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Where some ideas are stranger than others...


The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Some time ago, I wrote a short meditation on developments in the design of computer interfaces called Touch Me Not, following on a longer term interest in this area and the more immediate inspiration of recent readings by Edward Tufte and Bret Victor. (Another related piece on this site is my brief review of The Humane Interface by Jef Raskin.) For that meditation, I was puzzling over the persistent idea that in the future, we humans are expected to touch "technology" with no more than one finger. With the band wagon of "voice control" claiming more members all the time, apparently even one finger is too much for some developers. Their ideal is voice control alone, at least until they can arrange for everything to be automatic. At long last, here is the full essay following up on that meditation.

An essay that discusses books may seem like a strange way to consider the possible ways computer interfaces could be developed, but in fact, books are an excellent proxy for the issue. Books are widely known and available in a way computers still are not, and even in the home of the most diehard hipster parents you would be hard-pressed to find no paper books at all for their already mini-computer equipped offspring. Plus, books are operated – wait for it – with our fingers. So once effort began going explicitly into making something on a computer that would somehow mimic a book, the effort became one all of us could relate to and approach with deeper interest. In a now famous speech, Neil Gaiman, fondly remembering Douglas Adams, reported his friend's comment that "books are sharks." Then, Gaiman reports, Adams declared only books are best at being books. But this begs a question, what the hell does a book do that makes it not, for example, a computer? Thinking back to the starting meditation leading to this essay, books are already operated with our fingers, and if we follow the logic of interface development implied by the mock ups and envisionings of the usual techno-boosters, books should already be near peak perfection. Yet those same boosters have been declaring more and more loudly, more and more desperately, that books are passé, when the real life evidence says otherwise. I think it is fair to say that this tells us at least two things. First, books and computers alike are heaped over with mystification to the point of making the Augean stables look fresh. Second, books are a proxy not merely for essays, but for particular visions of how the world should work and what technology is.

A reasonable starting point is to try digging out from under the pile of mystification, by sorting out what we mean by a book. My OED starts out confidently enough, "a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers." Since the OED is a historical rather than a prescriptive dictionary, it then promptly adds that "a book" may be something written and intended to be published as a book, probably in the paper and glue sense at the beginning. Then it refers to "books" in the metonymic sense, such as "she hit the books" meaning "she went to study from her books" before mentioning unhelpfully the division of "classical literary works" into books. Then we learn about certain types of publications referred to as "books" bound in slightly different ways from the starting definition. The reference to "classical literary works" is really quite shameful, because it is deceiving. The term usually translated as "books" from the so-called "classical era" referred to the individual scrolls on which the work in question was written. The nine "books" of Herodotus' Histories were in fact nine scrolls.

A more promising approach is to consider what those diverse creatures have in common that we refer to literally or metaphorically, as books. The first "books" were scrolls, and people invented them not to help them remember, but to help them share. Having a stable writing system, plus tools, time, and reason to use it does not degrade human memory per se, or the memory systems people use to help them remember things. We are not so different than humans from 10 000 years ago, let alone a mere 4 000, and no matter when people take up writing, nobody writes down every possible thing, if for no other reason than practicality. The still well-known exemplars of this are the ancient Greeks, from whom the Romans learned mnemonics. Speechmakers who wanted respect didn't take notes to the boule or the rostrum, let alone a scroll to read off of. They brought their speech for performance as far as possible in their heads, probably using the method of loci described by Cicero in his De Oratore (nodictionaries.com version). Having mentally walked through a sequence of places stored with items representing each part of their speech, delivered their words, and hopefully won their case, these orators (whom we would now call lawyers and politicians) went home. If they wanted to publish their speeches beyond the immediate audience of the original performance, and time didn't allow for them to run around reprising it for every possible interested friend and enemy, there was only one solution. The orator could write it down, probably via a literate slave, and then have it copied for distribution. This is how we have been blessed or afflicted, depending on your point of view, with so many speeches by Cicero.

