A World Ordered Only By Search
The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 17
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. It’s been a bit longer than usual since our last installment, but I’m glad to report that this has been in part a function of some recent developments, which I’m delighted to tell you about. Many of you are reading this because you caught my interview with Ezra Klein back in August. That interview was based on an installment of this newsletter in which I offered 41 questions through which to explore the moral dimensions of a given technology. Well, as it turns out, I’ve sold my first book, based on those questions, to Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. As you might imagine, I’m thrilled and immensely grateful.
Naturally, I’ll keep you posted as I write the book and publication day approaches. There’s more than a little work to be done before then, of course. And, in case you were wondering, the newsletter will continue as per usual. In fact, I’ve got about five drafts going right now, so stay tuned.
For now, here is a rather long and meandering, but certainly not comprehensive, discussion of models and metaphors for ordering knowledge, memory, the ubiquity of search, the habits and assumptions of medieval reading, and how information loses its body. I won’t claim this post is tightly argued. Rather, it’s an exercise in thinking about how media order and represent the world to us and how this ordering and representation interacts with our experience of the self.
Here’s a line that struck me recently: “It’s an idea that’s likely intuitive to any computer user who remembers the floppy disk.”
Is that you? It’s definitely me. I remember floppy disks well. But, then, it occurred to me that the author might have the 3.5-inch variety in mind, while I remember handling the older 8-inch disks as well.
In fact, I am even old enough to remember this thing below, although I never did much but store a few lines of code to change the color of the TV screen to which my Tandy was hooked up.
In any case, the idea that is supposedly intuitive to anyone who remembers floppy disks is the directory structure model, or, put otherwise, “the hierarchical system of folders that modern computer operating systems use to arrange files.” In a recent article for The Verge, “File Not Found: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans,” Monica Chin explored anecdotal evidence suggesting that, by somewhere around 2017, some significant percentage of college students found this mental model altogether foreign.
The essay opens with a couple of stories from professors who, when they instructed their students to locate their files or to open a folder, were met with incomprehension, and then proceeds to explore some possible causes and consequences. So, for example, she writes, that “directory structure connotes physical placement — the idea that a file stored on a computer is located somewhere on that computer, in a specific and discrete location.” “That’s a concept,” she goes on to add,
that’s always felt obvious to Garland [one of the professor’s supplying the anecdotal evidence] but seems completely alien to her students. “I tend to think an item lives in a particular folder. It lives in one place, and I have to go to that folder to find it,’ Garland says. ‘They see it like one bucket, and everything’s in the bucket.”
This suggests, of course, the reality that metaphors make sense of things by explaining the unknown (tenor) by comparison to the known (vehicle), but, when the known element itself becomes unknown, then the meaning-making function is lost. Which is to say, that files and folders are metaphors that help users navigate computers by reference to older physical artifacts that would’ve been already familiar to users. But, then, what happens when those older artifacts themselves become unfamiliar? I happen to have one of these artifacts sitting in front of me in my office, but, in truth, I never use it.
Of course, even though I don’t use it myself now, I once did and I haven’t forgotten the logic. I suspect that for others, considerably younger than myself, the only file folder they’ve seen is the one that appears as an icon on their computers. So, perhaps it is the case that the metaphor has simply broken down in the way so many other metaphors do over time when the experiences upon which they depended are lost due to changes in material culture.
Chin points in this direction when she writes, “It’s possible that the analogy multiple professors pointed to — filing cabinets — is no longer useful since many students Drossman’s age spent their high school years storing documents in the likes of OneDrive and Dropbox rather than in physical spaces.” Although, I think she undersells the significance of the observation because she thinks of it as an analogy rather than as a metaphor.
The point seems like a crucial one. Mental categories tend to be grounded in embodied experiences in a material world. Tactile facility with files, folders, and filing cabinets grounded the whole array of desktop metaphors that appeared in the 1980s to organize the user’s experience of a computer. And I think we ought to take this as a case in point of a more general pattern: technological change operates on the shared material basis of our mental categories and, yes, the “metaphors we live by.”1 Consequently, technological change not only transforms the texture of everyday life, it also alters the architecture and furniture of our mental spaces. Hold on to that point for a moment. We’ll come back to it again. But first, let’s come back to Chin’s article.
