Today is March 8 – International Women’s Day, which is being marked in the US by the #Daywithoutawoman campaign. I’ve struggled to get clarity on my own stance here — I’m especially sensitive to the point that striking is a privilege not everyone enjoys and have settled for the following demonstrations of solidarity: I’m wearing red (glasses), only spending money at my favorite local businesses owned by women, (mostly) staying off social media, reminding the world that we still / will always deserve equal pay and paid family leave, and holding off until tomorrow to post this.
I found it important and ironic that Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine came into the world as a Janus-faced book (which the introduction to our reader id’s as a “codex.” Cleaning off the real paper piles (after the digital drifts had been safely closed away) last weekend, I stumbled on this essay by William Cronon, who recently finished his term as president of the American Historical Association, an organization much interested in books (forever) and computing (more recently). Echoing Walter Benjamin, a self-diagnosed and self aware bibliophile, Cronon offers an insightful meditation on how scholars (ok historians anyway) have not yet fully succeeded in extending the relationships we have with the curated collections of knowledge – embodied in bound volumes and physical libraries — to the digital world. Cronon, an early adopter and champion of ebooks and electronic preservation, does see the potential of expanding digital depositories and the incredible power of SEARCH. But he also notes that the Romans’ invention of the codex, whose pages replaced ancient scrolls, “remains one of the most powerful random-access devices humanity has yet devised.” As someone who routinely spends lots of time scrolling (and clicking) to find something in cyberspace, I appreciate his veneration of the physical book and his endorsement of the ease of finding and retrieving something quickly from it. My physical books and manuscripts I work with are known to me and accessible to me in a way that searching and scrolling can’t quite equal. At least not yet.
Yesterday my colloquium students worked in teams on their research projects. While “Team Ungulate” discussed the similarities and differences of reindeer, horse and donkey evolution, “Team Fowl” (ultimately dedicated to the chicken and the pigeon) became immersed in the miracles of dinosaur vision. Like other reptiles, dinosaurs saw the world in technicolor, and many of them had full binocular vision that could capture minute details in a landscape a mile away. We might assume that extinction was a just desert for a life form that proved unable to adapt to climate change, but I was struck by how central vision — or at least the visual imaginary — was to Augmenting Human Intellect and the Memex. Douglas Englebart and Vannevar Bush both sought to capture, store and extend (augment) associative trails of information that humans use to order, synthesize, and create knowledge. As Englebart’s initial vision of the word processor suggests, the apparent “magic” of the CRT is its ability to replicate both the shape and speed of what we “see” in our “mind’s eye,” and to quickly summon the associative trails we stash in its remote corners.
The modes of augmenting human intellect that have emerged from these mid-20th century visions have revolutionized our ways of knowing, modes of being, and social interactions in miraculous and often disturbing ways. Yet their initial inspiration and enduring touchstone is the kind of symbolic reasoning intimately bound up with visual perception and the organization of space. Dinosaurs, with their eagle eyes, may have been way ahead of their time:
“Dinosaur eyes take in a wider view, bending in at the edges like a glass globe filled with water. Nothing is gray or drab or dull; rather they see swimming particles of color, a moving mosaic of dancing colored specks. As we would see a starscape in the night sky, they see a sparkling “lifescape” in the woods by day, a world teeming with life.
Some humans see with dinosaur vision, Bix explained: artists, poets, and children. But for the rest of us, as we grow older, the mammalian part of the brain clouds over the reptilian part, and drains away a little glory of the world.” –James Gurney, “Dinotopia”