Commonplacing

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Description

"I want to start with a page out of history—the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, taken from one of his notebooks on religion. The words on this page belongs to a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe and America, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Jefferson Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.” (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2010/04/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book.html)


Discussion

Steven Berlin Johnson:

In this text, two possible futures for publishing texts are outlined, one in which the massive commonplacing possibilities of the Web are maintained and expanded, and one when it becomes impossible to copy-paste, as in the current versions of the iPad.


"WHEN TEXT IS free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created. Value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups. This is in part what Jeff Jarvis has called the “link economy,” but as Jarvis has himself observed, it is not just a matter of links. What is crucial to this system is that text can be easily moved and re-contextualized and analyzed, sometimes by humans and sometimes by machines.

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth. A productive ecosystem, like a rainforest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, like a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information. Call it, in this example: textual productivity. By creating fluid networks of words, by creating those digital-age commonplaces, we increase the textual productivity of the system.

The overall increase in textual productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years. Think about it this way: let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links” to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a Columbia journalism lecture and you link to it on your page. The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic. Fast forward to 2010, and you check-in at Foursquare for this lecture tonight, and tweet a link to a description of the talk. What happens to that information? For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the web, which then attracts advertisers interested in your location or the topic of journalism itself. Because that tiny little snippet of information is free to make new connections, by checking in here you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping the Journalism school in promoting this venue; you’re helping the bar across Broadway attract more customers, you’re helping Google organize the web; you’re helping people searching google for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students. Not bad for 140 characters.

When text is free to flow and combine, new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases. But of course, when text is free, value is sometimes subtracted for the publishers who used to charge for that text. So let me make one point clear: recognizing the value creation of open textual networks is not argument against paywalls. I happen to think it is perfectly reasonable for online publishers to ask people to pay for the privilege of reading their journalism. If people are willing to buy virtual tractors on Farmville, or cough up two bucks for the Flight Control app on the iPhone, a meaningful number of people are going to be willing to pay for a well reported and edited newspaper or magazine. I don’t think erecting paywalls is some kind of magic cure that will instantly restore the newspaper business to the forty-percent margins they commanded back in the day when they had a virtual monopoly on local ads and classifieds. But there is nothing in the idea of charging for content that is in conflict with the value of textual networks. Search engines can still index the paywalled content, and there are a number of clever schemes out there —including the metered usage model that the Times is apparently going to roll out — that allow publishers to charge for content while still allowing that content to be linked to, excerpted, and remixed in new ways.

But there are worse things than paywalls." (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2010/04/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book.html)