Even when students who have some understanding of the logic of the directory structure attempt to use it to organize their files, Chin’s sources suggest that they are unlikely to stick with it. Reporting the case of one graduate student, she writes,
About halfway through a recent nine-month research project, he’d built up so many files that he gave up on keeping them all structured. “I try to be organized, but there’s a certain point where there are so many files that it kind of just became a hot mess,” Drossman says. Many of his items ended up in one massive folder.
In passing, I’ll note that I was struck by the phrase “a hot mess,” if only because the same phrase occurs in the comments from another student in the article.2 I realize, of course, that it is a relatively popular expression, but I do wonder whether we might be justified in reading something of consequence into it. How do our mental models for organizing information intersect with our experience of the world?
Whatever the case on that score, Chin goes on to put her finger on one more important factor. Writing about why the directory structure is no longer as familiar as it once was, she observes, “But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do.” A bit further on she adds, “Today’s virtual world is largely a searchable one; people in many modern professions have little need to interact with nested hierarchies.”
Similar arguments have been made to explain how some people think about their inboxes. While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?
A Scribal Revolution and the Emergence of the Text
Okay, now it’s time for an 800-year detour. I’ll confess at this point that my interest in this topic is fueled, in part, by my reading of the last book Ivan Illich ever wrote, In the Vineyard of the Text. If you know Illich chiefly as the author of Deschooling Society or Tools for Conviviality, then this book will, I think, catch you off guard. It’s written in a different style and takes up a rather different set of concerns. Its focus is a relatively forgotten revolution in technologies of the written word that occurred around the 12th century and which, in Illich’s view, transformed the intellectual culture of the west and contributed to the rise of the modern individual. If this sounds a bit far fetched, I’d just invite you to consider the power of media. Not the media, of course, but media of human communication, from language itself to the alphabet and the whole array of technologies built upon the alphabet. Media do just that: they mediate. A medium of communication mediates our experience of the world and the self at a level that is so foundational to our thinking it is easy to lose sight of it altogether. Thus technologies of communication shape how we come to understand both the world and the self. They shape our perception, they supply root metaphors and symbols, they alter the way we experience our senses, they generate social hierarchies of value, and they structure how we remember. I could go on, but you get the point.
So, to keep our starting point in view, the apparent fading of the directory structure model doesn’t matter because it is making STEM education more challenging for college professors. If it matters, it matters as a clue to some deeper shifts in the undercurrents of our cultural waters. As I read about these students who had trouble grokking directory structures, for example, I remembered Walter Ong’s work on Peter Ramus (or in Latin, Petrus Ramus, but, in fact, Pierre de La Ramée). Ramus was a sixteenth century scholar, who in Ong’s telling, despite his unspectacular talents, became a focal point of the then current debates about knowledge and teaching. Ong frames him as a transitional figure with one foot in the late medieval scholastic milieu and another in the “modern” world emerging in the wake of the Renaissance. Ong, who is best remembered today for his work on orality and literacy, cut his teeth on Ramus, his research focusing on how Ramus, in conjunction with the advent of printing, pushed the culture of Western learning further away from the world of the ear (think of the place of dialog in the Platonic tradition) toward the world of the eye. His search for a universal method and logic, which preceded and may have prepared the way for Descartes, yielded a decidedly visual method and logic, complete with charts and schemas. Perhaps a case could be made, and maybe has been made, that this reorientation of human learning and knowing around sight finds its last iteration in the directory structure of early personal computers, whose logic is fundamentally visual. Your own naming of files and folders may presume another kind of logic, but there is no logic to the structure itself other than the one you visualize, which may be why it was so difficult for these professors to articulate the logic to students. In any case, the informational milieu the student’s describe is one that is not ordered at all. It is a hot mess navigated exclusively by the search function.
Back to Illich. I don’t have a carefully worked out theory of how newer mental models for organizing information will change the way we think about the world and ourselves, but I believe that revisiting some of Illich’s observations about this earlier transition will prove fruitful. Illich himself wrote in the hope that this would be the case.
