Electronic texts are normal, published texts are weird
In “The Textual Criticism of Visual and Aural Works” (Studies in Bibliography, 57 (2005/2006): 1-37) G. Thomas Tanselle suggests,
Textual criticism—the study of the relationships among variant texts of works—has primarily been associated, throughout its long history extending back to antiquity, with verbal works as transmitted on tangible objects such as parchment and paper. But all works, whether constructed of words or not, have had histories that—if fully told—would reveal stages of growth and change, reflecting not only their creators’ intentions but also the effects of their passage to the public and through time. All works, in other words, have textual histories. (p. 1)
He then discusses where one might find the techniques for criticizing non-written works. Most of the work he cites either exists within intangible media such as dance, music and drama; or exists
within tangible media that is consumed as part of the creation, such as painting, garden or sculpture.
In the long view of human history, more of the work is verbal or performance of myths and epics, and has only recently begun to include printed texts. We imagine that a printed book will continue to exist for quite some time without much outside influence, and the sequence of editions and prints of books creates a traceable lineage. Printing and writing, are rather new inventions which have the appearance of special properties of durability and traceability.
The electronic text is much more like a performance than a printed text. A particular instance may be remembered electronically for some time, but eventually must be renewed through copying. The text does not generally maintain itself in an easily readable form, but in some sort of code which must be replayed to be understood. The electronic code can be changed, often easily, without leaving any traceable lineage. Since the electronic code is not generally self-authenticating, one cannot necessarily distinguish variant copies without complete collation.
However, this is a matter of technology. Modern electronic information often includes hashes, digital signatures, or other devices to authenticate the data; not unlike the use of rhyme and meter as mnemonic devices, which also serve to authenticate the text. Furthermore, much modern electronic editing software records the trace of the work’s lineage.
This detailed trace of a lineage is actually quite unusual. This trace disappears in painting, because each version of the painting covers the previous. Published texts leave the previous versions obsolete, but existent. However, this is not an artifact of the printed text. It is an artifact of the published text, and somewhat illusory as well.
The imagined ideal of the publishing situation (partially reflected by interpretations of Darnton’s communication circuit) is that each version of a book is printed and distributed, leaving a copy of each version in the collective archive of humanity. When a researcher wants to trace the lineage of something, they simply locate all the earlier versions. The actuality of the situation is that editions can be hidden, lost, or simply never published. Furthermore, the author may destroy her early manuscripts.
The electronic textual situation is simply more obviously tenuous because we haven’t learned the archeology of the electronic text, nor have we enabled it through publication patterns.
The state of non-durability and un-traceability for electronic texts is normal when compared to aural and performance based work, while our concept of published texts—though slightly inaccurate—is the unusual one.