Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project

I. The Project

Project’s history: the Theory domain

Giorgio Buccellati – December 2022

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1973-90: At the interface with the printed medium

The theory underlying the whole project developed slowly, maturing especially in the later years. Interestingly, a sensitivity for what eventually came to be the major presuppositions and principles of the system was first stimulated by a reconsideration of the printed medium – in ways that I would like to briefly describe here.

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As familiarity with the digital aspect developed, the question of the relevance of the printed medium acquired more and more significance, also because at the same time (1973) I started a publishing venture with Undena Publications. Technically, this coincided with the need to achieve a printable version of scholarly texts, including special characters and footnotes at the bottom of the page. There were simple mechanical tools that had come into use in recent years: I will mention in particular the selectric typewriter as a replacement for typesetting.

But the major breakthrough came with application of digital technology, which took, in our case, a very special and unique direction. For a number of years, in fact, Undena was granted the use of the Ibycus computers, designed and operated by David W. Packard. The system, well known for its use with the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, made it possible to produce camera ready versions of complex linguistic fonts with ease and rapidity. Very generously, David W. Packard had placed the entire system at the disposal of Undena, and for a number of years he also hosted our operation in his offices.

What is pertinent in our context is the fact that caring for the formal publication of works by colleagues, in the form of books and journal articles, contributed to a greater appreciation of the perception of these works as wholes, which had to be presented and preserved as such, just as they had been so conceived by their authors.

It also contributed to a better understanding of the notion of “bibliographical status,” something which addresses the need for permanence and recognizability of data and arguments – in effect, the very notion of “publication.” The question became more sharply into focus as the digital turn seemed to veer away from these that must, however, remain as the central aims of scholarly discourse.

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Digital handling of the material being prepared for printing gave a heightened sense of control to authors. The text could be seen from the outset as it would appear in print, at the same time that it was being composed. It was the notion of a “camera ready” text.

What is pertinent in our context is that this added a new dimension to the way on which one could not only construct an argument, but also communicate it. There was a new sense of control on visual means that would allow to make an argument more transparent and intelligible. It was, truly, a new epistemic system.

This was also apparent in the way in which spreadsheets could be manipulated at will, allowing for a variety of instant sorts and computations. This made it possible to achieve an immediate restructuring of the data in function of particular queries, which could be translated instantly in a visible format that helped in formulating and presenting the argument. In other words, the process of developing the argument and of presenting it graphically was integrated into a single, and relatively simple, process.

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Multimedia ante litteram

Another important intermediate stage in developing what turned out to be the website as a wholly new epistemic system was the much greater ease in incorporating visuals in the material being prepared for publication. The camera ready format allowed authors to integrate photographs and drawings without concerns for costs or technical difficulties.

In the case of the Terqa excavations, we went one step further, incorporating audio material in the publication program. This took the form of Audio-visual Modules, which included a printed booklet, a set of some one hundred color slides and a cassette tape. Three such modules were produced, in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

The Audio-visual Modules were, however, cumbersome because they needed the kind of specialized equipment (a projector and a cassette player) that was not readily available, and would require in any case a considerable effort to be set in place so that the audiovisual material could in fact be accessed. The Modules were also expensive, and thus their distribution was practically nil.

To mitigate costs, a variant was introduced in 1991: the series Photographic Data Sets included only slides, without the audio component, and in a reduce number (only twenty). Only two exemplars were produced. PDS 1 accompanied the first volume of the Urkesh publications (UMS 1, in 1991), and PDS 2 accompanied the third volume UMS 3). They are now integrated in the online version of both volumes.

Conceptually, and in spite of the operational difficulties, this was a significant new departure, because it expanded considerably the channels for presenting and communicating knowledge. In retrospect, it seemed as though we were expecting the digital format by anticipating what would eventually become second nature with the website format. In fact, the Terqa Audio-visual Modules, now integrated in the Terqa website, can be appreciated as being analogous in intent to the multimedia approach to which we have all become accustomed (see in particular the full module for AVM 1 and AVM 2).

The effort that went into developing the AVM and PDS series was helpful in highlighting what became the core theoretical thrust of our project, centered on the notion of a multi-linear and inter-planar discourse. The data shown as slides and the argument presented in an audio format were essential elements of the publication, i.e., of the epistemic commitment to articulate and convey knowledge about the results of the excavations at Terqa and Urkesh respectively. They were truly parallel planes which were conceived concurrently with the main argument presented in book format. But – they were inter-planar only in an inchoative or implicit manner: they could not be accessed on the fly, in addition to being cumbersome operationally and prohibitive economically.

