Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The end of print for law?

Bob Berring muses on the future of print for law and references the Book of Kells and Newgrange...

In the magnificent long room in my Alma Mater, Trinity College Dublin, the book of Kells is on display and shockingly legible. By that I mean that it is a lot more legible than the text in the Wordstar files on the CP/M-based 8 inch floppies in my basement. Even if I could read them (which I can't) they wouldn't be "real" in the sense that the real files were on other floppies that were used to create replicas. In the digital world, no document is ever "real" in the way that the Book of Kells is real. Everything is a best-efforts replica of something which is itself a replica...all the way down to what you saw on the screen at the moment of content creation, inter-mediated by an operating system, then a software application, then a display device driver...This is deeply worrying stuff if you are trying to write down content for the ages : be it sacred texts or legal texts. I spend a goodly amount of my time these days thinking about this in the context of law, law.gov, data.gov and of course, the KLISS project.

It is fitting I think, to ponder this stuff and how it relates to law, in the Irish countryside because the Irish played an instrumental role in the creation of copyright law many, many moons ago. Cooldrumman, the location of the battle, is close to my house in Sligo, Ireland.


flow said...

in this day and age, everyone seems extremely busy to cast away the old and replace it with the new way of doing it. i guess we would be better off by always continuing successful traditional ways alongside with the new ones. few people realize that their digital collections are every bit as fragile assets as they are lightweight, convenient, and versatile. a recording on vinyl has a much higher chance of withstanding the course of times, and get deciphered by a future (but maybe technologically not so sophisticated) culture.

Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy Sean. But the Book shares similarities too. The Book of Kells was a copy of a copy of a copy...stretching all the way back to some original, now lost, Ur-bible. And it was in a different "language" to the original. It probably came from an ancient Hebrew source, went to Greek, then to Latin. Each copy was subject to transcription errors, much as DNA morphs over time.
It is a huge topic, but let me make one small point - how much of that data on those floppies do you actually need? Obviously none, since you can't read them! :-)

Sean said...


Re Book of Kells being a copy-of-a-copy...You are right that this is a huge topic but I think the Book of Kells can reasonably be considered an original work because it does more than attempt to transcribe the original i.e. the ornate rendering effects are the "value add" of the Book of Kells over earlier renderings of the same textual material.


Anonymous said...

There are, of course, layers of abstraction here. "The Bible" is not a book at all! It is an abstract concept, culled from considering all bible-like artifacts. A "bible" (lowercase) could be the Book of Kells or stored as a Word document on my PC. You are right to say that the "Kelly's Book" has all this extra stuff - that's part of its nature as an artifact. A bible could be in one of hundreds of human languages, or on papyrus or paper or carved in stone...etc. This much is easy to see.
The battle we have with XML-type documents is in trying to define the "essense" of the document, without the "artifact" inessentials. Trickier than it looks, as you know well.

The difficulty people have with electronic versions of documents seems to be based on the notion that, somehow, they are less "real" than paper copies. Nonsense of course, but clever nonsense nonetheless.

To get back to your article's point re unreadable floppies - isn't the point that if you really needed that data, then at some point you'd have copied it, just before the time the formats became obsolete. It is analogous to derelict buildings - they collapse through neglect, through not being used. Buildings that are needed don't get neglected. Data that is in use will not disappear. Or am I being too optimistic?
Very stimulating article, thanks for waking me up!

Sean said...

Anonymous said "[I]sn't the point that if you really needed that data, then at some point you'd have copied it, just before the time the formats became obsolete."

Therein lies the problem. The importance of data is rarely evident at the point of creation and may not become evident until years/decades/centuries afterwards. Perhaps long after any migration strategies have been obsoleted by the relentless march of technology.