Posted on July 14, 2009.
(This post was first published June 8, 2009 on IsisInBlog. Some readers may be having a problem purchasing Reinventing Knowledge. Amazon is no longer selling the hardback in anticipation of the paperback which will be for sale in September. However, as of this writing, Barnes & Noble has new and used copies of the hardback. We will continue this month posting the essays that have already appeared on IsisInBlog. Then we’ll start a new title in August. We’ll return to Reinventing Knowledge in September so everyone has a chance to purchase the book.)
Knowledge communication began to change from speech to text in the 3rd Century BCE. Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton define this as the first reinvention of knowledge in their book, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet. Controversy accompanies any major change and the controversy over speech vs. text continued for centuries, perhaps continuing today.
The argument in favor of speech grows from the reputation of the speaker. When someone talks to you, you are likely to know that person and can rate reliability. Written words, however, may emanate from a geographically distant author with an unknown reputation. While many place high value on the published word, others may be inclined to give more credence to the opinions of friends, even if those friends are virtual with reliability gauged by reputation management systems on social networking sites.
In the ancient world, textual material had other advantages beyond reputation, as explained by Cassiodorus, a Roman official in the 5th and 6th Centuries CE, “even if our memory retains the content, it alters the words; but there [on paper] discourse is stored in safety, to be heard for ever with consistency” (Encyclopaedia Romana). Two millennia later, we find ourselves returning to conversational discourse with an online record that can be heard forever with consistency, or at least as long as the Website remains active.
Cassiodorus eventually founded a monastery where he participated in the second reinvention of knowledge. As Rome disintegrated, monks and nuns retreated into their cloisters, took vows of silence, and started copying texts. Monasteries and convents became the repositories of knowledge with religious scribes silently copying words, thus cementing text over speech as the medium for knowledge exchange.
Books started out as scrolls, which themselves were a technological improvement over bark tablets. Here’s Cassiodorus writing about the olden days, “For how could you quickly record words which the resistant hardness of bark made it almost impossible to set down? No wonder that the heat of the mind suffered pointless delays, and genius was forced to cool as its words were retarded” (Encyclopaedia Romana). That’s exactly the improvement I find with computers over typewriters.
Like anyone who spends a lot of time with written texts, the monks and nuns started thinking about findability. Paper scrolls, faster for writing, had a serious problem. To get to any point in the middle, you had to keep unrolling until you found the right passage. Books, the 2nd Century’s latest technology, solved that with individual pages (not to mention the cost savings of writing on both sides). Now instead of unrolling, you could just turn to a specific page. The word for these early books is codex. Kind of has a technological ring to it. McNeely and Wolverton compare the change to “the difference between a videotape and a DVD.”
(For an overview of findability in the 21st Century, see the AIIM report Findability: The Art and Science of Making Content Easy to Find by Carl Frappaolo and Dan Keldsen of Information Architected.)
Katherine Bertolucci, Isis Information Services, Phoenix, AZ,