CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

The story goes that Thomas Osborne, an English bookseller of the 18th century, found a lyric poem in French. It made such an impression on him that he commissioned a translation of it into English.

But there was a catch. Osborne did not realize that he was translating a translation. The lyric poem was Milton's Paradise Lost.

On first impression this story is an insult to Osborne's thoroughness. How would an English bookseller not know a translation of a premiere English work? Remove the layer of ridicule, however, and interesting parallels start to form.

How many times do we translate a translation without realizing it? This anecdote of Osborne was taken from Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness. Who knows where Basbanes got the story from and who that person got the story from. Not a translation from a different language but a translation from a different context.

Transmission across contexts over time is important. It allows an idea to propagate. I probably would have been ignorant of Osborne if it were not for Basbanes' telling. On the other hand, transmission can allow a story to morph into chimerical proportions. This Osborne anecdote is described by Basbanes as an “undocumented piece of gossip.” What we are left with is something that tows the line between apocryphal and truth.

But here is where translations of a translation are useful. They allow us to focus on aspects of a story without focusing on a story's validity. Sure, the Osborne story could be gossip, but it has acted as a fulcrum for exploring other ideas. * * And if the story were true, I am all the more curious to see Osborne's commissioned translation next to Milton's original. Who knows what similarities and differences would be uncovered? That is what we do when we write on the web. Everything we find interesting should be translated into our own context through our writing. Because who knows what service we bring to others by transmitting these ideas. They might not find that author or that concept otherwise.

I cannot help but think of a scenario where a person, not knowing Paradise Lost or Milton, comes across Osborne's translation first. Sounds a bit like navigating the web.

The space in a venn diagram where both a fading and a new technology overlap is most fascinating.

One that went under my radar is the time between hand-copied books and mass-printed books. This dichotomy came to mind in one figure – the 15th century printer and bookseller Vespasiano dè Bisticci. One of Vespasiano's jobs intersects nicely with this shift. Nicholas Basbanes particularly highlights it in A Gentle Madness:

Most telling of all is the work Vespasiano performed for Federico Montefeltro (1422-1482), duke of Urbino, a collector of exquisite tastes separated him from the seismic changes then afoot in Europe.

Those seismic changes? Mass-produced books coming from the printing press. Instead of using a private or public printing press, Montefeltro put his resources into a private scriptorium with Vespasiano at the head of its operations. Basbanes further highlights the details of this work:

[Vespasiano] spent fourteen years building a collection of all the Greek and Latin authors who had recently been discovered and had them all bound in crimson and silver. The duke insisted that each be in perfect condition and that each be unique. None of the printed books then coming into fashion was allowed in his library. All of his books had to be 'written with the pen,' Vespasiano recalled years later; anything else would have made the collector feel 'ashamed.' Florentine bibliophiles were fiercely proud of their calligraphic traditions, and did not warm immediately to the idea of books that were mass-produced.

There is more at stake here than producing more books at a quicker rate. It took Vespasiano fourteen years to build Montefeltro's library. Who knows how much sooner he could have got them with a private printer than by a private scriptorium. What strikes me about this historical anecdote is the tension between printed books and hand copied books. Why did Montefeltro not want mass-produced, printed books in his library? What was it about them that made him feel ashamed?

Embedded in technology are traditions and values that fly in the face of the increased utility of newer technologies.

There is a figure in English history who was known as a unique intellectual resource – not from his own words, but from the words he collected. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton amassed a library with such an extensive collection, from the sole surviving source of Beowulf to the Magna Carta, that writers flocked to study and borrow its contents. In A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Nicholas Basbanes explores the influence of Cotton's library on his contemporaries:

Many of the writers who used his library acknowledged their debt to him in print, including Richard Knolles, a historian and author of The Generall Historie of the Turkes, and Thomas Milles, in Catalogue of Honour. With Cotton's assistance, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his Historie of the World while confined to the Tower on charges of treason; Sir Francis Bacon consulted Cotton while working on The History of Henry VII.

Even Shakespeare is rumored to have used Cotton's library. In short, as Basbanes declares,

Cotton's library was recognized as the most important source of factual information in the realm, an archive that was valued by his friends and feared by his enemies.

We do not use other people's libraries in the same way as writers used Cotton's. We cannot claim to be the kind of source of factual information that Cotton was. Not anymore.

So where does that leave us? I am struck by a comment Jon Udell once made – context is a service that we provide to others. Perhaps that is the form our libraries take on the web. Not of 10th century manuscripts but of contexts of thought. So a blog I consistently read is from an individual's unique context – how she is, what she is thinking, what she is reading, and who she is interacting with. That context then sits aside other contexts. Soon enough I have amassed a library of context. And when I blog, the many contexts of others I have been reflecting on shows through in the context I share.

It is at once an individual library and a public library. And perhaps that is what the web is in a nutshell.

Bix brings up an interesting article about a new library in Long Island City that took 20 years and $41 million to make. But that was not the interesting part. Bix keyed in on this quote from Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Queens Public Library and a retort from a city resident:

“Our staff has been and will continue to retrieve books for customers, and we are going to offer devices that will allow customers to browse the materials available in those areas.”


