Still can't believe the glass box beat the Steely Dan in the quarter-finals
April 23, 2010 10:18 AM   Subscribe

The Glass Box versus The Commonplace Book: Steven Berlin Johnson returns to his old school to talk about two possible models for the future of text online and whether the Internet really does encourage echo chambers.
posted by yerfatma (8 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson.

While I generally agree with his overall argument, I find in it a familiar stance that I have been thinking of as technologically-induced lack of imagination. I know that when he talks about cutting and pasting text he’s excited by the possibilities that that allows, but Locke and Jefferson simply wrote out what they wanted to copy. Commonplace books were places of intimate thought and reflection, in part, precisely because no one who kept one seriously outsourced the copying of the passages they wanted to preserve. Like arguments that worry about cell-phone access “for emergencies” but somehow forget that we all got along without cell phones for quite a long time, arguments that argue both that reading and writing used to be inseparably intertwined and that having to copy something by rewriting it is too onerous to be supported strike me as flawed somehow. This is despite the fact that I’m as concerned as he is about what machines like the iPad assume that you should not be able to do.
posted by OmieWise at 11:16 AM on April 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's an interesting article... it seems to jump all over the place without landing anywhere satisfying, however, which is how I feel about a lot of Johnson's other writing that I've read.
posted by codacorolla at 11:21 AM on April 23, 2010

OmieWise, that's a very good point. Johnson emphasizes the search/retrieval practices of Commonpace books, but I suspect (and I think the practitioners would have agreed) that the copying had beneficial cognitive effects--planting those passages in memory more effectively that our magic copy/paste technologies.

(When dealing with religious subjects, it was probably also seen as an act of religious reflection.)
posted by feckless at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2010

Hrm, on a first read, I agree a bit with OmniWise and it triggers two of my main points of skepticism regarding the ebook/iPad "revolution:"

First, attempts by publishers to lock down electronic texts (often preventing Fair Use rights in the process) reduce their value as intertextual works that can be quoted, paraphrased, copied, and remixed. I think that locked-down sources are likely to loose influence the more roadblocks they put on being quoted and cited.

Second, the paradigm of having only one task on a screen at a time effectively prevents manual copying as well. And if I have to go to scratchpaper anyway, I might as well just go into a journal which sort of defeats the purpose of the iPad. Real life often involves simultaneously manipulating multiple tools (in this case, a book and a journal) for a single task.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:49 AM on April 23, 2010

I had the same observation as OmieWise, and I think it's a valid point. So, I'm not really disagreeing.

But I can also argue it from Johnson's point of view. Sure, you can type in some clip of text, and even provide a reference to your lecters, which they can use to lead them back to your source material. In some ways, that's easier today than it ever has been. Almost any even vaguely distinctive snippet of text plus Google will get you a source now. But that Google search is still a discontinuity in the text-value network he's talking about. In most cases, if your snippet lacks a link chain back to a source, it pretty much falls out of the whole system, ultimately. It just leads back to you.

So yes, you can manually copy stuff still, but it doesn't quite do the same thing as what he's describing. It does do the same thing as Jefferson et al were doing with their commonplace books, but it's important to recognize "the commonplace book" as a metaphor he's deploying, not an equivalence.
posted by rusty at 12:39 PM on April 23, 2010

Though prone to techno-boosterism, a writer as steeped as Johnson appears to be in pre-digital-age thought and history (check out: "The Ghost Map" and "The Invention of Air") probably does not suffer from as much technologically-induced lack of imagination as you might think.

More like, his concerns about imagination-lacking technology, in this piece.
posted by theDTs at 1:31 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

God this guy is such an idiot. Didn't he write a book about how pop culture and video games are making us all smarter? This article is so stupid and poorly argued that it's not worth rebutting. I am shocked that people like this make a living telling us what the future holds or (dear god) what we can do to make it better. But oh, why not. Thomas Friedman is a bestseller.

posted by mondaygreens at 7:47 AM on April 25, 2010

I am shocked that people like this make a living

Nowherer near as shocked as I am everytime someone like you says what essentially boils down to....

"omgz...i don't agree with this guy but i won't say why, or offer any information as to why, I'll just tell you all that he's an idiot."

Crawl out from under your stone and actually read his book about video games. You might like it.
posted by Boslowski at 2:06 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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