[ Think more about personal referential memory repositories (Ariadne's thread) ]    

A Role for General Encyclopedias in the Digital Age

Some aspects of the history of printed books are briefly examined, suggesting that uniform printed editions have fostered a view of the world as being real apart from, as opposed to being realized in, social praxis and individual experience. The computer can facilitate a shift in persons' self-understanding, toward clearly and motivatingly seeing our shared communicative life as building the world we live in. A "multi-function" role for the general encyclopedia as a kind of prosthetic Muse ("Personal Knowledge Assistant"), opening opportunities, not imposing constraints, is proposed.

The World of the Reference Book

The coming of uniform printed editions ushered in the Modern Age, with its view that there is an enduring external, objective reality ("the universe") in which all things (including persons and facts) are included as parts. Surely it is at least suggestive that this world-view (horizon of human self-understanding) is a consequence of the stable presence of uniform printed editions, which as impassively endure in endless rows on library shelves, subsumed under fixed universal indexing schemes, as the similarly impassive facts they describe let themselves be subsumed under universal laws.

A second aspect of the Modern Age in which the form of the world (as we understand it...) follows from the communication media through which that understanding endures and develops, is the modern notion of progress. This notion is commonly associated with Galilean mathematical science. But, as Elizabeth Eisenstein has described in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a key condition for its possibility is the progressive emendation of uniform printed editions. Before uniform printed editions, progress of knowledge was almost impossible (old manuscripts were rare, using them resulted in losing them, each new copy introduced new errors, scholars lacked enough time even to re-copy all they had before it got lost....). After uniform printed editions, on the other hand, progress of knowledge became almost inevitable: Henceforth, there are enough copies of everything to assure its preservation, scholars' time is freed from proofing copies, and made available for genuine research, and, regardless of the quality of the textual corpus one started with (the initially "converted" manuscripts), emendation and publication of revised editions iteratively lead to ever more universal perfection of knowledge.

A third point by way of introduction to which I wish to call attention -- and this point is rather "softer" than the two preceding -- concerns the "texture" of relations between persons (communicants) and symbols (communicated content) in the age of print: In general, print technology makes the production of books fairly easy (compared to scribal technology), but print technology makes it a lot easier to read a book than to write one. Uniform printed editions make consuming knowledge much easier than producing it, which suggests a correlation with an ultimately passive relation to both knowledge and reality (things are what they are: it's all stated in books).

Obviously, things are more complicated than this, for we know that scientists and artists and political revolutionaries, among others, use print technology to change the world. Active appropriation of "book knowledge" has not only been an abstract possibility, but a key reason for books to exist. The massive fact remains, however, that "what is" is even today (in our so-called Post-modern age...) still taken for granted to be what is "really real" (what is the alternative? that human communication and praxis is really real, and that "the real world" is a dialectically evolving construct within its ongoing, overarching process). Corollary: Encyclopedias are -- correct me if I am wrong here -- considered to be "reference books", in which a reality which would be the same without them is described.


[ Explore The Information Superhighway! ]Knowledge has always been interactive, and books have always contributed to human activity. But there are different "grades" of interactivity, from reading a prepared menu, to having a hand in making up the menu items, to deciding what role (if any) menus will have.... I would like to argue that computer access to the encyclopedia facilitates some of the higher grades of interactivity that print access made possible, and, that the resulting quantitative change may lead to a qualitative shift (what Henry Adams called: a "change of phase"): a reconstellation of what persons do and think they are doing.

Let me give an example of such a shift: Hyperlinking is nothing new. One book can refer to another book, and, if both books are accessible, one can traverse the link. Obviously, therefore, in the world of uniform printed editions, hyperlinks are not only possible, but legion (citations in footnotes, etc.). Nonetheless, the convenience of clicking on a link in a web page has made this process so much easier that many persons even think they are doing something new ("hyperlinking").

The idea I wish to present today is similar: To think about some possibilities which "placing the encyclopedia on the computer" may transform into powerful "new" functionality.

