital texts which could be published and collected was unrestricted because of the phenomenally large storage capacity of electronic hardware. Finally, in addition to being read, a printed text could be consulted and a digital text could be searched. To look up something in a text which was printed one could fall back on the table of contents or the index. To find a piece of information in a text which was made available electronically one could activate a search function or a search robot.