16 Oct '09 Augmented Textuality

Following a friend's recent interest in Thing Theory, I dug up my copy of Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things from the storeroom (not quite a junkspace but definitely a pile of space-junk). Leafing through I was reminded of the array of (typo)graphical techniques employed by the book's designer Lorraine Wild, with the visual linkage device above being my favourite.

I see this as a form of what I would call augmented textuality; a superposition of layered semantic relationships on text. Having recently read the thought-provoking iA article on bringing web design concepts to newspapers, I'm wondering if the web couldn't learn something from book designers in terms of augmentation.

Wild also uses type variations in a single text body to convey meaning, with a number of typefaces reserved for particular neologisms or words imbued with specialist definitions in Sterling's lexicon. I find it a bit naive (or at times obnoxious), depends on your typographic stance. The web-based alternative might be to re-examine link typologies, since the consistency mantra in web design tends to crowd out attempts at applying multiple link styles to a single body, creating a homogeneity of linkage on a site-by-site basis that is bemusing if you take a step back. With regards to keywords and specially loaded (technical) terms however, I probably prefer the approach taken by the English language version of Henri Lefebvre's Rhythmanalysis,

The text of which possesses a good rhythm, induced by both typographic and linguistic techniques. A mix of bold and italicised emphasis abound, the former reserved for words with significantly enhanced meanings in the hands of Lefebvre. It's simple but makes a difference. That the book itself is on rhythm makes it doubly effective.

A disproportionate amount — disproportionate given how much online text I've read daily over the past decade — of the ideas that have influenced me over the years have come from books or essays. A lot of that no doubt has to do with copyright and IP, but some of it is down to the forms of communication themselves. Whereas the web has naturally gravitated towards networked/collaborative knowledge systems, the essay, in contrast, is standalone and demands sustained attention.

The essay and the academic research paper are still amongst the foremost textual knowledge formats around, despite having a fairly antagonistic relationship with the web, the former seemingly sidelined by the blog post and the latter still published as a PDF or print artefact. I think there's scope to improve on these knowledge forms in Webby ways, without stripping them of their fundamental offerings. For example, I would love to see a web publishing engine dedicated to the essay form.

In my implementation of 'augmented textuality', I've used Javascript to draw Bezier curves between anchors in HTML using canvas to achieve the visual linkage effect.

Here's a quick implementation of some crude augmented textuality techniques using HTML5 and Javascript, applied to a Rem Koolhaas essay, the hyperbolic diatribe, Junkspace, from 2001:

→ View Augmented Junkspace Demo

The techniques are completely web native (though you'll need recent versions of Firefox, Chrome or Safari to view them). You could argue this is no longer an essay but a thinly disguised term frequency vector smattered with relational graphics, a set of wordnets or a pliable series of strings. Perhaps. I would apologise to Rem if it wasn't a calculated attempt at altering the state of the text through superposition, an (uninvited) act of post-production.