Sample Concise Oxford English Dictionary page. This remained the basis of writing and publication far beyond the ancient world, through the so-called "dark ages" wherever writing, speechmaking, and some form of scholarship has persisted. Otherwise, mainstream scholarship could have genuinely continued ignoring the work in the entire rest of the world outside of the west edge of asia despite having taken full advantage of the materials available in various "eastern" and other empires and other polities whenever they came available. And they often did become available, because people took the effort to write them down, and learn additional languages, and translate them and write them again, in scrolls. Then in the early book form known as the codex, which is to this day the practical physical definition of "book" we use, enshrined as the primary definition in the OED and many other dictionaries. The key thing people wanted to do was share information beyond themselves, not merely in time, or even in time necessarily, because mnemonic systems work very well indeed over extraordinary spans of time. They wanted especially to share information over space, between persons beyond their immediate vicinity. Even more so, they wanted to share new ideas. The "new ideas" part promptly ran afoul of anyone who wished to maintain certain types of social control, which depends absolutely on everybody sharing the idea that the control is necessary and necessarily by specific anyones. No contradictions to that idea or alternatives allowed. This was a major drive behind the spanish obsession with burning every single written thing they could recognize and get their hands on in the americas. Overall, this is consistent with Leah Price's findings in her study of the uses of books in the victorian era. She noted ruefully in the introduction, "If 'book' really connoted materiality, there would be no need to affix the pleonastic [extra word] 'object': if 'text' really provided an adequate term for a linguistic structure, I would refer to what you are now reading as 'this text.'"

Sharing of information then, is a central task of most things we refer to as books. Okay, now the question is what the object we usually call a book does specifically that makes it a shark as opposed to say, a sabre toothed tiger. It is tempting to consider books mere carriers of "text" or "ideas," and indeed, some people do argue for this, and that therefore the "body" of the book, the paper and cardboard, is redundant. Before accepting their arguments though, it is important to take seriously what it is a physical book does.

As a starting point, let's take one of the more common and less controversial books most of us have around, the dictionary. My paper copy of an older edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) should work well enough for our purposes. It fulfills the starting definition of a book already given in all respects. A sample page from this dictionary is shown above left. It's not a bad sample. It has black type set within margins on numbered pages, and you go from page to page by flipping with your fingers. Several fonts are used to separate definitions from words and perform a number of other jobs. This isn't a great sample, because the margins and type are much smaller than any "average" book in general, since far more books are meant for concentrated reading than quick reference like this dictionary. On the other hand, like all those other paper books, this COED does not need batteries or any other power source to work. It will stand up to a surprising level of abuse, including water, mold, insects, and even low levels of fire. This particular sample page is from a book 53 years old. I have a few others closer to a century old, representatives of mass-produced latin and greek school books of their time. Their survival despite the depredations of students between the ages of 10 and 17 is a bit of luck, and while they can't be expected to survive what the COED can or anything newer (or arguably today's 10 to 17 year olds), they are still holding together well and are quite usable. This is all mostly physics though, so now let's return to the question of interface.

The difference between books we read for long periods versus books we refer to briefly has already been mentioned, and demonstrates how they are arranged differently depending on how the books are expected to be used. Expectations have changed significantly over the years. For example, when the ancient Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, they repurposed several symbols to represent vowels, and soon left off leaving space between the words. Punctuation came along very slowly, and nobody had any reason to invent small letters to contrast with capitals. The result was scriptura continua, blocks of capital letters written without word breaks and often no more than something to indicate a full stop. This didn't change for literally millennia. Two examples of scriptura continua are shown below, the first a fragmentary example from the Oxyrhynchus texts, and the second from the early medieval period. People reading scriptura continua fully expected to annotate and mark up their own books with punctuation that made sense to them. Problems could often be resolved by reading the text out loud, and since reading a book aloud was common afterdinner entertainment among the reasonably well-off, the text would often be marked up to assist just such a performance. In fact, this is not such a bad point to keep in mind. These texts supported performances, communal sharing of what the scroll contained. The real marker of consistent private and silent reading is the prevalence of texts written with word spacing and in smaller sizes compatible with holding in one hand or propped up by a couple of other books or even a cushion or roll of cloth.

P.Oxy XXI 2289, Sappho, from Oxyrhynchus Online. Sample of late medieval scriptura continua.

