Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project

II. The website

Websites structure

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2022

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Common principles

The websites in the system are structured so as to achieve the goals stated in Digital Discourse. They serve different purposes and come from different types of input, so the details of their implementation differ, but they share some basic common principles, which may be summarized as follows.

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Perception of the whole

Each website aims to give a perception of the whole. When holding a physical book and even just leafing through the pages, before actually reading it, we have an immediate perception of its general scope, its length, its internal divisions. The deeper we get into reading, the more we become aware of the internal interdependencies, and can check them by going from one page to the other.

This is altogether different with a website. Its structure is wholly in the background, and even the terms in common parlance, such as browsing or navigating, are indicative: we have a perception of the surface, such as it appears on the screen at the moment, but are given no clues that may help us to perceive the website as a whole.

Our websites aim offer such clues, and here I will only mention a few formal traits that help in this regard.

  1. Sidebars provide at all times the view of the whole -- such as, in this page, the leftmost sidebar that gives the table of contents of the whole website, and the middle sidebar that gives the table of contents of the current section.
  2. Sections within a page are often highlighted (in green here) to more distinctly mark the subdivision of the argument into its component parts.
  3. Keywords for each paragraph (highlighted in bold italics) help in seeing the overall flow of the argument.
  4. The notion of a segmented narrative introduces a new concept in the development of an argument: it is construed from a variety of input channels, all blending into a sequential thread similar to that of a standard prose argument.

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Aggregative nature of websites

A major use of websites is to offer access to extensive databases, whether scholarly or not. In this regard, the structure of a website is essentially aggregative, in the sense that it serves as an organized container where one can find what one is looking for. The websites in our system serve this purpose, in the two standard ways that are common to all websites.

  1. The search function allows for queries (as in this website), and in some cases for more complex correlations, as in the Urkesh Global Record.
  2. Information is organized so as to make it possible to find what is needed by looking up a list of options on any given page, as for the Chronicle in this website.

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Discursive nature of websites

The discursive nature of standard websites is generally limited to the current page: just like this page, one can scroll up and down, and follow the text from top to bottom. There is, on the other hand, essentially no discursive thread from one page to the next. Partly because there is no perception of the website as a whole, so there is no incentive to “read” a website as one does a book. The case of analogs such as a PDF version of a printed book is not pertinent, because what we have then is not a properly digital, but only an electronic item – precisely, an “analog.”

As a matter of fact, one begins to notice that the attitude one brings to a website is being extended to the printed publications: it is the progressive loss of our ability for “deep reading.” This has a negative impact on critical thinking and more, and one solution is to encourage a return to the printed world.

An alternative, and presumably more effective, solution is to develop the ability of writing discursive websites. Again, this is discussed at length in Digital Discourse, and here I will again only mention two aspects, very simple and yet indicative of what the trend can be.

  1. Our websites have an introduction and a conclusion. They frame the whole and, so to speak, "declare" it. We also refer to links as leading the "reader" to places "above" and "below," which also suggest that one has a sense of continuity from one page to another. These are small points of style, which are however indicative of the intent to conceive of the website as an organic entity.
  2. More importantly, perhaps, we think of the process as being one of "writing" a website: this means that one has such a structure in mind as the work develops, and the result is that the discursive nature becomes part and parcel of the final product. Part of this is the effort to write pages in function of each other, maintaining a full coherence among all of them. -- A possibly interesting experiment would be to do the reverse of what one normally means by "analog," namely to print a website exactly as it is otherwise found digitally.

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This leads us to a central concept of the whole system. The way in which the pages of a website cohere into a unity is enhanced by the possibility, afforded by the digital medium, to have truly interact with each other. The pages of a website, and, beyond that, multiple websites are then conceived as planes that interact with each qua planes. It is an important concept, which again is developed fully in Digital Discourse. It is an essential structural trait of the discursive type of website which I have in mind and which the Cybernetica Mesopotamica system aims to illustrate.

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