Category Archives: daily

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath

The script was invented to solve issues of communication, commerce and government. The alphabet was invented to resolve residual problems of writing and conquer time. The parchment emerged to solve the problems left over by other writing supports. The bound book responded to issues no previous form could address with similar success. The printing press developed to meet the needs of an evolving culture and to fill the vacuum left by an insufficient scribal community.

Martin Luther wrote that ‘printing was God’s highest act of grace’, perhaps the single most progressive statement coming from a leader immersed in the conservative universe of the manuscript book. For Luther to say that the latest high tech of Gutenberg’s machine was God’s ultimate gift to mankind is like Billy Graham saying that the AI will pave the way to salvation. What Luther meant was that printing was better because it did things better and solved the pressing issues of the time – biblical illiteracy, misguided devotion, foolish worship, ignorance – more quickly and more efficiently.

It’s about issues, not pleasure. Problems, not affections. The means serve the purpose, not the other way around. Books are in the service of knowledge, imagination, creativity and art, and exist as long as they promote these aims. They have no other purpose. They certainly should not be there just for the sake of being there.

And so we get to our cultural skirmishes between the traditional book and the emerging and disruptive forms and supports, like the ebook, the e-reader, the webpage and the digital text. People used to reading physical books are on balance more likely to condemn and resist new supports than those for whom reading physical books is not as emotional an activity. Those who don’t tend to read physical books are on balance more likely to misrepresent and ignore the protests of the former group. Both are missing the point.

Left to our own device

If we leave reading to our own devices, we may gain in quantity but lose in quality. Studies have shown that reading on paper is deeper and more focused than reading on any device. Continuous scrolling defocuses the cognition of reading, leading to a more superficial engagement with the text. It gives the illusion of quantity while sidelining the importance of quality loss.

Reading on a screen is faster, more comprehensive and encourages side-reading, especially when hypertexts are brought into play.

In many ways, reading is like photography.

To be a good photographer, you need wide as well as macro lenses, fish-eyes as well as long focal lengths. Reading is similar, to get the most out of the texts available, one needs both paper and screen – quick access as well as deep focus.

To leave reading to our devices, we deprive ourselves of an important cognitive asset: focus. Imagine taking photos solely with wide lenses – important details get lost. We need the full picture, full breadth and full depth. We shouldn’t sacrifice one for the other.

Excellence and mediocrity

The best kind of quality control is that which assumes that the product under review is like the airframe of a plane being assembled. You can’t afford to skip or miss things. Once we adopt this attitude, we open the road to excellence.

We make texts better by editing them. Casting an eye twice always helps, but it’s the kind of eye which makes the difference. Tweaking makes better, but it is always better to go beyond tweaking and recognize if there are any flaws in what we’ve written. Basically, he or she wins who manages to be his or her worse reader. The best airframe is that which passes the largest number of tests and still flies. Quality control is about sustaining the worst imaginable pressure.

We make things better by making better things. We write better things by writing things better. And we prepare them with the same kind of attention that an Airbus engineer brings to the job.

We can afford to make things poorer and worse. As long as this is an option, nothing will fly. Or worse, it will crash on take-off. Or even worse, it will crash when you least expect it, while everyone is enjoying a glass of wine.

We cannot afford to be mediocre, even with the things we may think we can be.

Open-source text

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A page from the 11th-century chronicle of Marianus Scotus, an Irish monk from Germany. Marianus’ Chronicle was one of the most popular open-source histories in the 12th century, having been incorporated in a large number of other English and continental chronicles. (From British Library, Cotton Nero C V, f. 3r).

Open-source is free, collaborative and wide-ranging. It engages a community not just to consume, but also to produce so that more get consumed.

Open-source describes software first developed in the 1990s, but the origins of it reach back into the medieval period. In a sense, the modern, mechanical world between Gutenberg and the computer is the only strictly non-open-source interval our world has seen.