When it came to philosophical or religious works, the scrolls might be laid out with much wider margins to allow commentary and explanations to be added all around the main text, a practice used whether the words were spaced or not. Some of the best known annotated scrolls are from the Scholia, volumes of comments and comments upon comments on the homeric epics. The first image below on the left gives a sense of what these could look like. Alternatively, the lines might be widely spaced to allow interlinear comments instead, as shown in the second snippet, also from the Scholia. The practice of leaving space for marginalia continued right into the early modern period, as the third image shows, from a printed edition of Aristotle. Scholars of all kinds, especially students, were fully expected to enter notes alongside their texts during and after their lectures. Students could work hard on their notes for much greater ends than passing an examination. For instance, Michael Faraday famously won his way out of the bookbinding trade to become a widely respected experimentalist by presenting Humphry Davy a three hundred page tome derived from the notes he took at Davy's lectures. All this said, as the source site for the Aristotle image text reminds us, in the early days of bookbinding, the binding step was more often done after the purchase of a book. Accordingly, a person might choose to bind several texts together, or have additional sheets of blank paper bound in for them to add more material by hand.

The description of the uses of marginal and interlinear notes so far has left out a great deal of controversy, because these notes themselves became a battlefield in european and english books. Evelyn B. Tribble provides an overview of such controversies in early modern england, which inevitably also outlines the english monarchy's doomed attempts to maintain absolute control over who and what was printed. Tribble explains how in that context, the earliest notes were about calling on an authority who was no longer present, be it an ancient greek poet or the more potent ones associated with the accepted version of the christian bible. With the advent of vernacular bibles in england, the notes became a means to challenge accepted interpretations of texts used as the license for the form of particular christian ceremonies. This was a highly dangerous argument to get involved with, and the people most interested were deeply engaged with efforts at protestant reform. Meanwhile, the notion of a present-day author, typically a man, who won fame and claimed his own share of authority by centring himself as the primary author and at first paradoxically citing ancient authorities to justify what he wrote began in the same period. Here then is a tightly encapsulated case of marginal and interlinear notes being taken often in deadly earnest as telling people what to think about what they read, and even when not to read specific sections of a given text. Our present day ability to read, interpret, and annotate as we please, and to ignore annotations whether they are printed or written in by someone else without concern should not be taken for granted.

First sample scriptura continua from the Scholia. Second sample scriptura continua from the Scholia. Annotated early printed Aristotle.

Modern textbooks and other non-fiction works are no longer so friendly to people who may wish to make comments or additions to their own copies. Nor is post-purchase binding or even rebinding of books so common. The margins are often far too narrow for either practice, and an ongoing fierce campaign against writing in books has encouraged unfriendly layouts of this type. It makes excellent sense for library books and other types of communally owned books to be designed in this way. For modern university students, annotations can spoil resale value, so even if there were helpful margins they have reason not to use them, though this does not stop rampant highlighting by any means. In fact, school texts are often effectively communally owned because they are handed down from year to year at elementary and secondary levels, and resold as often as possible at post-secondary levels. Yet they are also no longer as tightly integrated into the course of lectures because few instructors have time to write their own textbooks.

The expectations of those who pick up fiction that is not used as part of language instruction have changed over time as well. Reading for "leisure" in the modern sense took some time to take off, not least because books were originally quite expensive. Even that didn't change much, although width of margin was still important. More expensive books could have wider margins as a more or less strong sign of conspicuous consumption. If left empty, there was an implied pretention to scholarship. If filled up with the ornaments and illustrations most of us are familiar with from illuminated manuscripts, scholarship may or may not have been part of the message. However, as Price explains, "The nineteenth century book trade formed a key site in the struggle between an economy that paired high prices with a succession of multiple users, and an economy that produced cheap, single use goods." Indeed, the nineteenth century is the era in which both the forerunners of the paperback novel and the postal service were invented. Suddenly, people found themselves dealing with much hated junk mail, especially when postage was still paid by the receiver, not the sender, and books as a "storage problem." No one wanted to be saddled with books they would never read again, and most modern novels resist rereading, and are even defined by that resistance, so it is no surprise that lending libraries began to proliferate in this period as well. A significant aspect of The Lord of the Rings' cachet is that it is in fact rereadable, and this holds true of many novels deemed "higher" or "lesser classics." Novels are what bring us at last to the concept of the computer as book, because it is the sales and production of novels that have been most disrupted by the advent of "ebooks," meaning the electronic files, and oddly named "ereader" programs meant to display them on computer screens.