The Encyclopedia as Personal Knowledge Assistant (PKA)

I will here present some ideas, and conclude with some comments. I have chosen Encyclopedia Americana as the basis for this proposal, in part because it's "ours", but primarily because I believe it has the right qualities to do the job (more on this, below). Additionally, I presuppose that the encyclopedia is really on-line: not on a CD-rom, which endlessly spins up and spins down, not on the Internet, where it is in ways even more remote than volumes in a library reference section (no person can reasonably write in the margins of the pages being dispensed by a web server), but the entire text on my local hard disk.

What do I propose using this set of 43,000 articles (comprising 189,000,000 characters...) for? I propose the encyclopedia as a framework for a person to organize all their "data", "information", "knowledge", etc., from "stuff" we write down on scraps of paper (and often lose or throw away but wish we hadn't...), to extended essays and exercises in thought on various topics and their inter-relations.... In this scenario, what a person initially purchases is:

  1. A well proven universal "filing system", with
  2. Reliable basic information pre-loaded in each of the slots, and
  3. Information about the source(s) of the information, and pointers to places to go to learn more.

This is the "application framework" you buy and install on your computer. What can you do with it?

Item #2 is the paradigmatic traditional use of an encyclopedia: to be a reference for learning basic information about topics with which one is currently unfamiliar. Item #3 has traditionally been of interest to students ("searching the literature" to get enough references to make the teacher happy) and scholars (questioning the validity of the article text).

Item #1, however, is where the "new" (i.e., newly convenienced, and thus transformed from abstract possibility to powerful facility) functionality starts: You can store any piece of information that comes along in a pre-defined "folder", and, since the encyclopedia has, through long years of use and revision, come to include a rich and generally relevant set of "folder names" (article titles), chances are you will pretty easily find a suitable place to store any piece of information. Conversely, looking over the list of topics (article titles) in trying to find the right spot to store an item may foster associative thinking which will add value to the initial material being stored into the system. Furthermore, since the text of the encyclopedia is presumed to be at least reasonably trustworthy, this filing system provides a standard against which to test any material brought to it (Note that I am not here proposing the encyclopedia as a dogmatic authority, but rather as a standard of reasonable comparison: One may import an item which one believes refutes what the encyclopedia asserts, and the encyclopedia may in fact be wrong as proposed, but still the encyclopedia will have served a useful purpose by providing information worth refuting, thereby helping guide the process of correction -- in contrast to "stuff" one may come across (e.g.) on the Internet, which will often lack this kind of claim to "be worth taking seriously".).

Thus, the new online encyclopedia (new in form, not in content, which I propose is basically in good order as it currently exists in our SGML article files...) becomes an effective place for organizing and storing information, and even a source of suggestions for further things to think about, check out, etc. The article text itself, I would propose, should be read only, so that it remains as a fixed basis for orientation. However, this does not preclude enabling the person (whose personal encyclopedia this is...) adding material into the text as they wish (the solution here is, obviously, e.g., to use different fonts for original article text, and for what the user adds). Pop-up notes, hyperlinks, links to separate text and multi-media files, etc. are all useful here, but the user should also have the ability to write directly into the text, for those cases where any indirection would "be too much effort" (the analogy here is with underlining text and writing notes between the lines and in the margins of a book, etc.).

Let us try to focus more clearly the "paradigm shift" here proposed: The encyclopedia ceases to be a fixed external object, [ Go to Emily Dickinson! ]to be approached and looked at ("referred to"), of which, at most, copies of material in it are to be taken away. Instead: The encyclopedia becomes an interactive resource with which one engages by adding commentary, and importing other, openly-varied, content. A way of accessing this material is by desktop icons for active articles (if a user is currently interested in Emily Dickinson, e.g., there would be an icon on their desktop which, when clicked [you can click the icon at right, to try this...], would take them to the encyclopedia's Emily Dickinson article, their personal set of annotations, Emily Dickinson Internet bookmarks for web sites, newsgroups, etc...)....

