The blinking cursor

There’s no other way to say this: there is a lot of rubbish online, on websites, fora, social media, blogs (none is immune). But behind the rubbish, like any rubbish, is unchecked dissipation, in this case writing incontinence. Again, nobody is really immune, and this short rant might just be proving the point. Everything goes these days, as far as writing goes. It makes one think, what on earth is making everybody type all of a sudden?

My theory is this, the blinking cursor is to blame for everything. The vertical-bar blinking cursor was invented by the engineer Charles A. Kiesling in 1967 and is now everywhere.

The cursor is bad enough already – why something needs to run (for non Latin-minded readers, cursor means runner or messenger) beats me (and not to the finishing line). Writing has always been one of the slowest human operations ever conceived. It used to take hours to just get the tech ready for writing, preparing the pen, mixing the ink, quarrying the stone, harvesting the reed or slaughtering the sheep.

The blinking cursor is the ultimate expression of impatience. Why does the cursor have to blink, unless to urge us to type, to type quicker, to type anything, as long as we type. Because not typing is depriving the cursor of all the typing possibilities, and the blinking will have been in vain. By blinking, the cursor is making a statement, telling us that we need to hurry, to do it, now, before the blinking stops.

I’m certain that the world would be different if cursors didn’t blink – we would blink more before rushing to write anything, anytime.

Dépaysement

Thank God for words like dépaysement. There’s nothing more [uncoined cognate adjective] to a language than words which don’t really belong. We refer to these words as ‘loanwords’, which is a bit doltish. On loan until when? It seems to me that no loanwords have ever been returned to their owner. Despite their half-baked name, loanwords are extremely useful. They force a language to look at itself in the mirror and say, I am this or that, but I can be anything. The loanword is the expression of a language’s own dépaysement, its sense of not being at home, the trepidation of being there yet not belonging, the giddiness of foreigness, the excitement of adventure. Familiar yet alien, a drop of déjà-vu in an ocean of oddity.

To experience dépaysement is to draw the contours of one’s own world and to realise that the edges are porous. We have developed skills to help us ‘get used to’ previously unencountered things, new challenges, etc, but, really, the only required skill is a honing of our sense of awe. Dépaysement urges us to leave ourselves behind and to look ahead at the unknown scenery. The closest English ever comes to rendering dépaysement is disorientation. But this is a nervous gloss, the acknowledgment of crossing into discomfort zone. Where’s the sense of wonder in that?

Soundbite news

A page from a 13th-century chronicle showing the annals for the years 978-991 AD, College of Arms, Arundel 10

Each age decides what’s newsworthy and especially when news happens. For our 0-lag age, news happens around the clock. We find out about it as it happens, and by virtue of our ability to record and broadcast the world around us almost in real time, we can be generators of news. Before radio and television news, news was what happened yesterday. As we move back in time, the gap gets bigger. For ancient and medieval societies, news often overlapped with history – both belonging to the past, both reliant on historiography for their recovery.

The most popular historiographical genre in the Western Middle Ages was the annal. A tool for presenting the past in a succint yet meaningful way, the annal was also an important device for conveying news from one community to another. A short line of text in a chronicle to say that, on this day, this happened, was literate Europe’s way of passing newsworthy information from one community of text – a religious institution, a princely court, to another.

The great thing about annals is that they were brief. There was no room for interpretation, not much space for commentary. The event was given in a raw, undigested form. An English chronicle notes that, in 855:

Magnus paganorum exercitus Anglia vastata in insula que Sepeya dicitur hiemavit.

A Great Viking army raided England and passed the winter on the island of Sheppey.

The chronicler was shooting in RAW, no filters, no gloss. Do with the soundbite as you will, the information is there.

The medieval annal was so unprocessed that it scandalised many modern critics, who doubted that the text of such historical records can even be considered narrative. Lacking emplotment, the medieval annal was, we might say, telegraphic in form and content. It was information at its purest, even when its source was doubtful.

‘You’re dead to me’

We’ve been blocking undesired and uninvited people in our lives long before Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp put us in charge of the block killswitch. Sometimes, we can go so far as to eliminate someone from our lives so completely that we’d even escape the dreaded ‘you’re dead to me’. There’s no worse block than that. But life is such that even when that happens, even when we commit to total rejection of another person, there are no guarantees. They could still show up at our doorstep, approach us in public, at a conference, in contexts where unwilling smiles and niceties are piled up to hide the awful truth that we’ve severed all links from each other.

Whatever we do, social disconnection is always approximate, never guaranteed. You can get a restraining order against an abuser, but they can always approach you one more time at the risk of their own freedom. You may apply to have your telephone number unlisted in the ‘telephone book’, but someone can still call you, even after you’ve asked them not to.

