Dangerous obscurity


Let us pause, for a moment, to consider the wisdom we might glean from Twitter. Or, as Mark Sample puts it:

The new 7th edition of the MLA Handbook *still* does not know how to cite videogames.

No, really, that’s actually someone’s real tweet. But here’s the thing: It’s not crazy. One of my favorite dialogues on freedom takes place between a nano-enhanced supercop and a black Australian bartender named Isaac at a Triad-operated nightclub in Hong Kong amid a nanotechnological plague, in the video game Deux Ex.

But just think about it for a minute. Or, as Sample elaborates:

But not only does the MLA seem unprepared for the new texts we in the humanities study …

Imagine a dissertation on the sociopolitical impact of myths distilled through video games, which are, after all, part of massive and growing influential artistic and entertainment markets. And imagine it without a useful citation for a single one of the video games it examines.

I’m just sayin’ ….

But it gets even stranger:

… the association actually took a step backward when it comes to locating, citing, and cataloging digital resources. According to the new rules, URLs are gone, no longer “needed” in citations.

Perhaps an overstated point, but still ....To the one, isn’t the URL vital to a citation? To the other, I suppose this will make things easier. To yet another, I keep wondering if the blogosphere is ever going to get around to citing anything properly.

And therein lies a key to understanding what’s going on with the MLA. Apparently, we tend to think of such bodies as authoritative; we expect their decisions and advice to be informed and constructed around the context of improving communication. But, apparently, the MLA is something like a dictionary. Persistent vulgar use seems to count for something. How else do we explain the change from two spaces after a full stop to one? With variable-width fonts and word processors, the whole thing with two spaces just seems futile. And when you add in that HTML really doesn’t like consecutive blank spaces, what’s the point?

One of the things about hyperlinks is that they tend to break. Sure, there are websites out there that remain mostly stable. BBC News, for instance, and The Washington Post are very easy to work with, but Google’s hosted news wires are very transitory. Popular usage sees internet-based authors throwing out formal citation altogether; an embedded hyperlink suffices for the vast majority of bloggers, and bulletin-board participants often don’t even bother embedding the things.

Sample reflects the expectations people tend toward bodies like the Modern Language Association—

In a strange move for a group of people who devote their lives to studying the unique properties of printed words and images, the Modern Language Association apparently believes that all texts are the same. That it doesn’t matter what digital archive or website a specific document came from. All that is necessary is to declare “Web” in the citation, and everyone will know exactly which version of which document you’re talking about, not to mention any relevant paratextual material surrounding the document, such as banner ads, comments, pingbacks, and so on.

—but if we view the decision as a response to vernacular, it makes a certain sort of sense. One of the problems the internet era has brought us is that language becomes exceptionally unstable. People tend to argue that variable spellings and diminished syntax suggest the flexibility and dynamism of language, but I always thought of it in an evolutionary context; if the adaptations do not strengthen and facilitate communication, the language can die out. Perhaps a dramatic suggestion, I admit. It is easier, and perhaps more useful to say that it seems to me that innovations within a language ought to facilitate communication, not denigrate it.

Making citation schemes easier does not necessarily make them better. Reducing the amount of identifying information for an electronic source is not, in the end, helpful. I can’t wait for the arguments over what the Wikipedia article actually said.

I don’t know. I just wanted to make a joke about the wisdom of Twitter. Something about the dangers of obscurity goes here.

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