Having made it at least this far out of the mystification pile, all of a sudden the idea that books on paper are going anywhere is obviously silly. If the texts affected are novels unlikely to be reread because people don't find them rereadable, then they are a storage problem and a burden for anyone who collects them in paper form. It makes perfect sense to shift those into an electronic format, or to try reading a novel of uncertain rereadability status in an electronic format first. Those were intended to be ephemeral publications anyway. But please note, this does not mean such novels don't carry any ideas, or the ideas they carry are not valuable. Far from it, in fact. Students have already found that textbooks, even the ones they never use again, are rarely better for their purposes in electronic format. That said, students certainly do appreciate being able to leave the heavier hard copy at home or their dorm, and use the electronic edition in class.

Hard copies do have things going for them that an electronic copy doesn't, even though it is possible to apply highlighting and make annotations and bookmarks to our heart's content in the latter just as in the former. Listen to Tim Ferriss' interview with Maria Popova on this point, for instance. My own experience of electronic annotating is that text notes are awkward to the point of useless: difficult to add smoothly and quickly, worse to access later. A personal anecdote does not make a general characterization, and I expected both Ferriss and Popova to extol electronic notes considering both are busy people highly engaged with computers and website work. Perhaps they would have, if they hadn't discovered their extensive annotations were not easily transferable between their ereader applications or the devices they ran them on. As a graduate student and writer, this is an issue that kills an electronic version dead as a longterm tool. Then there are the recent problems with vanishing ebook sellers and arbitrary remote deletions over the late 2000s and mid 2010s. Of such things early onset heart attacks for serious readers are made. I apply such emotive language quite deliberately, because it reflects the deep personal engagement with the text that even the lightest annotation reflects. The text in question is not merely something you or I may blow off a few minutes with or wind down before bed reading, never seriously expecting to look at it again. Those annotations are not just sentimental bits and bobs either, they represent work. So it is little wonder that people get upset on discovering they can lose their work due to an arbitrary decision by a corporation or a bug in the software. Natural disaster is quite bad enough.

There is a bit more to consider here, because by now it is obvious that "interface" does not mean just something you look at or poke at, or even shout at. Practically it means all the ways open to you to use whatever device you are dealing with, including repurposing it for other more or less permanent tasks. Without changing a thing about a book, its design allows us to apply a physical system of loci to it, regardless of genre, whether we find it rereadable, or anything else. By this I mean not only the apparatus of books we have gotten used to, such as where the table of contents, index, and so on are placed. In searching for a passage, we can apply our sense of where it was in the book based on how many pages were on either side of the spine to help us find it. As David Sax points out in The Revenge of Analog, there is more than a system of loci inherent in the structure of a book: "The haptic variation from one printed page to another helps stem the feeling of information overload." In other words, the pages provide pacing. Sax also notes a little further on that reading on paper is also more conducive to "serendipity," the same phenomenon regular library and bookstore patrons experience when they stumble on another unexpectedly relevant or interesting book while looking for something else.

Even quirky things such as recommending specific parts of a book based on how many sticky notes or written annotations you have made, often via a quick glance, is facilitated by how books are designed. We've all cursed or blessed dog-eared pages, and if we've been lucky, intrigued by where a well-used but barely marked book falls open. If we've been unlucky, we have struggled to comfortably read a book bound too tightly or a paperback with pages too small, in each case making the book hard to hold or keep open for extended periods. The remarkable objects, slips, letters, and receipts found in books of all kinds is legendary. My own years of second-hand book purchases and trawling through older books in university libraries has turned up some striking and occasionally disturbing ad hoc bookmarks. And yes, sometimes people use books as impromptu plant presses and the like, usually large, hard cover reference books that are not flipped through too much.

UPDATE 2020-07-18 - Predictions of the death of the book go quite far back, including in the turn of the twentieth century. The Public Domain Review discusses one such publication, Octave Uzanne's "The End of Books" (1894). If you'd like to go straight to the publication itself, it is hosted among other places, at the Internet Archive.

