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February 19, 2007

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Perplexing DaVinci

Riffing on an Arthur C. Clarke idea about the unpredictability of science, Kevin Kelly is musing about expected and unexpected inventions (via Infocult). Clarke actually created a chart of inventions or discoveries most scientists could have foreseen before they came about (e.g. automobiles, flying machines, telephones), and ones they couldn’t have predicted (e.g. sound recording, relativity, atomic clocks). Kelly does the same thing, putting organ transplants, the cell phone, and the test tube baby in the realm of the expected, and DNA fingerprinting, radar, and artificial sweeteners in the unexpected camp.

The criterion, Kelly explains, is the “perplex the ancient” test. If Da Vinci were brought back to life, would he be utterly mystified by the technology, or would he grasp the concepts behind it?

For instance, genetically modified crops would surprise no one, because the technique is simply breeding by another means. On the other hand, the underlying concepts of DNA fingerprinting would be mysterious, magical, problematic, and take great lengths to explain. The World Wide Web is the long sought after universal library and answer machine. But virtual reality doesn’t have a good analogy.
This got me wondering — what if you tried a perplex-the-ancient test with things outside of technology? Say cultural developments, for example. What in contemporary culture that might astound the savviest anthropologists of old? Would the end of privacy (great article, btw) shock Mr. de Tocqueville? Would Oscar Wilde have foreseen Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?

Posted February 19, 2007 at 7:50 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture, Technosnark


Thanks for starting with an easy question, Matt. Oscar Wilde would have *so* expected Millionaire, and Anna Nicole Smith and all that.

I really, really like the idea of making a taxonomy of innovation, but am deeply suspicious of the subjectivity of the criteria.

This question is harder than it seems. I have racking my brain trying to come up with a cultural phenomenon that is truly novel, to no avail.

Aside: Searching around, I found a link to commonplaces. Has anybody heard of this before? It's amazing -- they are seriously proto-blogs! Even more than journals (which are merely proto-Livejournals).

Anyway, back to the brainstorm...

Yup, commonplaces are good protoblogs. Check out, too, 18th-century journals (The Adventurer, The Idler).

I like the idea of checking cultural innovations. How about religions?

Commonplace books are hot business in early modern studies, especially history of the book. They had a brief moment in the popular consciousness in 2000-2001, when there were a couple of books about, I think, George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's books. That's when I first heard about them, through articles in the NYTBR and NYRB. (Thank you, Gavin, for working at Schuler and getting those two pubs for free.)

The all-time greatest user of commonplace books was Shakespeare. This anyway is inferred from his use of commonplace quotations from other authors. (The Renaissance had a very different idea of plagiarism from ours.)

Two genius Penn profs, Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier, have a great reading of a section of Hamlet in their "Hamlet's Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England" (subscription required):

My Tables, my Tables; meet it is I set it downe,
That one may smile, and smile and be a Villaine.

Not only is Hamlet jotting down his bon mot for copying later into his commonplace book, but he's using a special erasable wax tablet just for that purpose. After Stallybrass and Chartier made this hypothesis, they were able to find the artifacts themselves -- books with specially treated wax pages with a metal stylus that had a sharp edge for writing and a flat edge to erase -- sort of like an early modern etch-a-sketch, or the thin tacky paper that erases when you lift it from the page underneath.

Here's a better, full quote of Hamlet, that makes it clear that he's erasing and rewriting material into a book (as a memory aid):

Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter. Yes, yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables, my tables,—meet it is I set it down!
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word;
It is “Adieu, adieu! remember me.”

-- Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

While we're on the subject of books, let's look at the invention that's arguably the most overrated and least original yet still the most important. (Like The Beatles and Nirvana). And that is the movable type printing press.

Pre-Gutenberg, people in the book-making business could have easily foreseen single-character movable type -- after all, they'd already been using block woodcuts and type cut in whole words or single letters. It wasn't all manuscript. They just couldn't have foreseen (bum ba bum!) the social consequences of the movable type printing press, how it would give vernacular literature and wide bourgeois readership new legs.

The really radical invention is the codex -- that is, the modern form of the book with a hard cover, bound and cut pages that you turn, etc. The codex supplanted the scroll, but only after a long period where it was gradually adopted by different communities. (The early Christian church, not coincidentally, were early adopters.)

There's a great YouTube video about early users of the codex. It's a Norwegian comedy sketch from a show called Řystein & Meg. A monk tries to figure out this newfangled codex technology and has to call technical support.

It wouldn't have perplexed Da Vinci, but Aristotle's mind would have been blown.

Ah, that link to the codex video is broken. But this one still works.

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