Category Archives: History

From register to blockchain

Stationers’ Register entry for Arden of Faversham, from Shakespeare Documented

In the early days of print, the Stationers’ Company in London had a monopoly on publishing. The guild created a register (the Stationers’ Register) that documented publishers’ rights to produce particular printed works. This served as a way to check the authenticity of printed works in a time when unauthorized copies were beginning to proliferate—if they didn’t correspond to the line in the register, they were probably illicit. (“Probably,” because, in practice, not all works were duly registered.)

The system worked well enough for some time, though there were some problems. As Adrian Johns writes in Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, the Crown could supervene the register by way of royal patent—and so the systems of register and patent sometimes were at odds.

Other things that limited the register’s usefulness: It only existed in one place, so it was in practice difficult and costly for people to confirm its contents. And moreover, it was controlled by the Stationers’ Company, and so it could only be trusted to the extent that the company was trusted.

So much for early modernity. As Johns chronicles, concerns about piracy exploded since the time of the Stationers’ Register. And now that we have digital assets, which in principle can be reproduced infinitely, it’s as big an issue as ever.

For any document or piece of information, we need a way to determine whether we can trust it. This stands for both the legitimacy of the document’s production and distribution (as in say, currency and digital music) and its content (as in news stories).

The invention of print led to new forms of and urgency regarding piracy, and the register was one method of dealing with it. Now, with the world wide web, we are seeing this again. And to deal with contemporary piracy (among other issues related to information trust), we’re seeing the rise of a new technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is one of the world’s most exciting new technologies. As the internet revolutionized information sharing and communications, blockchain has the capacity to revolutionize the economy and many of our social systems. You’ve probably heard of bitcoin, which is the first platform built on blockchain technology, and in the coming decades you’re sure to hear of many more. Experts are likening the situation with blockchain to that of the internet protocol, which was invented in the 1970s but didn’t burst through the popular realm until the 1990s—in those terms, some say we’re in 1992.

In brief, a blockchain is a distributed ledger used to record transactions in a verifiable and inalterable way. As described in The Economist‘s briefing, blockchain “is a way of making and preserving truths.” The blockchain is something everyone can refer to, to determine who owns what and where it came from. This goes for digital goods as much as physical ones—the blockchain prevents digital things from being reproduced infinitely. Importantly, when we compare it to the Stationers’ Register, it can be checked for practically no cost, and it doesn’t rely on an external authority as a grounds for trust.

Blockchain is sure to turn any number of industries upside down. If it relies on documentation, change is in the air. The question, though, is in the details. For a smattering, you can check out:

Original texts: Thinking about the Bible and beyond

I recently read the book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman, on my brother’s recommendation. The book traces the transformations—intentional and otherwise—that gave us the Bible that we have today. Ehrman discusses how copyists over the ages altered the text to, for instance, obfuscate the women and harmonize the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. The book problematizes the situation for those that favor a literal interpretation of the Bible: If we believe the Bible is God’s word, or at least divinely inspired, then it’s a major challenge that we don’t have any of the original texts.

(As an aside, Ehrman doesn’t seem to appreciate a narrative, pathic reading of the Bible as a tome of mythological force. He himself seems to fall prey to the literal reading of the Bible that he denounces. For a literate, rather than literal, view of the Bible, see Rob Bell’s recent book What is the Bible?)

“The original texts”—what does that mean? While this maybe ought to be a straightforward question, it is anything but. Ehrlman describes how, for example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians (part of the New Testament canon) was most likely originally dictated and immediately existed in multiple manuscript copies that were sent out (to the “Galatians,” which demonym is itself a bit ambiguous) and then copied further. Our earliest version of Galatians is from over a hundred years after these “originals.” Since then, the letter was copied and transformed by any number of hands and cultures, generating a family tree of differences.

The printing press, when it came along in the 15th century, lent some stability to textual reproduction. But even with print, it’s no easier to say what the “original” is. Shakespeare, for instance—there’s the perduring question of the original scripts (and also of pronunciation!). In any printed text, which is the original: is it the first edition, of which there may be many and multiple printings? The printer’s proof? How about the second edition which includes corrections of the printer’s errors? How about the author’s final manuscript (if such a thing exists)?

And today, when many documents are “digital native,” our situation is in many ways more like a scriptorium than a printing house. Getting to the “original” is as devilish a task as ever. Think about quotes we come across that appear with some variation and with attribution to any number of people that we can’t pin down where they actually came from.

All over, we’re reaching for originals. What we don’t seem to ask, is why. Why do we care about the original? It’s sure to be a case-by-case question. In some disputes, discerning what the original document actually said is of central importance. But in cases such as the Bible, I am tempted to conclude that it’s irrelevant.

Thinking the relationship between writing and speech

An example of quipu, a knot-based information system used by the Incas. This could be considered a form of proto-writing.

What is writing, exactly? That question began to fascinate me as I worked on my master’s degree (in Spanish linguistics). There are a few posts on this blog on the topic (for example), but it’s a question that I haven’t yet grown tired of.

On the surface, we think of writing as a simple representation of speech. But that may not be quite right. That view would imply that the whole history of writing, from pictographs and other early information systems (flags, knots, etc.) was teleological from the start, just searching for the “correct” way to represent a spoken language that was already totally understood.

A 1996 paper by David R. Olson, “Towards a Psychology of Literacy,” challenges the assumption of writing-as-representation and introduces instead a view of writing as a model for language.

Olson traces the evolution of writing in this light, discussing the movement from representing tokens to representing words (towards the abstract). This movement occurred as syntax (what you might loosely call “grammar”) was introduced and began to complexify. With syntax, writing came to shed light on the structures of speech. The next movement was from thinking of whole words to thinking of units of sound, and from there the development of writing continued to facilitate the analysis of language in many ways—on the level of sentence meaning, for instance.

The cognitive changes that go along with the development of writing and literacy (discussed, for instance, by Walter Ong), are due to this mode of analysis. Some of the changes Olson discusses are a reduction in the felt magic of symbols, and the transformation of words and sentences into objects of contemplation and philosophy.

In summation, Olson writes:

In this way, writing systems, rather than transcribing a known, provide concepts and categories for thinking about the structure of spoken language. The development of a functional way of communicating with visible marks was, simultaneously, a discovery of the representable structures of speech.

On this view, learning to read is not simply a matter of learning the symbols that correspond to already-understood units of language, as is often assumed in pedagogy. Rather, it is a metalinguistic activity—it involves the discovery of those very units. Learning to read is essentially learning to tune in to your language and analyze it.

Thus writing is, by its very nature, a reflective activity. And so we have further grounds for why the practice of writing is conducive to self-reflection (what can be called the hermeneutic capacity of writing). As historian Lynn Hunt says, writing leads to thinking.