The physical system of loci we apply to a book need have nothing to do with the book's literal content, as many of us know from having one or more books that carry sentimental value based on where we bought them, who we received them from if they were gifts and so on. It seems unlikely that computers or ereader devices could take over this niche, not as a matter of emotional valence (although that is a factor), but as a matter of practicality. We humans are capable of remarkable feats of anthropomorphism and ritualistic behaviour, yet it is hard to see how this could be applied successfully to an electronic file to allow it to carry out the same task. I suspect this may be because of the very aspect of books certain classes of people in victorian england were so eager to elide, that they are handled. In other words they are selected and eventually passed on by hand, even if the process is rendered more indirect by a trip through the mail. They are often inscribed or accompanied by bookmarks or cards. Such books represent a personal relationship and expression of personal care. Perhaps the root here is something like the metaphor of personal warmth, which has roots in our experience of being held comfortably as small children. In this case the earlier experience may simply be the first time we were given a present and realized that we were being given something special of our own. So there is potentially deep memory as well as more than one sense all involved in making a book special to one person yet of no worth at all to someone else. This is the antithesis of a cheap, single use, mass-produced good on many levels, and a cheap mass market paperback may be unexpectedly recategorized into a book to be preserved rather than used and thrown away by becoming a symbol of human relationship in this way.

By now, it is much clearer what makes a book like a shark instead of a sabre toothed tiger. It is adaptable to different audiences and different uses. Even narrow margins can be overcome by inserting slips of paper if we insist. They can take significant punishment, which even the fanciest and most battle-hardened "ereader devices" can't do without the addition of heavy cases. We can easily pass along the book without concern about "digital rights management" not only to our coffee buddy but generations down the line. If the book in question is rereadable or otherwise useful in a way that would lead us to want to curate it in the longer term, the environmentally winceworthy option of a cheap paperback to use rather than that specific copy is still available instead. While it may not be the best environmental option, such cheap books are often the only option where devices to read electronic versions are unavailable or impracticable because they are delicate and need electricity. But it isn't the cheapest paperbacks that are sharks anyway. More important than all of these, the book interface is easy to learn, as indeed is that of the scroll, the founding metaphor of the application windows on all of our computer screens. (Including all the problems the invention of the codex was meant to overcome.) We have all so completely internalized how the interface works, we have forgotten that at one time even adults needed to spend some time experimenting to learn how to use them, and in fact we are still experimenting with the various physical manifestations of "the book."

There is an important difference between the way a paper book's interface guides us to use it, and the various envisionings quoted in Touch Me Not. All those envisionings share a denial and distancing of the body. Touching is minimized or precluded all together. The ability to alter or repurpose the device is denied by various means. Today since most interface development heat and light is focussed on computers, this means trying to make a general purpose computer into a single use computer. Furthermore, they insist on a type of prescriptivism, they are "prescriptive technologies" as defined by Ursula Franklin in The Real World of Technology. Such technologies take away control and definition of tasks away from the person who is actually doing them, and place it in the hands of some type of manager whose primary concern is "efficiency." By "efficiency" the manager generally means making the most money from the task for themselves. Their base assumption about the people actually carrying out the task is that they should do it in as short a time as possible. To date this has been achieved via the practices of men like Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, both of whom were obsessed with breaking down tasks so they could be performed using the least time, energy, and skill of any given worker. By standardizing the task, they expected to effectively standardize the worker, or at least make it easier to replace any obstreperous skilled workers with unskilled, cheaper alternatives. With the advent of the electronic book, it was only a matter of time before this same greedy and contemptuous mindset would be applied to reading, and so it has. Amazon has begun introducing a type of publishing in which their ereader monitors whether you have opened a given electronic book, how many pages you have read, and whether you finished it, all to charge you only according to what you actually read, with a proportional amount going to the author. Presumably, besides making it all the easier to pay writers next to nothing, this is supposed to allow "the marketplace to work" on books by paying the most-read authors the most. Authors, who by the way, are already paid the most. The others read the most right now will not necessarily be the ones whose books will persist in a community's net reading list over time. Think of the difference between the Lord of the Rings or even (much as it pains me to acknowledge this) the works of Ayn Rand, and the Fifty Shades series.