What I’ve said here is obvious to everyone who’s ever entered and exited relationships, but this way of being is also under attack by the novel sociology of guaranteed outcomes. This comes mainly from the world of social media, where approximations, both in the mythology of control it generates and in the way advertising is being deployed thereon, are being replaced with certainty and machine-type reliability.

I’ve recently been given the equivalent of ‘you’re dead to me’ on social media by a person I used to be friends with, and the networks have ensured that I wouldn’t be able to contact that person again wherever I turn online. I can still walk up to their house, and call their telephone number, write them a letter, even, but if I keep myself to the online world, the off-switch remains univocally off. It’s guaranteed.

Peer-to-peer libraries

There are private libraries and there are public libraries. Walk-in libraries and appointment-only libraries. Libraries that are easy and fun to use and libraries where you only go to when you really need to.

Whatever they are, libraries are institutions, places of permanence and stability. Historically, libraries emerged in places that were least likely to disappear overnight, like religious instututions or imperial, royal and princely courts. That is because building a library doesn’t happen overnight. In many ways, a library is like a family, it grows over generations depending on how well family members – its custodians – look after it. And like any institution, libraries outlive their stewards.

It’s never been easier to access a library, at least in the Western world. The days of book scarcity – or chained library books, for instance – are over. Not every book may be available to a given reader as easily as a Netflix film, but it is nevertheless available. And online libraries, digitisation, public-domain publishing have pushed the envelope of book accessibility even further.

Despite all the inroads made into book democratisation, there is no such thing as peer-to-peer libraries, depositories not guaranteed by a third party. While there might be a trend for micro, pop-up libraries where a few handful of books are offered on a ‘library basis’ to community readers, the concept doesn’t come close to what a peer-to-peer library system at scale might look like. That might be a library which doesn’t need a library to exist, physical or online. A disembodied library which is able to pick itself up by its own bootstraps and walk – or float. A peer-to-peer library is one where the readers are the curators, but it is hard to see how this convergence of roles can keep a library going and not be reduced to a sum of transactions, not unlike crypto-currencies.

Auto incorrect

You might think Grammarly or the autocorrect function on your Microsoft Word are your best friends. They’re not.

While some things benefit the individual in the short term, they might hurt the group in the long run. Adam Smith isn’t always right.

The spell checker has been around since the mid 1980s, constantly growing in jurisdiction and sophistication. The first spell checkers were, well, spell checkers, but as software developed, they acquired grammar, punctuation and syntactical skills. At the moment, the Grammarly app seems to be the triumph of that ambitious vision of error-free drafting. It sounds great and in many ways it is. But in some ways, it isn’t.

There’s at least two problems with automatic correction. One has to do with standardisation, the other with literacy. Both issues regard the culture as well as the individuals within it.

One of the oft-repeated achievements of the printing press has been the mechanisation of textual reproduction. Since human copyists ceased to be part of the replication of written culture after the 16th century (by and large), there was no textual variation between the copies made of a given text. Unlike manuscripts, prints are identical with each other. It is perfectly understandable that the first sustained efforts at reproductive fidelity by scholars and academies postdate rather than predate Gutenberg’s machine. In time, this led to an extreme degree of textual accuracy, standards, and a general desire to draw clear distinctions between what’s grammatically correct and what is not. The ancient and medieval author, scribe and reader didn’t care that much about it. No two manuscripts of the same text were ever the same. But before we rush to celebrate this great cultural achievement, let us remember that most, if not all, European languages were born and wildly evolved during the pre-print age. To take English as an example, the amount of linguistic evolution which English(es) experienced between Beowulf and Shakespeare is wildly higher than that achieved in the period between Shakespeare and T.S. Elliot. And freedom often does to language what it does to society, making it thrive when the landscape is free and inhibiting it when it is not.

The auto-correct tool introduces a further level of standardisation to the way we write. By accepting the conventions of those who built the rules into the software, we may be the position to slow down the natural evolution of language. Not everyone will agree with this, but I am persuaded that fewer rules – or at least rules which are not to be applied like those of arithmetic and geometry – help a language develop more than the proliferation of clearcut directives. Language often flourishes in messy soil.

The other issue is of course externalisation. More than half of what people in pre-electronic ages used to transport in their own cognition is now on a server somewhere. I grew up surrounded by shelves of cassettes and music CDs. Now these shelves are called Spotify. The same with knowledge and scholarship – we memorise far fewer things now, trusting more in our ability to retrieve rather than store. At school, I was taught how to memorise. Now, kids are taught how to Google. Both skills are important. But when it comes to literacy, outsourcing our ability to stay within the lines may be pernicious – not so much to us as individuals, but more to our culture, where signs of illiteracy are everywhere visible. The auto-correct has the answer, but you don’t. Grammarly grows your draft from 60% correctness to 100% not just on spelling, but also on syntax, semantics and style. But we’re not the wiser, or the more literate. Instead, we’re encouraged to grow complacent, obedient to the ‘overall score’, the bedrock of our literacy turned to quicksand.

