Recently you may have found yourself watching this amusing video known variously as “Medieval Help Desk” and “Introducing the Book,” in which a befuddled monk seeks technical support assistance figuring out how to use the newfangled text-delivery platform called the book. (“I ‘turn the page’?”)
First we laugh at the missteps and worries of the monastic protagonist, who fears he’ll “lose text” if he turns the page; then we realize the joke cuts both ways, and that the monk’s trials are no different from our own struggles with unfamiliar new interfaces. Sooner or later, we’re all newbies in relation to something, and our confusion will be laughed at by those in the future (perhaps ourselves) for whom the novelty we once scratched our heads over has become second nature.
I thought about that video as I read Jon Udell’s recent post titled Online Incunabula. I’d always thought “incunabulum” meant anything that was in embryonic form, but Udell explained that the word has a more specific meaning: it applies to books printed before 1501, in the earliest days of printing, when the conventions of book publishing hadn’t yet coalesced into a set of common practices. Udell’s post refers to a podcast interview with Geoffrey Bilder, an executive with CrossRef, which develops a system for making scholarly citations work online. Udell excerpts this passage by Bilder:
People were clearly uncomfortable moving from manuscripts to printed books. They’d print these books, and then they’d decorate them by hand. They’d add red capitals to the beginnings of paragraphs, and illuminate the margins, because they didn’t entirely trust this printed thing. It somehow felt of less quality, less formal, less official, less authoritative. And here we are, trying to make our online stuff more like printed stuff. This is the incunabula of the digital age that we’re creating at the moment. And it’s going to change.
So much of the apparatus that we take for granted when we look at a book — the table of contents, page numbers, running heads, footnotes — that wasn’t common currency. It got developed. Page numbers didn’t make much sense if there was only one edition of something. This kind of stuff got developed and adopted over a fairly long period of time.
If you treat Vannevar Bush as Gutenberg, we haven’t even gotten to Martin Luther yet, we haven’t even gotten to 1525. In fact, whereas people stopped trying to decorate manuscripts by 1501, we’re still trying to replicate print online. So in some ways they were way ahead of us in building new mechanisms for communicating, and new apparatus for the stuff they were dealing with.
I love this quote’s reminder of how early the online game’s innings remain. One of the things I’ve always valued about blogs is that their features — reverse chronology, permalinked posts, time-stamps, comments and so forth — represent the first bundle of conventions for the online medium that is truly native to it. The format evolved to meet the unique needs of a publishing environment in which anything can be changed at any time and yet everything ought to have a permanent address. (This is a point that both Rebecca Blood and I have been making for a long time now.)
It helps to think that what we’ve been doing here on the Web for several years is slowly, by trial error, inventing the online equivalents to “the apparatus that we take for granted when we look at a book.” And we’ve only just begun.
[tags]blogging, jon udell[/tags]
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