Regardless of any person's view of the market and its ability to ensure just and appropriate outcomes, I would hope we can all agree that intrusive surveillance is bad. As Ursula Franklin pointed out in 1989, prescriptive technology supports and increases intrusive surveillance. In the case of electronic books, the same system that charges only by page read can also continue charging you every time you reread a page. It could be updated to charge for the privilege of annotating the book, or permanently block making any notes because "only the author" can change the text. Of course, this is a type of adaptability. The trouble is, taken in this direction it works precisely against the sharing of ideas and information people invented books to do in the first place. This is the trouble with "digital rights management," a prescriptive technology and silent interface change officially intended to ensure authors get paid. There are many ways to achieve the goal of getting authors paid for their writing that do not involve spying on readers. The type of adaptability a prescriptive technology has is not the same as that a shark has, however. Prescriptive adaptability narrows possibilities to fit a specific niche more and more tightly. Should the niche change or vanish, the prescriptively adapted technology or creature dies. Yet it is prescriptive adaptability that lends itself best to the tight control and elision of the body, as we can see in the apotheosis of taylor/ford-ism in the assembly line robot.

Contrast creative adaptability, which opens up tasks to be redefined and contributed to by everyone, not just a narrow cadre of managers or those pretending to such positions. Creative adaptability is what enables humans to live successfully without the type of hierarchies endemic among insects like bees and ants. It also enables humans to cope sensibly with our frailties, from compensating for lost, damaged, or nonexistent senses to enabling us to create accessible external memories and take the responsibility for our actions necessary in an ethical society.

After all this digging and virtual stable cleaning using our book proxy for computer interfaces, what have we learned? First, many of the computer interface developers foresee a world in which there is no longer a general purpose computer, or at least we are no longer able to access and use a general purpose computer in a way that exploits its potential. Furthermore, they foresee a world in which they will control how we interact with computers, from what we do, to how long we do it, to whether any work we do will be something we control, and how long the tally for any activity at all using the computer will be. The untrustworthy computers so produced will not only spy on us incessantly to keep that non-general computing aspect preserved, they will be fragile and difficult to use anywhere there is water, or dust, or the potential to drop them, or a lack of microfibre cloths and glass cleaner. Maybe they have delusions of controlling the movement of ideas and thoroughly preventing people from finding creative additional uses of computers once and for all. Maybe they don't realize this is the endgame of the models they are advocating. We have also learned that many computer interface visionaries have absolutely no clue how we use books or why we use them, or what makes them sharks. This means they are also unable to appreciate or trust human creativity or engagement with the ideas. All too often the ven diagram of those folks and those who can't see the point of the humanities overlaps almost completely, and it is precisely the people in fields who are not writers, engaged readers, or students in fields that can't sensibly depend on online resources who may never understand books for lack of exposure.

These are the last sort of people I would want determining the future of computer interfaces and/or how we humans share ideas and engage with the ideas we care about most. Let's favour the folks with more adventurous visions and a genuine respect for human beings, bearing in mind that maybe we can't imagine right now what those future interfaces will be like. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course – in fact, Bret Victor has a marvellous presentation describing some of his very different ideas, The Humane Representation of Thought. You'll notice the one of things he does not say or suggest, is that books, our proxy in this essay, are going anywhere. He talks about adding to our tools for expressing, understanding, and sharing ideas, and bringing all of our senses and our bodies into carrying out those tasks. Yes, I am obviously biased, but doesn't this sound better than a one finger world where we wish ruefully for microfibre cloths and glass cleaner?

  1. This anecdote is reported in many places, including at BrainPickings, the source I recommend, not only because Maria Popova's site is wonderful, but also because she is wholly reader supported and refuses to display ads.
  2. By this I mean both writing things down and the mnemonic systems. For an excellent overview of this in europe, Frances A. Yates' The Art of Memory, first published in 1966 is still unsurpassed. She begins in the "ancient world" meaning alas, only ancient greece and rome, and continues on to the 1700s in western europe, ending roughly around the time of Leibniz. I have not yet found a comparable text or texts for other parts of the world, but will add useful items as they come up.
  3. There is a growing amount of scholarship on this, much of it tied all the way back to the "homeric question," whether the homeric epics were written by a single person in the fashion of later long poems or not. The consensus now is they were not a single creative work but a remarkable compilation built up from a framework of formulaic elements. In other words, a system of story ideas analogous to loci which a performer could use to build up a performance. An immediately accessible introduction to this is the Pathways Project, the electronic version of John Miles Foley's book, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind.