Enthusiastically yours

An en-thou-siastic St Francis receiving the stigmata, Paris, BnF, Latin 760 f.523r

Has a god recently blown through you or infused you with divine flavours? If you’re feeling enthusiastic, then it must have been the case. At least from an etymological point of view.

Rabelais seems to have been the first to use the word enthousiasme, the root of the English word, as the ‘sacred delirium which seizes the interpreter of divinity, the poet’s exaltation under the effect of inspiration’. But the French word harkens back to the medieval Latin enthusiasmus, which in turn winks over to an older Greek verb enthousiazein, to be inspired or possessed by a god, en_theos, literally to be in-godded.

I en thou – to creatively misquote Buber, though I’m sure he would’ve endorsed the quasi-divine interpenetration of the selves entering an ‘I towards Thou’ relationship.

You don’t have to acknowledge the divine wind to feel enthusiastic. Or to burn with enthusiasm, the kind of passion which earned the word a bad rep in the 17th century when the Puritans started claiming exclusive in-godding within mankind. Thankfully, no amount of misplaced enthusiasm caused enthusiasm to be highjacked by one enthusiastic party or another. But I am tempted by my own enthusiasm to start a petition for the revamping of the word’s spelling, so that we may recover the lost theos root. Because, as the Santa said in The Great Beauty, le radici sono importanti, the roots are important.

Word and attention scarcity

The Twitter revolution is yet to show its full ramifications. We’re beginning to see some of its more significant effects, such as a president’s ability to shortcut traditional channels and effectively rule by tweets, careers made and unmade after someone twitting a 280-character text; divisions between the public and private spaces being disrupted, with Twitter and Facebook presenting themselves as Agora-type structures while being controlled by individuals and groups with very specific interests and agendas.

One effect of the Twitter climate change is the shift towards laconism. This is not without a paradox. Despite the Big-Bang type expansion of internet space, we seem to be headed towards compression. As though we’re running low on space.

If word scarcity in printed media like newspapers and magazines is a result of technology – more text requires more physical space and therefore more ink and more paper, driving the cost of production up –, word scarcity in places like Twitter (and less dogmatically elsewhere) is a result of attention scarcity: we simply don’t have time to read everything, so the value of every word we read is constantly going up. Websites, blogs, podcasts (time to read is also time to listen) vie for our attention, while advertisers pay a good buck to place their clients in our line of sight or within our earshot.

Twitter may have decided single-handedly to impose a word limit on its posts, but in doing so, it simply took a reading of the media air we breathe – and it’s thin air indeed.

Authors in search of a title

The 12th century cartulary (book containing copies of charters) of Reading Abbey includes a list of the books in the abbey library as well as a nearby priory. The books are referred to by title, where that exists, but also by a short description of the book’s content, to help locating it, when the title is missing

When it came to titles, ancient and medieval written works were like the early European nobility. It wasn’t enough to call yourself a noble – a problem later solved by the emergence of patents of nobility –, you had to pass for one in the eyes of your peers. Similarly, it wasn’t enough for an author to give his or her own book a title, something most didn’t do anyway. The title’s survival depended on the scribes’ good graces, those who were responsible for the book’s multiplication and survival. And it means that those ultimately responsible for the title of a written work was the reader, who was often the person prompting the duplication of a book in a manuscript culture.

This title open-endedness is partly responsible for the toothsome mess that is the medieval manuscript culture, where the same work may have been circulating under several titles at the same time, often making identification very difficult. A book referenced in another work may be the same as the one circulating under a name which bore little resemblance to the original reference.

Overall, titles were not the forte of the written culture of the medieval West. Hundreds of library book lists from the 9th to the 15th century show that readers didn’t really care about titles. That a book about a topic was good enough as an idenfier in libraries which rarely exceeded a few hundred volumes.

Shifting into low gear

We like to digitise things, but we hardly ever commit digital content to physical paper. For many, this would amount to a shifting of progress into low gear, a slowing down of the inevitable acceleration of culture and technology. Yet, this approach says nothing about the reality of durability.

The truth is that paper is more durable than the Cloud, ink more permanent than binary code. We may spurn the physical medium, but it is the only one which can assure real and prolonged survival of our written content.

There is a myth in the making, if not manufactured already, and that is the myth of self-sustainability of our digital world. Even discounting the reliance on electricity for maintaining and accessing our digital productions, the trouble with digital is that it has too much in common with the fingers whose linguistic root (digital > digitus .lat > finger) they share: it vanishes in thin air on the snap of one’s fingers. It can’t be recovered, and it bears no traces. Its convenience is inversely proportional to its endurance.