Category Archives: Information

Writing in hyperhistory

There’s a well-known distinction between prehistory and history. History, we say, is everything after the invention of writing. This first happened around 7,000 years ago.

But we shouldn’t think of history as referring to a period in the earth’s development, but rather as a descriptor of how people live. That is, even after writing was first invented, many societies still lived prehistorically—without writing. Indeed, writing was invented many times, independently, in different parts of the world (China, Sumer, Egypt, Mesoamerica…). Even today, there are some remote tribes that live prehistorically.

But is the prehistory/history distinction enough? The philosopher Luciano Floridi posits that many of us today have moved into a different way of life, which he calls hyperhistory. In hyperhistory, “societies or environments where ICTs [information and communication technologies] and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and any further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as intellectual flourishing.”

We can summarize the distinction in this way:

  • Prehistory – No ICTs
  • History – Society is enriched by ICTs that store and transmit information
  • Hyperhistory – ICTs have overtaken other technologies and now society depends on ICTs to function

 

Floridi very briefly discusses the concept of hyperhistory and what it means for warfare in the Computerphile video below.

Across Floridi’s many works on the topics, he discusses how hyperhistory plays out in economics, politics, warfare, information quality and other areas. The bottom line is that hyperhistory is new, and we are only beginning to grapple with its immense challenges. Floridi writes:

Processing power will increase, while becoming cheaper. The amount of data will reach unthinkable quantities. And the value of our network will grow almost vertically. However, our storage capacity (space) and the speed of our communications (time) are lagging behind. Hyperhistory is a new era in human development, but it does not transcend the spatio-temporal constraints that have always regulated our life on this planet.

And elsewhere:

It may take a long while before we shall come to understand in full such transformations, but it is time to start working on it.

When it comes to writing, what does hyperhistory mean? That’s a big question, but we can sketch some initial thoughts:

  • When there’s more information, there’s less time to devote to any given information. Not only is there more of it to read, but we have to spend more time organizing it and searching for it. Commensurately we’re seeing writing take different forms: shorter sentences, more lists, etc.
  • Non-text forms of information are proliferating. Big data visualizations, videos, etc.
  • Things change fast, and so writing on many topics quickly obsolesces.
  • Text is being processed more by other technologies than by humans. Machines cannot understand in the same way humans can—their “reasoning faculties” are quite different from ours. What does it mean to think of writing for the audience of both humans and machines?

Ah, things to think about…

Feeling the texture of text

Cross-stitched book sculpture by Lauren DiCioccio

The word text and the word textile have a shared Latin origin. This is readily apparent, but still it begs the question: What do texts have to do with textiles?

The word text comes to us from the Latin textus (via the Old French texte). In Classical Latin, textus referred to the construction of a linguistic work; in Medieval Latin, it had come to refer to written treatises or, more specifically, Scripture. The term textus, in turn, came from the word texō, meaning “I weave.” Textile, then, refers to a literal weaving of cloth and other materials, whereas text refers to a metaphorical weaving. Also related is the word texture, which refers to the quality of a weaving—I can talk about the texture of an argument or the texture of a tapestry.

But a text is never really just a metaphorical weaving. It is, always, also, a literal weaving of material and idea. We don’t always seem to appreciate this. For instance, we likely consider two different copies of a book to have the same text, even if they are different editions. However, a text must be written—otherwise it would just be a series of words or an idea. Therefore, the writtenness of a text must have something to do with its meaning.

This was the insight behind the Texts and Textiles conference in 2012 at the Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge. (Wish I could have gone!) This conference celebrates the meaning that materials contribute to texts (as, I must meantion, does the Document Academy on an ongoing basis, for those who are interested).

Still, our tendency to ignore the material side of texts is unignorable and worth exploring.

I’m not sure the extent to which this aspect of our view of texts is modern or new, but if it is, then the work of Michael Heim may shed some insight on the matter. In his book Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, first published in 1987, Heim writes:

In the psychic framework of word processing, text is increasingly experienced as data. … As the writer or reader now controls the search process through a logically determined program, certain random and intuitive kinds of reading and consulting will no longer be possible in referencing procedures. … What one accesses on line will tend to be precisely what one is looking for—always filtered in advance by the terms of Boolean logic.

Ron Day, in his book Indexing It All, makes similar observations: He discusses how the concept of document has been eviscerated and fragmented as the modern concept of information.

In essence, the motto of information systems seems to go: “If you want to be more successful in giving people what they ask for, then limit what they can ask for.” Soon people come to ask for only what they know they can get… and this provides the grounding for two big information-age issues we’re facing today: filter bubbles and fake news. Overcoming these phenomena, it seems to me, requires that we remember how to feel the texture of text.

Questioning the written word

Question marks on the pageSometimes the most baffling truths are hidden within seemingly pointless observations.

In the throes of putting together my doctoral dissertation proposal, I’ve been mentally twirling one such observation: Writing always says something. That is, a given piece of writing always says the same something. And, seeing as writing is free from many of the limitations of speech and has considerable fixity (or “persistence”), a given piece of writing will be saying that same something for quite some time. What are the implications of this?

Many people are familiar with Socrates’ critique of writing, levied around the birth of the written word in Ancient Greek, that it may lead to impoverished memory. But Socrates had much more to say about writing than that. One of his key concerns was precisely what I wrote above. As he says in Phaedrus, transcribed by Plato:

You would imagine that they [written records] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

I’ve written before on how, because of this constancy, we put our trust in the written word. We privilege written forms of knowledge; if something is written down, we’re more inclined to believe it; and if we see something over and over, we’re more likely to take it as true.

But beyond this, there’s another vulnerability that the written word opens us up to: It gives us the answers. When we get easy answers, we don’t seem to work as hard to integrate new information with what we already know. That’s because doing this—building understanding—requires that we pose questions, that we have a back-and-forth, a conversation. If you’re diligent, you can have a conversation with the written word; Ron Day writes in Indexing It All that before the 19th century people regularly thought of reading a book as having a conversation with a  friend. But nowadays, we seem less inclined to question the things we’re reading. Concomitantly, many of us now read more than we interact with live people: We’re getting swarmed with answers, and we’re forgetting how to ask questions. As far as I can see, this is the real dark side of information abundance.

We need to keep asking questions. It’s what makes us human. This is what futurist Kevin Kelly argues in his new book The Inevitable, which explores several trends that will shape the technology of the future; Kelly argues that, for all the smarts and efficacy of future technologies, coming up with good questions will continue to be the sole purview of humanity. And in a world where more and more jobs previously done by humans are getting couped by computers, this is no time to forget how to ask questions.

So what can we do? Some advice in this regard comes from public speaker Michael Gelb’s books How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Creativity on Demand, which offer a framework to increase the quality of your creative output—this involves, inherently, getting good at asking questions.

But we also need to stock our toolbox for getting better at asking questions of the written word. To me, this comes down to improved literacy practice. In the information sciences, there’s a lot of talk of different kinds of literacy—information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy…—but it all comes down to building questioning skills. As researcher Jamie McKenzie writes in her book Beyond Technology:

Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

The urgency of building such skills for questioning and understanding has, for me, come to the fore in the recent election season. Much of the political information we deal with these days comes through the written word. In such a climate, poor questioning skills can have grave consequences for our country and planet.

There’s no better time to start than right now—you’ve been reading the written word for the past few minutes. In the spirit of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Spend some time today questioning what you’ve been reading.