    This is not to deny the fact that writing has turned out to be another way to preserve information and ideas over the longterm. That is an accidental feature we often don't take seriously enough, or appreciate fully despite all the lip service paid to it, especially when we are presented with ill-thought ideas about what the "web" is. Bret Victor draws this issue out wonderfully (and terrifyingly) in The Web of Alexandria and The Web of Alexandria (Follow Up).

  4. Price, Leah 2012 How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton University Press, Princeton. Page 4.
  5. This is no longer my standard reference OED because it is far too old. I have it purely for sentimental reasons. The often derided function of books as repositories of memory and sentiment not literally represented in the book will be considered a bit further on.
  6. This illustration is from POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online, an online database of photographs of Oxyrhynchus texts housed at Oxford University. The Oxyrhynchus texts come mainly from ancient garbage dumps in Egypt, which contributes to their often fragmentary condition. Not all papyri are as broken up as this (for example, the bit of the odyssey held at the metropolitan museum of art in new york), including many retrieved from ancient papier mache mummy cases.
  7. For this illustration, I am indebted to the ETEC540: Text Technologies blog out of the University of British Columbia.
  8. Tarik Wareh's Intensive Beginning Greek Course page provided the original in much larger and more legible size.
  9. The source here is Ancient Marginalia: Resurrecting the Multitext by Corey Pressman at DigitalBookWorld.com.
  10. To see a much bigger scan and accompanying article, check Early Modern Books at Starry Messenger, an electronic history of astronomy in development at Cambridge University. For more amazing examples from a range of time periods, see Edward Tufte's Sentences Off the Grid.
  11. The few blank pages headed "Notes" in many dictionaries are not even a fossil of this practice. They are usually just the last few leaves of a signature with pages that were not printed on, rarely more than three in my experience. In the earlier days of the OED, when copies might still be sent out for annotation and correction by selected readers after publication, the copies sent were interleaved, that is blank pages were inserted between each printed page to provide room for the reader's notes. According to H.J. Jackson in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale university Press, New Haven: 2001), this was a commonly available option until the middle of the nineteenth century.
  12. Tribble, Evelyn B. 1993 Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. For the material summarized here, see especially the Introduction: Whose Text?, pages 1-10; Chapter 1 - Authority Control, Community: The English Printed Bible Page From Tyndale to the Authorized Version, 11-17 and 43-55; and Chapter 4 - Genius on the Rack: Authorities and the Margin in Ben Johnson's Glossed Works, 130-158.
  13. Would that the strategy worked!
  14. At times the illustrations could directly contradict the text by telling a different version of the story or a different story all together.
  15. Price, page 247.
  16. Price, page 14.
  17. Price, page 247. Most infamously detective and english-style romance novels.
  18. Sax, David 2016 The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Publicaffairs, New York. Page 111.
  19. Sax, page 113.
  20. If the desire is to create an object that is good for only one thing, implementing it with a computer or shoving a computer in it is the exact opposite of what meets that desire. The key qualifier here though, is if.
  21. A salutary reminder of this can be found in the form of the Medieval Help Desk video on Youtube.
  22. Franklin, Ursula 1990 The Real World of Technology. House of Anansi Press Limited, Concord.
  23. For another examination of the origins of taylorism, see Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press: New York, 1998).
  24. Unfortunately, this does not mean that creative adaptability cannot be dragooned into prescriptive uses, as the manipulation of books to rationalize oppression makes all too clear. The key difference is that creative adaptability does not correspond with designs intended for a single, prescriptive, and nasty use. I briefly worked at what this means practically in a thoughtpiece some time ago, in which I explored the question of whether technology is or can be "neutral."
  25. Personally I don't believe most people in the industry are unaware of this for a second.
  26. Being a part-time computer programmer myself, I am well aware that online resources are generally far more useful for learning and debugging code than a hard copy book, which is often out of date. (And if it isn't, good luck getting it out of the library or tracking down a hard copy for use any other way.)
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Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:25:33