More Interactivity

On the basis of the foregoing, we can elaborate an open-ended stream of interactive, value-adding enhancements, such as:

[ Packard Automobile Co. Service Letter: 'We Learn From Others; Every Owner a Salesman' ]Crescit eundo! The encyclopedia thus becomes the focus ("armature") of a self-elaborating community / world of emergent interest(s). Optimally, this [to borrow the title of a book by Norbert Elias:] society of individuals would grow as a richly interactive process in which not only the content ("knowledge") and its delivery in a product developed, but in which also the social praxis in which those two are "moments" would develop, including definition and inter-relation of participants' roles (ways persons participate, as users, producers...), and their [self-]understanding of the process and their participation in it ("self-knowledge")....
17Jun06 note: Learn about the Wikipedia project: a web encyclopedia where the content is created by whoever wants adding / emending whatever they want: See my: Quote #266.

Some Reflections

A precedent: The Art of Memory

As Frances Yates described in her classic book The Art of Memory, persons in medieval times were sometimes able to remember over 100,000 items of information by vividly imagining their favorite cathedral, and associating an item of information with each thing in the cathedral. To retrieve information, they imagined themselves walking through the cathedral to the place where the item which was the index of the sought-for material stood, and, seeing the thing, thereby recalling the information previously associated with it. I propose that an encyclopedia, with its many articles, if used habitually, might perform an analogous role for us to organize our knowledge.

Why an encyclopedia?

Of course there may be many ways to approach the organization of knowledge in our age of already intractably too much information daily growing even more unmanageable (Borges' "universal library"?). To solve a problem, however, it is not required to find the one absolutely best solution, but only to find a viable solution: a solution which works for the given situation. That's the level of serviceability I'm arguing for an encyclopedia as "Personal Knowledge Assistant": A solution, which would work well enough for enough persons to make it a commercially viable undertaking. (The argument concerning the intrinsic logic of "universal perfection of knowledge", which I outlined above, shows why, ultimately, such a "good enough" solution really is good enough: Because, in the Modern Age of uniform printed editions, all reasonable starting points teleologically (asymptotically) lead toward the same universal perfection.)

If an "[e]ncyclopedia [is] a work that aims at giving a comprehensive summary of all branches of knowledge" (Encyclopedia Americana, 1995 ed., 10:330), what could be a more suitable "vessel" for our undertaking? A dictionary suggests itself as one alternative, but dictionaries, while they have more "folder labels", lack organizing depth (even the OED doesn't provide the discursivity of encyclopedia article text, which provides so many more "attachment points" for "things"). In earlier times, a people's sacred text might have served (The Bible, e.g.), but that is presumably not a viable alternative today, where we live in a scientific universe, not a divine Cosmos.

Why Encyclopedia Americana?

But why, precisely, Encyclopedia Americana? That it's "ours" is not a good reason, although it's a most felicitous consequence. I think the reason "EA" makes a good base for such a project is that it has a rich classification system, filled in with substantive content. A reasonably well-educated teenager can understand much of it, and a Ph.D. won't find too much of it too trivial. It thus has good prospects for having the "staying power" to accompany a person through their whole life, thus making it worthwhile to invest energy in it.

Looking through the article titles, one will find "most everything", in a non-hierarchical, non-judgmental (alphabetical) order, which is not entirely unstructured, but also does not rigidly / idiosyncratically prescribe one particular structure (is Encyclopedia Britannica's macropedia / micropedia format an example of such a gratuitous constraint?). [As Edward Tufte says: "Don't get it original; get it right."]

The source of meaning in a dis-enchanted world (Susanne Langer)

In the last chapter of Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne Langer notes that Galilean science has taken much of the meaning out of a formerly "enchanted" world (e.g., the medieval Christian Cosmos). She proposes that a way infuse meaning back into this world is by attending to the associational auras which inevitably accrete, through the simple process of the course of our engaging with it, to every least thing with which we have to do. If you have gotten hundreds of cups of coffee from a certain coffee vending machine, you simply must have built up some associations, feelings, etc. vis-à-vis that machine, through your experience(s) with it. For each object in our daily life-world, these associations can be "teased out", reflected on, and cultivated, to enrich all the thing's personal and shared meaning. To organize all one's knowledge, throughout the course of one's lifetime, in relation to a single book (e.g., Encyclopedia Americana), would necessarily result in various pieces of information cross-pollenating each other more fruitfully than if what one knows remains scattered in fragments.