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     One final aspect of the interface with the printed medium that served as a pre-monition of what would eventually become possible with the website model was the concept embodied in the Monographic Journals of the Near East. I envisaged this as a series of journals where each article appeared as a separate entity by itself.
     Four journals were included:      In each journal, articles would be published under a separate cover, and the intended logistics was that one could subscribe for x number of pages, and select any individual item up to when the subscription price was exhausted – as indicated in the back cover of each issue (see image to the right).

The conceptual aspect of the MJNE system was in making available individual contributions in the most flexible format, thus anticipating the flexibility of the website system, which allows for individual “pages” to achieve an autonomous status and to be accessible at will independently of each other.

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1990-92: Undercurrent

These experiments in printing show how an implicit theoretical bent had in fact been present since the very early start, but its principles were not articulated in any detail, save for a few isolated statements.

Thus a hint at the value of “conceptualization” in digital work was given in a 1990 article that described the purpose and nature of the series Cybernetica Mesopotamica, dedicated at the time only to textual materials. See especially p. 24: « the major impact to be felt in the very immediate future is in the way in which we conceptualize both the data and the utilization we can make of it».

Similarly, with regard to archaeology, a very brief and synthetic statement was given in a 1992 sheet used in the field at Tell Mozan: it was included as an introductory section of the 1996 Field Encoding Manual, and entitled “Principles and presuppositons” (p. 2). See in particular this statement about the notion of a “Grammar of Space”: «The disentanglement of elements in the ground, and their accurate documentation, are the primary duty of the archaeologist. A coherent and all-inclusive descriptive system is both a theoretical and a practical requirement for success in the archaeological endeavor. Conceptually, it may be likened to the grammar of a language, whose explanatory power depends on its ability to account for the totality of the system with the smallest and most integrated network of rules. Comparison to the architectural notion of “grammar of space.”»

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2006-10: Early statements

In the early 2000’s there were some statements that began to articulate more clearly the theoretical premises of the system:

The last article, in particular, offers a good summing up of the theoretical presuppositions that guided the project since the beginning, and is at the same time a good anticipation of the overall theory that found expression in the 2017 book A Critique of Archaeological Reason and which is now being developed in full within the Digital Discourse website (see presently).

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2008 and 2012: Two grant proposals

In 2008 I submitted a proposal to the Mellon Foundation, and another one in 2012 to the National Endowment for the Humanities. In each, there were two distinct goals, one of which was theoretical, and pertained to the notion of a “grammar,” while the other related to the implementation of the system by producing certain specific “digital books” relating to the excavations at ancient Urkesh. See the sections about the Sites domain respectively for the Mellon and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grants.

At that point in time, the theoretical aspect focuses exclusively on the Grammar, i.e. on the framework within which the Urkesh Global Record can take shape:

«The Grammar deals with the theoretical framework, and it provides the background to understand the Urkesh Global Record, i.e., the new digital publication of the full record of the excavations at our site.» (Mellon, p. 2)
«The theoretical model I follow rests on a careful application of distributional analysis: we can all the more safely attribute meaning to the identification of recurrent patterns when these are extracted from quantities of data as vast as those we find in the excavations. I have compared in a paper our task to that of an archaeologist on Mars, borrowing the title from a book by Oliver Sacks (*An Anthropologist on Mars*, New York 1995) where he describes an autistic person's successful effort at appropriating unfelt emotions by building up, cognitively, "a vast library of [other people’s] experiences" (p. 259). The digital approach makes it possible to integrate in real time all these data as we collect them on a daily basis, and the coherence of the larger picture that we gain for Urkesh is, it seems to me, a good proof of the validity of this hermeneutical experiment.» (NEH, p. 1)

There was also an emphasis on the website seen as a the vehicle for the articulation of the material, but it was primarily seen in terms of the technical, rather than the theoretical aspects.

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Back to top: Project’s history: the Theory domain

2017: A Critique of Archaeological Reason

A full articulation of the theory came with the book A Critique of Archaeological Reason and the companion website

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2021: The d-discourse website

In 2021, I started work on a website that would focus specifically on digital discourse: it serves as a more articulate introduction to the concept and to the way it helps to shape the writing and reading of the other websites in the system. It is the one on which I am currently working under the terms of the Balzan grant: it is currently available as a work in progress at and should be completed by the Summer of 2023.

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