Back to ancient wisdom

Sometimes, one is a bit worn out fighting the stubborn policies that try to delay the development of the human capabilities associated with information technology, a neutral Internet and knowledge sharing. If this happens, there is no better cure than going back to an ancient wisdom. The history of reading and text annotation is a wonderful reservoir for this wisdom. Not just for designing modern text annotation and collaborative writing systems. It is as useful for understanding where our civilisation comes from and where it can go.

Here are two recent finds. The first on the Internet, where Steven Berlin Johnson published the text of his conference on The Glass Box and The Commonplace Book : Two Paths for the Future of Text. The aim of Steve Berlin Johnson is to show that putting in place technology that prevents referencing or quoting destroys a key condition for the productive usage of texts and the related intellectual production. He remarks rightly that this has nothing to do with whether the access to textual contents is free-of-charge or not (in particular for newspapers) but all to do with what users can do with the texts they read. Careful to avoid what could be seen as dogmatic judgments, he goes as far as accepting some DRM types of limitations, a point on which I won’t follow him. The true nuggett of his talk is to remind us the use in the 17th and 18th centuries of commonplace books, personal collections of quotes and extracts inserted in a booklet and indexed with techniques that prefigure computer indexes. The philosopher John Locke is said to have used such a personal structured notebook as early as 1652. Steve Berlin Johnson invites us to look at the results page of search engines such as Google as a late descendant of the commonplace book. In my opinion, it is more the structured bookmarks of browsers that deserve such an honour, which is good news since they do not need a centralized server to function. This does not mean of course that search engines can be dispensed of for other purposes.

The second find made me even more joyful. It was waiting in the Histoire du Livre (History of the Book) of Bruno Blasselle, Editions Gallimard / Découvertes (2008). Bruno Blasselle recounts that at the time of the creation of European universities (12th century), there was an increase in the demand of copies of texts (bound as codex). This led to the development of copy craftmanship outside monasteries, with specialised craftsmen: copiers, binders, illuminators. This multiplication of copies went with its then inevitable trail of errors in texts that were often copies of copies. To prevent such errors, depositories were created where a reference faithful copy was stored: the exemplar. However, the exemplar was not bound as a codex: it remained divided in folios or pieces. Why for? In these times, one did not try to prevent copies from being made, but rather wanted many copies to exist. However, copying was a slow process. To speed up the production of copies, folios could be lent to copiers so that while one copied the first folio, the others could copy other parts of a text. Sweet nostalgia of a time where copy was the instrument of a desired knowledge sharing instead of being the nightmare of rent-seekers. There is no better nostalgia that the anticipation of the future.

This post is also available in: French

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