From the first cultural artefacts to the invention of the printing press, human creation was inclined towards open-source. Rights, authorship, distribution networks were such that must products circulated in an intellectual open marketplace. Authors would occasionally press for their rights in the face of intellectual theft and plagiarism, but all in all, everyone was happy to put it out there for others to copy, use, distribute – and ultimately improve it.

The same went for texts, whom I see as the ancestors of Open-source software. And of all pre-modern texts, I single out the medieval annalistic chronicle: the year-by-year catalogue of events running from the distant past into the very present. These texts developed in the first centuries of the Middle Ages (from 500 AD on) and continued until the onset of the Renaissance. They were started by someone and updated by others, often for several generations.

Most annalistic chronicles are anonymous. To look for an author is to misunderstand them. The model which best explains them is, I think, Open-source software. One person develops the piece, but far more important is what happens to the code later on.

The hope of open-source code is twofold: to make the code more widely available than payware would; and to make it better by allowing others to develop it further in innovative ways. Medieval annalistic chronicles follow a similar logic. By constantly updating the text of the chronicle, scribes keep it relevant, extending its use. Then other chronicles can incorporate the text into their own compositions, bringing further uses to the main chronicle text. A whole constellation of texts can, therefore, emerge, which wouldn’t have been the case if the texts had been kept protected through some equivalent of copyright.

Our digital age is slowly discovering the value of open-source. Software comes first, but other areas follow. Wikihouse offers open-source blueprints for building a modular house. We still have so much to learn.

Undoings

Once heard, things can’t be unheard.

Once seen, things can’t be unseen.

Once written, things can be unwritten, edited, deleted. The same goes for audio and video recordings. History can be rewritten since it’s nothing more than our attempt to play back recorded past. The past is plastic, the present a flowing river. You can remould what’s been moulded but you can’t stay a rushing rapid.

The birth of history is the birth of recording technology, from epigraphy to the flash drive. What gets recorded can become unrecorded.

Recording technology creates practices of unrecording. Who controls the past controls the future, Orwell wrote. Who controls the recording technology has power over unrecording as well.

Roman emperors instituted damnationes memoriae, banning the remembrance of past emperors in an effort to write them out of history. State bureaucracies of 20th-century dictatorships perfected these practices.

The historical record, even when engraved in stone, is not set in stone. History, the science of releasing the lowest-compression rate for the playback of the past, is an evolving thing. The record may be cut in the most accurate manner, but we need equally accurate technology for listening to it. We may not be able to unhear what we’ve heard, but we can make sure to hear it better and better again.

More is not always more

You’ve heard this before: ‘less is more’. It applies to design, fashion and technology.

Sometimes more is not more.

We’re surrounded by typography and script. Printed words on bags, on billboards everywhere we go, ads of all sizes following us around like Pullman dæmons. That doesn’t make us more literate.

More text doesn’t make us more textually-minded. It simply makes us more visual. My grammar won’t get better if I read all the ads on the street. I won’t stop making typos for all the typo on my T-shirt and tote bag.

The writing on the wall doesn’t necessarily make us more cautious, either. It stands witness to our relative blindness, however much visual we may become in our post-literate culture.

The medium is the message

The form generates the content. The manuscript creates the kind of information that can be conveyed.

The reader becomes the mesage. The author becomes the reader. The consumer becomes the product. The product becomes the message. And the message is the medium. And we’re back.

Technology is never just a tool. It is also a kind of being, although we may not always see that. As a kind of being, it generates new technology, which in turn becomes a new way to see and do and be. A technologically advanced society is not just better at doing things, but it is a society which does other things, and constantly finds new ways to do new things.

We are slow to realise that a new technology goes beyond solving an old problem. It also posits a new problem and offers a (usually insufficient) solution, often taken up by a new round of technology innovations.

The printing press is often seen as bringing relief to the need for the growing demand of late-medieval books. Once invented and disseminated, it created new ways to see, which created new problems to which it may today be insufficient: organisation of knowledge, permanence, democratisation, cost-efficiency – challenges which the digital medium takes up.