BoSacks: Media Intelligence: The New Non-Obsolescence of the Written Word
A book that I read a few years ago has been popping back into and around my head lately, as I continue my pursuit of the future of reading and the future of our publishing business.
The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, is a great read for anyone, but especially for those in our business who like words and reading (in other words, all of us!). It is partly about a group of medieval scholars who search for lost manuscripts and, more importantly, about one particular information seeker named Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal clerk and emissary. Bracciolini was an obsessive book hunter who, in his travels, found and saved the very last copy of Roman poet Lucretius's poem "On the Nature of Things" (De rerum natura). This 1st-century BC poem was meant to explain the philosophy of Epicurus, who was an even more ancient Greek philosopher (341 BC - 270 BC), to a Roman audience. Bracciolini and his friends knew of the wondrous poem's existence from references and laudatory writings from other contemporaries of Lucretius, but no one had seen the actual poem for 1,400 years.
The Swerve's thesis is that it was the reintroduction of important Epicurean ideas from Lucretius that sparked the modern age in which we live and changed the course of human thought, making possible the world as we know it today. This beautiful poem discussed some of the most dangerous ideas of the day: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in constantly new directions. One of the things Lucretius was attempting to do was to explain that everything in nature can be explained by ordinary and natural laws without the need for the intervention of divine beings.
Greenblatt explains it this way: "Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body."
The religious aspects of the need for gods or their participation in our daily lives are still debated. But what is not debated is the "thinking" and the lines of logic that were reintroduced into scholarly life by "On The Nature of Things". I believe that Lucretius's poem helped move the pursuit of scientific thinking forward, and that helped recalibrate the thinking of Western culture during the beginnings of the Renaissance. Among the many who enjoyed this poem and drew inspiration from it were Galileo, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson, who is said to have owned at least five editions in the original Latin.
I bring all this up in an article about publishing to illustrate that there was a time when words, thought and ideas could just disappear, literally in a puff of smoke. And as with Lucretius's poem, I wonder what else might be missing from recorded human experience. What else did people think about and talk about that, lacking a savior like Bracciolini, is now gone forever and missing from the human archive?
Until just recently, when things like magazine articles were printed, they had an understandable short useable and retrievable shelf life of a month or so, and then they were usually gone. On the whole, most magazine articles were read and destroyed. Many great authors' and scientists' great work was researched, carefully written, meticulously edited and then gone into the ether of published nonexistence. Admittedly, not all magazine articles are worthy of treasuring, but many articles are and were valuable to the on-going human story and commendable enough to keep.
I believe that with the advent of cloud computing, we have eliminated the potential permanent loss of the written word. No longer do we need to physically hunt for a thoughtful artifact buried in some monastery or in some library, when a text rendition can be found in minutes on the Internet.
Equally important, we are no longer beholden to physical technologies of handwritten manuscripts or floppy disks to recover lost words. We have been released from the need of antiquated physical instrumentality in regards to saving our communications. Once we luxuriated in floppy disks as a high tech storage medium and then quickly moved on to 3-1/2 inch diskettes, both of which no one owns anymore. Then, of course, we moved to CDs, which we still have, but rarely use, as we clearly don't need them. All the data (words) on those old products were stored in ASCII formats, which are readable if only we still had the working devices to do so. But most of us no longer have in our possession the technologies of the very recent past to get at those words. The advent of cloud storage solves that reading (data) problem. The cloud as a storage device can't become obsolete, so all words stored there are readable forever.
The drive of Poggio Bracciolini to seek the old knowledge of the ancients is no longer a hard fought and physically daunting task. Knowledge seekers just need a ubiquitous connection to the Internet and the cloud to receive not only the knowledge of the ancients but the wisdom of moderns as well.
We need to remember that literally all technology is permanently transitional: from the spear to the rifle; the horse and cart to the SUV; Papyrus to parchment to paper; and the telegraph to the Internet. They are all transitional technologies, and that transition has never stopped, nor should it. These improvements are all part of our on-going adaptability as humans to grow, prosper and change the conditions of the environments that we find ourselves inhabiting.
The often-maligned Google Books Library Project is an example of an attempt to open up the world's most prestigious collection of books and create a global card catalog of the world's information. The publishing industry and many writers' groups have criticized the project's inclusion of copyrighted works as an infringement. These legal issues have been settled in court, but for the sake of this article, take away the legal aspects of the situation for moment and you have a long-term solution that Poggio Bracciolini sought for as access to the continuation of our human knowledge base.
If it isn't Google, someone else will follow in these necessary storage-pioneering footsteps, because our knowledge has to get recorded. In this case, Google has been in the process of digitizing the contents of prestigious university libraries such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, University of Virginia, plus The New York Public Library and many more, which has exponentially broadened the original Bracciolini search project of the 1400s by creating access to tens of millions of unique and special books that were once accessible, if accessible at all, only to a small, elite group.
For the magazine industry, which has been digitized since 1996, we also need a better solution to recapture and intelligently store our vast reservoirs of lost but still retrievable data (words). Many companies are working with magazine publishers to push the availability of formerly lost published articles into a user-friendly, single searchable database. One such company is Publishers Press, which has taken all their PDF digital archives of all past printed products and produced a service called Stacks. Here is a non-Google database of magazine articles and wisdom never before available on a multitude of subjects that covers nearly everything.
We need more projects like this to rediscover all the lost magazine articles that are not available on Google and as such will be lost forever without our intentional intervention as a publishing network. I believe our industry's work, new and old, to be priceless artifacts of the human condition, and we should do our best to treat it that way. The great Poggio Bracciolini sought to recover the lost knowledge of Lucretius and the Epicurean ideas that supported freethinking and our modern way of life. With the judicious use of our magazine database cataloged and sorted, who knows what wonders are in store for us and our on-going search for why things are the way they are?