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Jumping Through the Computer Screen

Special Collections Library, University of Michigan
Sixteenth-century cabinet of curiosities belonging to Ferrante Imperato, an apothecary in Naples; from the frontispiece of the 1672 edition of his Historia Naturale

At night, nowadays, we all go on strange and glorious journeys. Just hop through the glowing computer screen, skip from link to link, and you skim across oceans of information. Books and blogs, high-culture magazines and raunchy porn, travel agencies and term paper mills, YouTube and Early English Books Online: all of them blink their lights hopefully as you speed by them, your attention fixed on that elusive, definitive piece of information, the site at the end of the universe that will solve your riddle, finish your puzzle, or answer your question—until a link distracts you, and you drown, for a moment, in facts or images as attractive as they are irrelevant.

That is the way we live now—a new way of life, so it seems, one dominated at every turn by our ways of fin ding information, our mastery of, or our capture by, stores of data that no polymath or imperial librarian, no king or CEO could have summoned up a few decades ago. Yet in some ways, the splendors and miseries of our information-logged condition would have seemed surprisingly familiar when our imperial, continent-spanning nation was a chain of colonies ruled by London.

The seventeenth-century lawyer Francis Daniel Pastorius provides a striking example of someone who, like many of us these days, spent his life trying to keep his head above the surface of a flood of information. His job required him to master the real estate laws of Pennsylvania, where he lived. But his irrepressible curiosity kept pushing him to explore everything from the Greek and Latin classics, Renaissance works on world history and Quaker treatises on religion to the diseases prevalent in his part of the world and the therapies that might be available for them. His mind buzzed with poetry and prose, proverbs and biblical verses, edible legumes and rules for surveying, bibliographies and the incidents of his own life.

Pastorius, a magnificently energetic German who lived from 1651 to 1719, fled sinful Europe for William Penn’s colony in the New World. There he taught, worked as a scribe and court clerk, and served as a justice of the Pennsylvania County Court. And there, he read—big folios and little newssheets, classical poems and modern pamphlets. One ancient piece of literary technology, the commonplace book, enabled him to store everything that impressed him as he read and to find it again when he needed it. Pastorius copied, in his flowing, beautiful handwriting, every passage that struck him, placing them under topical headings and drawing up indexes as well. These notebooks became his most precious possession. On the first page of his largest single manuscript, the Bee-Hive, he urged his two sons to keep his writings “for ever, and not to part with them for any thing in this World; but rather to add thereunto some of their own, &c. Because the price of Wisdom is above Rubies.” This spectacular manuscript, now housed in the University of Pennsylvania Library, offers vital help for anyone interested in one of the newest forms of cultural history: the history of information, how it is made, stored, and transmitted.1

In many ways, Pastorius’s commonplace book even looks commonplace—as you might expect of a handwritten encyclopedia produced more than two centuries into the age of print. Well educated in the classics at Altdorf, Jena, and Strasbourg, Pastorius echoed the humanists of past centuries when he insisted that one could make “an Encylopady of all that can be known” by arranging extracts from books. His metaphors were as traditional as his methods. When Pastorius called his work a beehive and compared his extract making to a bee’s way of making honey, he drew on a tradition rooted in ancient Rome. Pastorius cited his Latin sources to make clear that he was updating them even as he cited them, as they had updated, and cited, their predecessors: “I acknowledge with Macrobius, that in this Book all is mine, and nothing is mine.”

Yet Pastorius was also excited by the contemporary culture of the mid-Atlantic colonies and the larger Atlantic world they belonged to. And his methods belonged to that world too. Though old-fashioned Latin learning was in retreat in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the making of commonplace books was not. The preeminently modern John Locke compiled many of them, and even devised a new method for making them. In fact, it was traditionalists who ridiculed these collections, as a trendy substitute for real learning—the Augustan counterpart to Wikipedia. In the preface to his 1704 Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift joked that he had planned to expand his satire with a panegyric to the present and a defense of the rabble, “but finding my Common-Place-Book fill much slower than I had reason to expect, I have chosen to defer them to another Occasion.” Pastorius found support for his habit of obsessive note-taking not only in the ancients, but also in modern essayists, like Joseph Addison, from whose Spectator he drew an apposite quotation, more than a quarter of a century after he started making the Bee-Hive.