In the Vineyard of the Text, which is itself a careful analysis of a medieval guide to the art of reading written by Hugh of St. Victor, sets out to make one principle argument that goes something like this: In the 12th century, a set of textual innovations transformed how reading was experienced by the intellectual class. Illich describes it as a shift from monkish reading focused on the book as a material artifact to scholastic reading focused on the text as a mental construct that floats above its material anchorage in a book. (I’m tempted to say manuscript or codex to emphasize the difference between the artifact we call a book and what Hugh of St. Victor would’ve handled.) A secondary point Illich makes throughout this fascinating book is that this profound shift in the culture of the book that shaped Western societies for the rest of the millennium was also entangled with the emergence of a new experience of the self.
So, let’s start with the changing nature of the reader’s relationship to the book and then come back to the corresponding cultural and existential changes.
The Sounding Pages
It’s commonly known that the invention of printing in the 15th century was a momentous development in the history of European culture. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work, especially, made the case that the emergence of printing revolutionized European society. Without it, it seems unlikely that we get the Protestant Reformation, modern science, or the modern liberal order. Illich was not interested in challenging this thesis, but he did believe that the print revolution had an important antecedent: the differentiation of the text from the book.
To make his case, Illich begins by detailing, as well as the sources allow, what had been the experience of reading prior to the 12th century, what Illich calls monkish reading. This kind of reading was grounded not just in the book generically, but in a particular book. Remember, of course, that books were relatively scarce artifacts and that reproducing them was a laborious task, although often one lovingly undertaken. This much is well known. What might not be as well known is that many features that we take for granted when we read a book had not yet been invented. These include, for example, page numbers, chapter headings, paragraph breaks, and alphabetical indexes. These are some of the dozen or so textual innovations that Illich had in mind when he talks about the transformation of the experience of reading in the 12th century. What they provide are multiple paths into a book. If we imagine the book as an information storage technology (something we can do only on the other side of this revolution) then what these new tools do is solve the problems of sorting and access. They help organize the information in such a way that readers can now dip in and out of what now can be imagined as a text independent of the book.
I’ve found it helpful to think about this development by recalling how Katherine Hayles phrased one of the themes of How We Became Posthuman. She sought to show, in her words, “how information lost its body.” Illich is here doing something very similar. The text is information that has lost its body, i.e. the book. According to Illich, until these textual innovations took hold in the 12th century, it was very hard to imagine a text apart from its particular embodiment in a book, a book that would’ve born the marks of its long history—in the form, for example, of marginalia accruing around the main text.
I’ve also thought about this claim by analogy to the photograph. The photograph is to the book as the image is to the text. This will likely make more sense if you are over 35 or thereabouts. Today, one can have images that live in various devices: a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a digital picture frame, the cloud, an external drive, etc. Before digital photography, we did not think in terms of images but rather of specific photographs, which changed with age and could be damaged or lost altogether. Consequently, our relationship to the artifact has changed. Roland Barthes couldn’t be brought to include the lone photograph he possessed of his mother in his famous study of photography, Camera Lucida published in 1980. The photograph was too private, his relationship to it too intimate. This attitude toward a photographic image is practically unintelligible today. Or, alternatively, imagine the emotional distance between tearing a photograph and deleting an image. This is an important point to grasp because Illich is going to suggest that there’s another analogous operation happening in the 12th century as the individual detaches from their community. But we’ll come back to that in the last section.
Some of these innovations also made it easier to read the book silently—something that was unusual in the scriptoriums of early medieval monasteries, which could be rather noisy places.3 And, of course, this reminds us that the transition from orality to literacy was not accomplished by the flipping of a switch. As Illich puts it, the monkish book was still understood as recorded sound rather than as a record of thought. Just as we thought of the web in terms of older textual technologies and spoke of web pages and scrolling, readers long experienced the act of reading by reference to oral forms of communication.
