Category Archives: History

Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.

What does the alphabet mean?

The alphabet is a conventional array of letters that we commit to memory as children. Our letters don’t seem to have any inherent meanings (well, except for ones like “a,” which are standalone words), but we agree that they ought to be ordered thus: A, B, C, D, etc.

Caveman Alphabet Bingo

If you’re like me, from time to time, you might have asked yourself why. Our alphabet, of course, appears in the same order as the Middle and Old English alphabets (minus some letters), and we can trace this alphabetic chain of inheritance back to Classical Latin. Each subsequent writing system seems to draw on its predecessors. The Ancient Greek alphabet, which was the world’s first alphabetic writing system, for example, drew on the characters from the Phoenician syllabary, which were themselves derived from pictograms. (The character A is, apparently, representative of a now-upside-down bull’s head, for instance.) But, so, there had to be someone (likely a group, or perhaps really an individual) at the outset who ordered the library of writing system symbols, right? Is it really possible that they did so in a completely arbitrary way?

Semiotician Sergey G. Proskurin has presented evidence that the ordering of the alphabet has significance that reflects the cosmology of its originators. I came across his most recent paper in Semiotica, “Semiotics and Writing Systems,” which was my introduction to his work, but if you’re interested, you can trace his research back quite a ways. Now, the writing is pretty rough, and some of his assertions are sweeping and, in my judgment, overambitious for the evidence that is actually presented, and then there’s the general unease of this whole thing smacking of Medieval numerology… but it’s an interesting paper nonetheless, and it’s fascinating to think about.

In the paper, Proskurin shows how the first three letters and the middle three letters of the alphabet may have been meaningful for Indo-European societies. (And can be, by extension, meaningful to us, too, in this vestigial capacity.)

Proskurin first examines the first three letters of Old Gothic, explaining that their pronunciation relates to a ritual utterance that praises God for giving the gift of writing to the people. In Old Slavic, the first three letters reflect the saying, “I know the letters.”

There seems to be some particular importance with the letter three—and thus the first three letters of the alphabet. Whereas it is difficult to find a common Indo-European root for the numbers one and two, the number three is easily traceable. Proskurin suggests this may be because of the additive sequence 1 + 2 = 3, which goes in order. This is not found anywhere else in our number system. Indeed, even today (and even though, curiously, our own word “alphabet” only includes the first two letters), we often talk about “the ABC’s” as a unit.

Then Proskurin moves on to examining the middle of the alphabet. He discusses the Latin alphabet, which had 25 letters. At the exact middle of the alphabet is the sequence L, M, N, which was pronounced as we pronounce it: elemen.  This recalls the Latin word “elementum,” denoting the smallest parts of the material world. In this way, the central letters of the alphabet seem to reflect something about Roman cosmological knowledge. Proskurin says it is expectable that the middle of the alphabet would be used to share cosmological knowledge: He cites the concept of the world tree, for example, unique to Indo-European cultures, which segments the universe in three levels, and in which we occupy the middle. “It is not difficult to show,” he says, “that, in specific geographic areas where trees were used in ancient times to represent the boundary between adjacent fields of settlements, the concept of a ‘world tree’ or a ‘tree of life’ emerged” (p. 270), whereas this is apparently not universal.

As I mentioned, the evidence seems a bit too sparse to suggest that there is a grand meaning hidden in the design of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, but the tidbits Proskurin presents sure are tantalizing. Perhaps, indeed, the ancient alphabets were organized by some meaningful principle. I’d love to see a fully-fledged study on the topic that considers as many writing systems and time periods as possible. (I’d also like to see a fair discussion of counter-examples, which is notably absent from virtually all work in semiotics.)

The value of the obsolete

I’m currently reading the book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil. The author predicts the not-so-far-away union of human and machine. It’s kind of a terrifying read. (What does that say about me?)

Anyway, there’s a section in the book where he discusses the life cycle of technology, which has seven stages:

  1. Precursor. Prerequisites for a technology exist, but have not yet been put together.
  2. Invention.
  3. Development. The invention is protected and supported. Kurzweil cites the many “tinkerers” who invented horseless carriages, but the development ingenuity of Henry Ford who helped the automobile really take root.
  4. Maturity. The continues to evolve, but it’s been well adopted by the community. It may seem so indispensable that a lot of people think it will last forever.
  5. Threat. An upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. This upstart may have some unique benefits, but overall it is found to be lacking, and finally it is rejected. The people from the previous stage take this as further proof that the technology in question will live forever.
  6. Successor. Another new technology comes along that is significantly better than the threatening upstarts. The technology in question gradually declines and obsolesces.
  7. Antiquity. The technology finally fades out. Kurzweil cites the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record and the manual typewriter as examples of such bygone tech.

Kurzweil goes on to spotlight the printed book, predicting that it, too, will fade away. The book was written in 2005, when e-reader tech was only beginning to bud, but already he saw the writing on the wall. And sure, there are plenty of people who don’t touch books. Even for bibliophiles like myself, most of the reading we do is in electronic form.

But taking that as evidence that books are obsolete assumes that the content is all that matters. And so hey but wait—look at those examples in Stage 7. I see horse-and-buggies prancing around the city from time to time. I have friends who still swear by vinyl. I have at least one friend who is a regular user of a manual typewriter. Yes, these things are obsolete in the popular sense of the term, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any uses.

Yoon Kwang-cho - Heart SutraAt the Philadelphia Museum of Art I recently saw a wonderful sculpture, pictured to the right, by South Korean ceramic artist Yoon Kwang-cho. Here the artist has carved the Buddhist Heart Sutra onto a clay slab. But wait, aren’t clay inscriptions obsolete? Of course, since this is an objet d’art, we can surmise that there’s more to the story. It’s what the medium symbolizes—its place in culture. It’s the tactile experience of creating art. It’s the act of creating rather than selecting characters from a font made by someone else.

Different technologies have different affordances. And even after they go “obsolete,” we can still find value in those affordances.

Kurzweil predicts the downfall of the printed book because e-reader technology has improved so that (1) it no longer hurts your eyes, (2) resolution has increased, (3) the devices are about the size of or even smaller than print books, (4) these devices are more feature-laden, (5) they hold more content, (6) that content is more easily navigable, and (7) battery is becoming a non-issue. He says the biggest limiting factor is going to be a distribution model that satisfies publishers. Remember, this book is from 2005. I think we’ve achieved that model. (Keep in mind I am not in the publishing world, so they might have something to say…)

But anyway, I don’t think books are going anywhere. And it’s precisely because they are single-purpose devices. Reading a book is contemplative, because Facebook isn’t a click away. No notifications are coming in. It’s tactile. And physicality is important, since we’re physical creatures. In our world of multi-purpose this and that and multitasking madness, books are refreshing precisely because they only do one thing. I’m currently conducting a study on how people read the Bible, and many of these findings are surfacing (full findings coming later this year).

Maybe I’m one of those clingers in Stage 4 and 5 of the life cycle described above. But I’m not alone. David Bawden, editor of the Journal of Documentation, pointed out in the introduction to the journal’s latest issue  that we’re experiencing a general trend toward “slow” information, as evidenced by, for example, the proliferation of super-simple computer interfaces and websites.