The amount of information around us is increasing at a staggering rate with no end in sight. An industry has emerged to deal with overload, but we've been up against the boundary for a long time. Civilization has produced too much information to keep up with for centuries. We deal with it with filters and curation. The trick is not so much storages and access, but rather to be reflection and recontextualization.
Technologies have a curious habit of not having all of the pieces in place at first - it often takes a long time before they reach even a few percent penetration of a market. At some point everything comes together for a few winning technologies and we see the famous S shaped growth curve. Looking back we rarely recognize the long path that came before.
Gutenberg's invention was just such an example. A practical printing press lowered the effort and cost involved in book publishing, but the finished product was still far too expensive for anything approaching a mass market. Early Gutenberg books were still chained to desks like there handmade predecessors. But another technology took off nearly immediately. Paper became widely available and inexpensive. Students, scholars and other readers would visit libraries armed with pen and paper to copy passages into blank books - a common place for storing and making sense of information.
When I'm in a great library I like to track down their collections of commonplace books as some are beautiful and most are interesting. Annotations, sketches and calculations flow through the pages of copied text. Critically they are organized in a manner to benefit their author. Categorization and lists are easy to spot and you get a sense of the interests of the owner.
Commonplacing became part of an education. Students had to copy passages with penmanship and accuracy being graded. In theory it would provide a foundation for copying bits and shards into some organized pattern that could be later used for a deeper purpose. Unfortunately many schools missed the point and too often education descended to rote memory.
By the 1800s printed books had become inexpensive. The act of copying and annotation evolved towards clipping , organizing and annotation. Shards of music scores, writing, even early photography. This form of scrapbooking was an extension of the diary, but often a public extension. People would have friends write in their books and create a a sort of early multi-media diary. If you're lucky some of these may have been passed down from earlier generations.
We still have them. Moleskine encourages the practice and scrapbooking is common in some groups of teenage girls. I maintain notebooks of sketches and calculations that are something of a diary. Very little of it is electronically produced.
Usually I'll sketch the results of a graph to reflect on it - a process I find worthwhile.1 I have a loose organization organization. Looking at old notes and annotations are references from other times allows me to reflect on the original information and sometimes make deeper connections. This is one of my standard methods.
Of course I could do this digitally and do with quite a bit of information, but the tools lack the fluidity and intellectual presence of a pen or pencil on paper - at least not for me. There is signal in how I arrange, sketch and annotate that help me recreate the context of my thoughts at the time. Context is far too important when you're working on ideas that span months or more. In the process I'm filtering, sorting and recontextualizing information. I have commonplace books that are only for far flung connections - sport and physics, fashion and material science and the ideas of others, and so on. these are extremely valuable to me. The process involved in creating them is messy and difficult to describe - I'm unsophisticated enough a tool user than I can only capture it in free form. I also find myself using higher quality paper and pencils so as to focus more on thoughts.2
While some of us are paper and pen dinosaurs, digital commonplacing is - well - common. Pinterest is one of the best examples. Users commonplacing images. Users "pin" images in themed areas as they browse the web - they're creating a self categorized record of their interests. They can annotate and others can re-pin images to their spaces as well as comment on the originals - a process that allows communities of focused common interests to form - it is the old notion of passing around commonplace books to others to allow them to add and enrich the original. Republishing, remixing, and recontextualizing is a big part of the process separating Pinterest from most image storage sites.3
Twitter is another commonplace tool - one that I use, although not for the same purpose I create physical books. It began as a microblogging service with short 140 character messages, but quickly the concept of the hashtag emerged. The author can now categorize and contextualize the message, which is shared with followers. Others can search on hashtags and put together something of a commonplace page on a specific subject often with rich context. Links, images and videos can be included making it a multimedia experience. The links are particularly important and they allow a rich web of user driven context to emerge.
Over the weekend a reader asked why I used Twitter. I replied with an unthought answer, but the real reason is there are times when I'm taking a break from thought and just want to wander the digital flow of the portion of the digital metropolis I find myself in. Following a Twitter stream and casually branching off to see where it leads is like the wanderings of the flaneur as she moves through the streets of a place just enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of the place. I become a digital flaneur as recreation, but it sometimes allows seemingly random connections and I occasionally find ideas that are original, at least to me, appear. I don't recommend living there, but it is a fine place to visit.
One can go on and on. I suspect the process of commonplacing enables a deep way to make sense of information and its context. Some services are commonplace tools, others aren't. As with most services there are issues of interface and experience across types of information. New modalities and richer connections have emerged, but we're only at the beginning and the path will be long. I suspect I'll be using paper and pen or pencil for some time, but will be augmenting it with something new. It is also possible that I'll become a better flaneur along the way.
Even with the shortcomings this is terrifically interesting as information can be ripped from culture, remixed and then published (burned;) in new forms. A major component of digital literacy is to produce as well as consume - many are doing it without a second thought. Copyright sometimes gets in the way, but I suspect commonplacing will route around that as it has for centuries.
This touches the physical world, but my hour is up...
1 I regularly attend a conference that doesn't allow viewgraphs. There is slate blackboard for equations and graphs, but projection isn't allowed. Speaker notes aren't allowed. There are a few other quirky rules, but it a brilliant place with wonderful exchanges.
The image consists of a few back of the envelope calculations to determine if the the too early confirmation of inflation was real. I heard about it on a Monday - I was boarding a place and found myself doing a few estimates on the observed signal to see if it was consistent with cosmic inflation.
2 In addition to Moleskein I like Field Notes and old school composition notebooks. I was given an excellent Habana notebook, but it is too spendy for my purposes. All nice, but the best notebook is the one you have with you or the one you can quickly buy. Regular notebooks for middle and high school are sometimes all you have.
3 Interesting arguments can be made for Instagram and a few other services, but they' occupy a different space - one that also has a rather old foundation.
Roasted fruit is delicious. Put blueberries, grapes or other small seedless fruit on a tray and bake at 425°F for 15 to 20 minutes. The fruit darks and deepens in flavor. Plums and peaches work well if you slice them into half inch thick wedges and roast for about ten minutes longer. Just move the fruit around a bit and don't let it get black.
I stir it into whole plain Fage yogurt. A quick little dessert is to spread yogurt onto a tart crust and then top with roasted fruit.