Verba manent, scripta Volant #2: What are (digital) documents, in the end? Memories!

Verba manent, scripta Volant #2: What are (digital) documents, in the end? Memories!

Ontological philosophers pose a nice paradox about the real relevance of written documents.

Let’s imagine that a woman convenes with her son at a lawyer’s office in order to execute a donation of a precious painting to him.

And let’s imagine that her brain is not able to retain any memory of the closing of that donation.

So, she will go on assuming that the painting belongs to her, she will report to the authorities the missing painting and the police will eventually find the painting in the home of her son.

If, at this point, the donator is confronted with the written document of the donation, without having any memory of signing it, she will conclude that such a document is a forgery.  Even if she recollects that she actually wanted to donate the painting, still she will be shocked to see that her son assumes to be the rightful owner, if she has no memory of signing the donation.

If the lawyer and the eventual witnesses testify that she has actually signed it, she will be increasingly frustrated and despaired, but not convinced, as long as she cannot recollect the event of convening in the lawyer’s office and signing the donation.

This will be the situation, if just one of the involved parties has no memory of the generation of the document.

Now, what would have happened, if the human brain had been unable to retain any memory of signing a document (like in the case of dreams , of which we are unable to retain the memory)? What if nobody would recollect anything of what happened in the lawyer’s office? Well, then documents would be utterly useless!   They simply would not prove anything!

So, if we look at (analogue and digital) documents, we have to be mindful of anything that is not apparent, but still essential in the definition of document: that it is something created intentionally by a human being and therefore it is something that ontologically leaves a specific recording in the brain of the persons involved in the generation of the document (or its exchange/execution).  Without that trace of the generation of the document in the mind of the author (and/or of the relying parties), no document can exist (or, if it existed, like in the donation example, it would be a useless document, which is, almost, a contradiction in terms).

In fact, the (wrongly named) “document”, generated without intention and without consciousness, is a registration: think of a camera inadvertently switched on and left filming, until the battery dies; in this case, maybe, it will never be discovered that there is a registration. In the documental pyramid, that registration is more than a trace, because it has been generated by a tool, designed for that purpose. But it is less than an inscription, because it is not meant to be shared in any way: it is just a registration.

An example of inscription is the registration of the security camera filming the entrance door of a bank. Such a registration is meant to be accessed by the police, in case of a crime, or by the system administrator in order to store it, until the day when it must be deleted, for data protection reasons. Here again, probably, nobody will ever look at the registration. Nonetheless, since it is designed to be accessed by more than one person, it is more than a registration, it is an inscription. Inscriptions are more likely to be transformed into documents through intentional use, subsequent to the generation of the inscriptions.

Before the invention of recording machines in the XIX century, almost all kind of items with hand-made traces on themselves (paintings, drawings, text, etc.) were inscriptions or documents. If they were not documents, it was mostly because there was a precise intention not to share the information recorded on the item (like personal notes and scribbles).

They have the ontological property that they can be physically immediately perceived by the author (and the relying parties);

they have the ontological property that they are visible to humans without the use of any device;

moreover, paper based documents (again, ontologically) can be handled/exchanged without the need of any tool (they are not liquid or gaseous, too hot or too cold, too big, too little, too heavy or too light, to fit such a purpose);

paper based documents exist in the same dimension (the physical –or analogic- dimension) where the author and the relying parties exist themselves.

For all the above mentioned properties, the generation and validation (signature) of a paper based document, is (almost) always a physical, immediate experience of the author (and of the other relying parties): the case of a human being creating involuntarily a handwritten paper based document is just theoretical and scholastic (the drunken writer/signer, the sleepwalker, etc.).

Things have become more complicated lately, due to technological evolution.

First, in the XIV c., the invention of the printing press for reproducing text and images. Since then, in order to reproduce information, we have been able to use machines that record/reproduce images and sounds on some analogue supports. They were, in chronological order:


  • XIX c. celluloid for photographed and filmed images,
  • XIX c. shellac records for sound,
  • XX c. magnetic tape for images and sound,
  • XX c. cyclostyle and photocopier for reproducing text and images.

Before such machines were invented[m3] ; but, still, the items created by such machines are just recordings (or inscriptions, if publicly displayed), as long as they are not intentionally apperceived/intended by the author and/or by the relying parties as documents.

Before recording technologies were developed, there was no way of generating documents unintentionally!

It was also impossible to distinguish morphologically the original from the copy: both were handmade.

Now, the most common way of generating paper documents is the utilization of a multifunctional recording machine (the computer). So, in handwritten documents, it has become possible to distinguish original and copy, because they are morphologically different. But it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the original from the copy in all the other kinds of documents. Moreover, registrations, inscriptions and documents that (at the time of handwritten documents) used to be morphologically distinguishable have become identical. To distinguish between recordings, inscriptions and (true) documents, it is necessary to look into the semantics of the document, and eventually also into its technical structure.

Today’s photocopies are so perfect that it is almost impossible to distinguish the copy from the original.


But it is with “digital documents” that we come into a situation where almost all properties of paper documents and other analogue documents are turned on their head:

a) Therefore, we take for granted something that is essential, but not obvious: that the generation of a document also produces some memories of the generation of such document. This is not simply because the document is ontologically intentional, but also because it is physical and it exists in a way that can be apperceived by humans, without the need of any tool (magnifying glasses, microscopes, displays, grips, etc.).

Most “digital documents” would precisely be created (and eventually even signed) unless the “author” and the “signer” may have any perception of the “digital document” being created (and eventually signed). Therefore, the “author” and even the relying parties may not have any recollection of the generation/exchange/execution of the “digital document”.

[1] (1) With stand-alone personal computers or mainframes, data/information were located in the same room where the hardware was also located; with LANs, the information was located in the server/mainframe of the LAN, normally in the same building; later on, when the cost of geographic networks became affordable (i.e. the cost of data transmission was independent from the distance to be covered by the network, and that was, again, around year 2000), it was located somewhere in the same region/nation. From that moment on, it became possible to distribute data/information over a set of different locations.

[2] There is no inherent lifespan to a given document. A train ticket is relevant and useful for the duration of the trip. But if we want to tax-deduct the cost of that trip, then the ticket is relevant for the time that the tax authority is entitled to verify it. If audit requires to preserve the document for a longer time than its fiscal relevance, then from an auditing point of view there will be a third lifespan of such ticket.


Questa voce è stata pubblicata in digital agreement, digital documentation, digitalisation, semiotics e taggata come , , , , . Aggiungi ai segnalibri il permalink.