October 10, 2009

No, we really didn't start the fire

The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System

It's a book.

We're so fond of thinking that every generation ushers in a medium that is the ultimate equivalent of a genuine killer-app.

We know it's never true, but oh how we bluster and argue and froth at the mouth about, alternatively, the end or beginning of civilization as we know it.

I'm even beginning to think that Marshall McLuhan was nothing more than a light-weight popularizer, with only fleeting, and ultimately trite, message of his own.

Long before our time, long before the interwebs, information, the management of it, how to cope with it, how to cheat, was developed as an art form in itself.
"While the extreme availability of information today should presumably have highlighted its relative paucity in earlier periods, historians--most notably Ann Blair--have in fact extended the concept of "information overload" all the way back to the sixteenth century, arguing that while we now associate the phenomenon with the internet, the printing press had a comparable effect. Until its invention, most literate people had access to relatively little written material. They could manage to read literally everything they could get their hands on.

After Gutenberg, however, books multiplied rapidly, and soon many libraries became too large for their owners to read more than a small percentage of the texts. It became necessary to devise strategies for dealing with the excess. Scholars invented systems of note-taking, methods of summarizing and skimming, and principles of triage. As Francis Bacon famously remarked: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, with diligence and attention." That is, among other things, a comment about coping.

We cope in the same way; and anyone who identifies Wikipedia with the end of civilization should be reassured to learn that early modern Europeans already possessed an impressive arsenal of intellectual crutches and shortcuts, some of them quite dubious. By the seventeenth century there already existed a large genre of reference works, compendia, and reading guides, so as to lead the uninitiated through the increasingly dense thickets of learning, sometimes at breakneck speed. Some readers made use of little else, with classical compendia particularly prized for the quick simulacra of learning that they provided.

As Jonathan Swift advised young critics, "Get scraps of Horace from your friends, / And have them at your fingers' ends."

More serious scholars put together their own guides and reference works. Ann Blair has shown that many of the greatest Renaissance thinkers had no compunction about attacking their books with scissors, cutting and pasting what they considered the crucial passages into commonplace books or card files for easy reference. By illuminating all these systems, methods, and reference works, Blair and her fellow scholars are giving us a new vision of Renaissance learning, grounded not simply in our own reading of the texts, but in an attempt to grasp what people at the time actually knew, and how they knew it."

A snippet here, a snippet there. Skim the surface of most things, save time for deeper enjoyment of the reading that truly entices. Sounds much like surfing the interwebs and even blogging, in the privacy of one's home. We're not doing anything original, not grappling with matters foreign to humans throughout the ages.

Perhaps the difference is that, where once the assemblage and structure of information was a worthy pursuit, and a political imperative, now we dissemble.

The Colbert Report

1 comment:

  1. "...the greatest Renaissance thinkers had no compunction about attacking their books with scissors, cutting and pasting what they considered the crucial passages..." etc.

    Indeed, sounds a lot like what bloggers and even non-bloggers do now.

    Every generation kids itself that it's brighter, savvier, more technically proficient and enlightened than the previous. When after all, it's only that the bullshit factor has been amplified exponentially with the latest technical innovation.

    Something like that anyway.