The books that Pastorius sliced and diced into handy, retrievable excerpts included not only well-established classics, but also innovative medical works by Paracelsus and the natural philosophy of the Dutch engineer, alchemist, and submariner Cornelis Drebbel. The Bee-Hive, in other words, is a document of two information regimes at once, one traditional, one highly up-to-date. It illustrates not how one replaced the other, but how they fused in Pastorius’s hands. More important, it shows that he, and the many others who resembled him, did not need computers to go sailing on vast seas of information. The Bee-Hive was Web enough for him: a vast handwritten search engine.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, books like the Bee-Hive and impresarios of information like Pastorius have suddenly begun to haunt scholars’ imaginations. As the information banks available on our computers expand vertiginously in the present, we have realized that we do not understand the ways in which information was created and transmitted in the past. New forms of cultural history are taking shape to fill this gap: histories that emphasize not the formal content of ideas but the institutions and practices that enabled them to be created and transmitted. Of course, historians have long taken an interest in libraries and universities, scriptoria and printing houses. But only for the past couple of decades have scholars begun to think of these as part of a single history, and to give that history a name.

Though the year 2000 did not bring the world’s computers to a halt, it did form a milestone in the development of scholarship, thanks to two prescient books. In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid made clear that information is more than a mass of abstract data.2 Information travels differently in manuscripts than in books, in conversation than in writing, and both historians and contemporary corporate managers need to understand these varied processes of transmission if they hope to grasp how organizations have worked in the past or how they work now. In A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Peter Burke sketched the first detailed map of all the institutions that made and transmitted information in the modern West.3 Production and consumption, the printing of pamphlets and the recording of experiments, he argued, formed part of a single story—that of modernizing Europe itself.

Since these pioneers hit the beach, waves of scholars have followed. Ann Blair, Noel Malcolm, and William Sherman have taught us to see the commonplace book as one among many strange devices—including book wheels for consulting many volumes at the same time and a pioneering version of the modern system of file cards—that scholars devised to bring what another scholar, Daniel Rosenberg, calls “early modern information overload” under control. Jacob Soll, Randolph Head, Filippo de Vivo, and others have begun to explore the creation of the vast archives compiled by popes, kings and ministers, chancellors and city bureaucrats as diplomacy, espionage, and taxation required the development of new ways of record-keeping.

Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, two historians based at the University of Oregon, have now made a first stab at a synthesis: a brief history of information in the West. Their lively and well-informed book starts in ancient Alexandria, with the library, and ends in the modern West, with the laboratory—which, they argue, has been transformed in the age of modern social science from a single, controlled space where replicable experiments could be performed to the entire social world. Between what they portray as these two radically different ways of treating knowledge—the one oriented toward the past, toward what has been preserved; the other toward the future, and what remains to be discovered—they offer rich and insightful treatments of the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters, and the modern scholarly and scientific disciplines.

In many ways, Reinventing Knowledge provides a terrific introduction to the multiple past lives of information. Each of the six core chapters rests on extensive and intensive reading. In each case, the authors show a welcome ability to tease out the complexities of what might seem, from the outside, a simple story. Modern textbooks sometimes describe the monastic culture that took shape in the Latin West in the fifth century and after as a kind of mosaic-making operation, a desperate effort to preserve the fragments of a larger heritage. Monks, on this account, built a vast network of institutions simply to save and copy some of the classics, the Bible, and the works of the Fathers of the Church.

This textbook story has an element of truth. Benedictine monasteries did emphasize a distinctive approach to texts, one that might be called “slow writing and reading”—and that contrasts as sharply with contemporary practices in reading and writing as Slow Food does with McDonald’s. The Benedictine rule allowed each monk to borrow one book a year from his monastery’s collection. This he was to read and meditate on, slowly and with concentration, in his few free hours. Public readings from the Bible and other central Christian texts, held at mealtimes, reinforced the instruction drawn from the carefully chosen Christian classics in individual cells. So, even more powerfully, did a central Benedictine task: that of copying the canon of sacred texts and their Christian commentators, precisely and accurately, on sheets of skin that would last for centuries, when bound into codices, and serve generations of Benedictine readers in their turn.

The Renaissance Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius argued, in a famous screed against the printing press, that this Benedictine way of engaging with texts was uniquely valuable because it eliminated all the slippages that can come between books and readers. Those who adopted this regime would be transformed by what they read:

  1. 1

    Quotations from Pastorius’s Bee-Hive come from The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A Reader of Original Texts with English Translation, edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors (New York University Press, 2000). On Pastorius’s interests and methods see Alfred Brophy, “The Quaker Bibliographic World of Francis Daniel Pastorius’s Bee Hive,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 1998), and Patrick Erben, “‘Honey-Combs’ and ‘Paper-Hives’: Positioning Francis Daniel Pastorius’s Manuscript Writings in Early Pennsylvania,” Early American Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2002). 

  2. 2

    Harvard Business School Press, 2000. 

  3. 3

    Polity, 2000. 

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