Category Archives: versioning

time machine

The other day, a bunch of us were looking at this new feature promised for Leopard, the next iteration of the Mac operating system, and thinking about it as a possible interface for document versioning.

I’ve yet to find something that does this well. Wikis and and Google Docs give you chronological version lists. In Microsoft Word, “track changes” integrates editing history within the surface of the text, but it’s ugly and clunky. Wikipedia has a version comparison feature, which is nice, but it’s only really useful for scrutinizing two specific passages.
If a document could be seen to have layers, perhaps in a similar fashion to Apple’s Time Machine, or more like Gamer Theory‘s stacks of cards, it would immediately give the reader or writer a visual sense of how far back the text’s history goes – not so much a 3-D interface as 2.5-D. Sifting through the layers would need to be easy and tactile. You’d want ways to mark, annotate or reference specific versions, to highlight or suppress areas where text has been altered, to pull sections into a comparison view. Perhaps there could be a “fade” option for toggling between versions, slowing down the transition so you could see precisely where the text becomes liquid, the page in effect becoming a semi-transparent membrane between two versions. Or “heat maps” that highlight, through hot and cool hues, the more contested or agonized-over sections of the text (as in the Free Software Foundations commentable drafts of the GNU General Public License).
And of course you’d need to figure out comments. When the text is a moving target, which comments stay anchored to a specific version, and which ones get carried with you further through the process? What do you bring with you and what do you leave behind?

texts over time

There’s a striking passage in “The Folio Restored”, an article by Jonathan Bate in the April 20 issue of the Times Literary Supplement on the perils of editing Shakespeare because of the differences between various editions:

“Perhaps it would be best to abandon the idea that any one text represents the ‘definitive’ version of a Shakespeare play. After all, the quest for a ‘definitive’ text, based on a ‘single lost original’, was premissed on the principles of Classical and biblical textual criticism. It is not necessarily appropriate for more modern literary and, especially, dramatic texts. ‘Version-based editing’ now seems a more fitting way of approaching authors (such as Wordsworth in The Prelude, or Henry James in the New York Edition of his novels) who self-consciously revised their word. Theatre is a supremely mobile art form, and we need a similar version-based approach to Shakespeare. We cannot be confident about the degree of authorial control in the revision of Shakespeare’s plays, or the extent to which it was systematic or haphazard; but we can be confident that many of the thousands of differences between the quarto and Folio texts are best explained by accepting that the texts embody different moments in those plays’ theatrical lives.”

(p. 12 of the 20 April 2007 issue; online here, though their archive is subscriber-only.) I don’t think you need to be interested in the details of textual minutiae to see that this is an interesting way of thinking about texts, and especially about how they can function in a digital age. Texts might be thought of as souls metempsychosing through bodies, temporarily alighting in books as they pass through time.

creative versioning project

“I don’t have a single early draft of any novel or story. I just ‘saved’ over the originals until I reached the final version. All there is is the books themselves.” – Zadie Smith
This is a call (re-published from the Electronic Literature Organization) for writers to participate in a creative versioning project, hopefully to begin this winter:

Matthew Kirschenbaum is looking for poets and fiction writers willing to participate in a project to archive versions of texts in progress. An electronic document repository (known as a Concurrent Versions System, or CVS) will be used to track revisions and changes to original fiction and poetry contributed by participating writers who will work by checking their drafts in and out of the repository system. The goal is to provide access to a work at each and every state of its composition and conceptual evolution — thereby capturing the text as a living, dynamic object-in-the-making rather than a finished end-product. A reader will be able to watch the composition process unfold as though s/he were looking over the writer’s shoulder.

For guidelines and contact info, visit ELO.

more from USC conference: useful dichotomies for reconsidering scholarship in the digital era

from Tara McPherson:
practice/theory (practice as research in action)
process/product (embrace productive failure)
open/closed (what does versioning mean?)
dialogue/argument (new ways of marshaling evidence; what does it mean when argument shifts into dialogue?)
pedagogy/scholarship/service (tenure system is archaic; most non-traditional modes of scholarly inquiry are considered nothing more than community service)
many/single (how do we rethink collaboration?)
tools/theories (blurring that boundary)
Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Gender and Critical Studies; Chair, Division of Critical Studies, School of Cinema-Television, USC; and editor of the forthcoming Vectors, an electronic peer-reviewed journal.