Interactivity, again

Knowledge is not a thing, and it is not even an acquisition. Knowledge is an aspect of the process of knowing. An encyclopedia as reference book (object in the real world) has always been only a "moment" in the process of knowing. By bringing its wealth of content more vitally into a more proactive (active and aware of acting) process, we make the encyclopedia contribute more richly to the real advancement of knowledge, which is not ultimately to acquire correct opinions (which are always subject to supercession by new ones which shall, in their turn, correct them [ad infinitum]...), but rather to cultivate the communicative process in which, alone, knowledge finds its place in knowing and the sharing of knowledge: each person's construction of their own self and their views ("world"), and the community of other selves, constructing and sharing, often, other views ("worlds").

[ Go to Emily Dickinson! ]Perhaps none of the current competitors for what icons should populate the personal computer "desktop" are even "in the ballpark", where the key "players" are substantive areas of personal concern (e.g., Emily Dickinson).

I conclude with an evocative story Professor Emeritus Louis Forsdale (one of my communication teachers, and a good friend of Marshall McLuhan...), recently told me: Libraries, in converting to electronic cataloguing schemes, have encountered an unexpected problem, namely, all the notes which persons had written on the cards in the old card catalogues. Of course you weren't supposed to write on the catalog cards. But people did, and what they wrote ("Good reference for...", "Not reliable about...", "See also...", etc.) added value. Some of these earlier, spontaneous, "conversations with reference materials" have already been found ==> to have been thrown away.

Selected Bibliography

Boulding, K.E. (1956). The image: Knowledge in life and society. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), 101-8.

de Muralt, A. (1974). The idea of phenomenology: Husserlian exemplarism (G. Breckon, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. (Original work published 1958)

Eisenstein, E.L. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change (Vol. 1 and 2). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1981). Reason in the age of science (F. Lawrence, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: M.I.T.

Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. (Original work published 1954)

Ivins, W.M., Jr. (1953; M.I.T. paperback edition, 1969). Prints and visual communication. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Langer, S.K. (1957). Philosophy in a new key (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

McClintock, R. (1971). Toward a place for study in a world of instruction. Teachers College Record, 73(2), 161-205.

Paci, E. (1972). The function of the sciences and the meaning of man (J. Hansen and P. Piccone, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. (Original work published 1963)

Rabelais, F. (1955). The histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (J. Cohen, Trans.). Middlesex, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1532-1534)

Rossi. P. (2000). Logic and the Art of Memory: The quest for a universal language (S. Clucas, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago. (Original work published 1983)

Toulmin, S. (1990). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Yates, F.A. (1966). The art of memory. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Go to Personal Knowledge Assistant (PKA) demo page.
Read and think about Reading.
Think more about personal referential memory repositories (Ariadne's thread).
[ ]  [ Think more about personal referential memory repositories (Ariadne's thread) ]

Do you know the role of "Lorem ipsum dolor" in the history of printing?
Learn  about the foundation on which digital encyclopedias should be erected: SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language).
   [ Learn about SGML! ]
Return to Brad McCormick's resume.
Go to website Table of Contents.
Go to Brad McCormick's home page.
Go to site map.
[ ] [ Go to Site Map! ] [ ] [ Go to website Table of Contents! ] [ ] [ Go home! (BMcC website Home page!) ] [ ] [ | ] [ ] [ Click me to visit website Icon Gallery! ] [ ]
[ ]

Copyright © 1998-2002 Brad McCormick, Ed.D.
bradmcc@cloud9.net [ Email me! ]
17 June 2006CE (2006-06-17 ISO 8601)
[ HTML 3.2 Checked! Test me! ]
[ ]
[ Stop proprietary document interchange software! ]
[ ]