So, here is one of a handful of summary paragraphs where Illich lays out his case:
This [technical] breakthrough consisted in the combination of more than a dozen technical inventions and arrangements through which the page was transformed from score to text. Not printing, as is frequently assumed, but this bundle of innovations, twelve generations earlier, is the necessary foundation for all stages through which bookish culture has gone since. This collection of techniques and habits made it possible to imagine the ‘text’ as something detached from the physical reality of a page. It both reflected and in turn conditioned a revolution in what learned people did when they read — and what they experienced reading to mean.”
Elsewhere, he wrote,
The text could now be seen as something distinct from the book. It was an object that could be visualized even with closed eyes [….] The page lost the quality of soil in which words are rooted. The new text was a figment on the face of the book that lifted off into autonomous existence [….] Only its shadow appeared on the page of this or that concrete book. As a result, the book was no longer the window onto nature or god; it was no longer the transparent optical device through which a reader gains access to creatures or the transcendent.
I’m going to resist the temptation to meticulously unpack for you everyone of those claims, but the last sentence deserves a bit of attention, particularly when coupled with the last sentence of the previously quoted paragraph. Together they remind us that what we think we’re doing when we’re reading evolves over time. We don’t read with the same set of assumptions, habits, and expectations that the medieval monks or modern scholastic readers brought to the text. As Illich put it in the early 1990s, “Quite recently reading-as-a-metaphor has been broken again.” And a little further on, “The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place. The alphabetic text has become but one of many modes of encoding something, now called ‘the message.’”
Part of the charm of In the Vineyard of the Text lies in its careful attention to what monastic readers thought they were doing when they read a book, and not just a sacred book. The book was a source of wisdom and a window onto the true order of things.4 Through it the reader made contact not with the thoughts of a person but with reality itself. The reader’s vision, conceived of as a searchlight emanating from the eyes, searched the book, often an illuminated manuscript, for the light of truth. In the book, the reader sought to order their soul. “‘To order’” as Illich observed, “means neither to organize and systematize knowledge according to preconceived subjects, nor to manage it. The reader’s order is not imposed on the story, but the story puts the reader into its order. The search for wisdom is a search for the symbols of order that we encounter on the page.” The presumption of order makes for a striking contrast to the experience of a hot mess, of course, and the search for wisdom is rather different than what we do when we are doing what we call searching.
The reader sought ultimately to order his soul in accord with the order of things he discovered through the book. But to do so, the reader had to first be trained in the arts of memory.5 The student would, according to the ancient art, fashion within themselves a memory palace to store and readily access the wisdom he encountered in the book. Interestingly, search at this stage was primarily a mental technique designed to readily access the treasures kept in the mind’s storehouse. As St. Augustine, a trained rhetorician undoubtedly adept at the arts of memory, put it nearly 700 years earlier, “I come to fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception.”
Monastic reading, as Illich describes it, was taken to be “an ascetic discipline focused on a technical object.” That technical object was the book as it was known prior to the twelfth century. It was a tool through which the reader’s soul was finely tuned to the true order of things. This approach to reading was not sustainable when technical innovations transformed the experience of the book into that of a scholastic text read for the sake of engaging with the recorded the thoughts of an author.
Perhaps you’ve gotten this far and are wondering what exactly the point of all of this might be. To be honest, I delight in this kind of encounter with the past for its own sake. But I also find that these encounters illuminate the present by giving us a point of contrast. The meaning and significance of contemporary technologies become clearer, or so it seems to me, when I have some older form of human experience I can hold it up against. This is not to say that one form is necessarily better than the other, of course. Only that the nature of each becomes more evident.
It’s striking, for instance, that in another age there existed the presumption of an order of things that could be apprehended through books—not as repositories of information and arguments but as windows onto the real—and that the role of reading was to help order the soul accordingly. That the meaning of what, on the surface, appears to be the very same activity could alter so dramatically is remarkable. And it prompts all sorts of questions for us today. What do we imagine we are doing when we are reading? How have our digital tools—the ubiquity of the search function, for example—changed the way we relate to the written word? Is there a relationship between our digital databases and the experience of the world as a hot mess? How has the digital environment transformed not only how we encounter the word, but our experience of the world itself?
