Balisage Paper: Encoding
Allen H. Renear
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Allen Renear is the dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include information organization and access, particularly the development of formal ontologies for cultural and scientific objects and the application of those ontologies in information system design, scholarly publishing, and data curation in the sciences and humanities.
In their model of digital objects, David Dubin and others postulate three entity types
(propositions, symbols, and documents) with three relationships:
inscribes. We can
express an assertion with a sentence. We can also
inscribe symbols in physical media. I’d like to investigate the cascade of
encodings that we find in every digital computing system, and the articulation of those encodings
that is bound up in everything we do. Encoding can be recursive, but do we really
understand it? What is happening when we encode a sentence as a character string?
A character as an integer? An integer as an octet? Is encoding a well-understood linguistic
or mathematical relationship? Is encoding just a mapping (function)? Is it the same
as the relationship between a name and its referent? Is it the same as the relationship
between a sentence and the proposition it expresses? I don’t think so. So let’s explore