I’d say at this juncture that we are reeling under the burdens of externalized memory. Hugh’s students labored to construct elaborate interior structures to order their memories and enjoy ready access to all the knowledge they accumulated. And these imagined structures were built so as to mirror the order of knowledge. We do not strive to interiorize knowledge. We build external rather than internal archives. And we certainly don’t believe that interiorizing knowledge is a way of fitting the soul to the order of things. In part, because the very idea of an order of things is implausible to those of us whose primary encounter with the world is mediated by massive externalized databases of variously coded information.
There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it, no matter how prodigious our effort to do so. Consider our collections of digital images. No one pretends to order their collections. I’m not sure what the number might be, maybe 10,000, at which our efforts to organize images falters. Of course, our apps do this for us. They can self-sort by a number of parameters: date, file size, faces, etc. And Apple or Google Photos offer a host of other algorithmically curated collections to make our image databases meaningful. We outsource not only remembering but also the ordering function.
Bearing in mind the current length of this post, let me draw things to a close by briefly taking up the other salient feature of Illich’s discussion: the relationship between the emergence of the text and the emergence of the modern self.
“I am not suggesting that the ‘modern self’ is born in the twelfth century, nor that the self which here emerges does not have a long ancestry,” Illich remarks at one point. But he certainly believes something of significance happens then and that it bears some relationship to the emergence of the text. As he goes on to say,
We today think of each other as people with frontiers. Our personalities are as detached from each other as are our bodies. Existence at an inner distance from the community, which the pilgrim who set out to Santiago or the pupil who studied the Didascalicon had to discover on their own, is for us a social reality, something so obvious that we would not think of wishing it away. We were born into a world of exiles …
What Illich is picking up on here is the estrangement of the self from the community that was analogous in his view to the estrangement of the text from the book. “What I want to stress here,” Illich claims at one point, “is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of ‘the’ text from the page.”
Illich goes on at length about how Hugh of St. Victor likened the work of the monk to a kind of intellectual or spiritual pilgrimage through the pages of the book. Notice the metaphor. One did not search a text, but rather walked deliberately through a book. At one point Illich writes, “Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.”
So, to summarize this point, as the text detaches from the book, or the image from the photograph, so the self detaches from the community. There is one point, though, at which I think I might build on Illich’s analysis. Illich believed that in 12th century the self begins to detach from the community. I wonder whether there is not a case to be made that the self was also detaching from the body. I think, for example, of the mind/body or soul/body dualism that characterizes the tradition of Cartesian thought. It’s tempting to imagine that this dualism was just a standard feature of medieval thought as well. But I’m not sure this is true. Thomas Aquinas, born roughly 80 years after Hugh, could still write, “Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I.” There’s a lot one could get into here, of course, but it’s worth considering not only the wilder transhumanist dreams of immortality achieved by uploading our minds to the machine but also how we’ve dispersed the self through digital media. The self is no longer rooted to the experience of the body. It lives in various digitally mediated manifestations and iterations. As such it is variously coded and indexed. We can search not only the text but the archives of the self. And perhaps, like other forms of information that have lost their body, it becomes unmanageable. Or, at least it takes on that aspect, when we understand it through the primary experience of a digitally dispersed self. While the early instantiations of social media were characterized by the well-managed performance, more recent iterations seem to scoff at the idea. Better to simply embrace the hot mess.
“As much as I want them to be organized and try for them to be organized, it’s just a big hot mess,” Vogel says of her files. She adds, “My family always gives me a hard time when they see my computer screen, and it has like 50 thousand icons.”
In the Confessions, St. Augustine famously marvels at the sight of the Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently. The practice was thus not unknown. But it remained relatively rare for centuries. Illich describing monastic reading: “In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding pages are echoed by the resonance of the moving lips and tongue. The reader’s ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader’s mouth gives forth. In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns nerve impulses. the lines are a sound track picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear. By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.”
The first line of Hugh’s Didascalicon—its incipit, which functions as title and keynote—reads thus: “Of all things to be sought, the first is wisdom.”