[Joe] Bachner, who asked about accessibility during his visit, said the library's offer to fetch books misses the point.

“Browsing is part of the enjoyment of going to the library,” he said.

Browsing is part of the enjoyment. But I find it ironic that I do more of the opposite here – Bix read the article and I grabbed a quotation of the article from him. No need to browse. Then again, I was browsing his blog and happened across the post. And I know not how he came across the article in question – perhaps in a similar way as I did or perhaps not (unless if you care to explain Bix).

This brings up an interesting point – “browse” is not a catch-all term. There are many different types of browsing one can do. The person who asks for the librarian to retrieve a book for her could have browsed an online newsletter and came across the book. Is that the same kind of browsing as combing the fiction shelves?

How can we better attune ourselves to the different forms of browsing? How can knowing these inform how we operate on the web and outside of it?

A response to this letter. If you would like to respond to this or any post, feel free to write in here.

Hi Miso,

I like the idea of long form comments too. I wonder if part of the negativity of some comments is the lack of length. Then again, much vitriol has been written in more than 280 characters. Sometimes long form gives people more time to sharpen their spears than to create fruitful discourse. So while important, I do not think length is the keystone.

Perhaps it is a matter of asking what the rules of engagement are. What is the context for that 280 characters? What is the context for the long form responses? In this case, I like to think that responding to your post is like responding to a letter from a friend rather than a couple of cryptic sentences. I am in a different headspace. I slow down, trying to be more thoughtful in how I respond to your ideas. It reminds me of the relation between physical places to our own well-being, something Bix has poignantly referenced many times in his blog and I have responded to.

And you bring up a fascinating idea of not worrying about whether you can find a post where someone quotes you. It makes me think of notifications and whether they are needed all of the time. If we think again about the physical places analogy, there are many delightful happenstances that occur as we walk around a city – a coffee shop we never knew of before, an enthralling street performer, a wonderful conversation with a person on a bench. These things are not preceded by notifications. They just happen unexpectedly.

Maybe we do not need to be alerted every time our posts are mentioned elsewhere. Private messaging, or a function akin to this letter to the editor system, is great for direct one-to-one communication. That is what I should know about – there is a letter in my mailbox by someone who wants to get in touch with me. But maybe having the other part of it be open-ended, mentions and quotations without notifications, leaves room for a sense of renewed discovery on the web.

Read.write.as, then, acts as a little town square of sorts where, as you said, you go about “looking to see what other writer are talking about, seeing if you have been mentioned, seeing if a conversation is progressing.” That to me is a place on the web worth dwelling in. Thanks for contributing to that feeling Miso.

Best, CJ

The first letter to the editor. If you want to write in about anything I have written, please feel free to do so.

By miso

I like the idea of long-form comments. I never really tend to read comment sections on other platforms because I know most of its content is either reactionary or just trolling. Well, it's not true. Sometimes I do open it for fun, to see how many people commented something that's nothing to do with the main purpose of the article.

As you have written on Engagement has it hard, engagement is indeed hard. I've also came to a similar conclusion on Engaging with posts on fediverse. I got very surprised when I moved into write.as to see that other people were actually quoting me on their posts and were adding to the discussion. I don't think I've quite seen this somewhere else. I like this idea of opening read.write.as and looking to see what other writer are talking about, seeing if you have been mentioned, seeing if a conversation is progressing. Yet it's so easy to miss something. If you don't read everything, you might miss out on someone quoting you. Is it a bad thing? I would have said so a while ago. I'm not sure anymore. It creates excitement.

My hope is that such a system will beget real engagement here. It does not have to scale. It just has to matter.

I couldn't agree more what that statement.

I want to take another crack at letters to the editor for my blog – an alternative to frictionless commenting systems.

To do this, I will be using Submit.as for submission management. It allows for people to type in a name and email, draft a letter in the Write.as editor, and publish. Once I receive the post, I can review the submission and publish it to my blog as a letter to the editor with a response, or get back to the individual with an email.

That flexibility to make the conversation public or private is what interests me about a letter to the editor. A letter is long form, private correspondence. When addressed to the editor, however, it can be responded to and published in public. But at its core the exchange is between two people first and can be left that way.

My hope is that such a system will beget real engagement here. It does not have to scale. It just has to matter.

Drop me a line if you'd like.

Design breeds culture and the culture of a space like Twitter leans toward hitting that button rather than really engaging. That said, how much real engagement can one person do in any given day?

This point by Bix bears reflection. Because while real engagement is an aspiration for social software, little has been brought up as to whether it can scale in an individual's life. It takes a lot of effort, as Miso brings up here:

However I think a lot of people simply read and never write. And that's probably for a reason: in order to engage with something it takes effort. Someone needs to formulate their thoughts, put it down, send it. It's not easy. I guess that's why there are a lot of one-click like systems (such as claps on medium). It shows engagement, but i'm not sure how meaningful it is.

The web is a strange marriage of reading and writing. We write and then read and then write responses to what we read, all at an exponential rate. Such a treadmill becomes exhausting.

No wonder one-click systems act as a supposed balm, however wanting of real meaning and engagement. Because one-click systems scale. Hundreds of thousands of people can click “Like” or “Subscribe” on a single piece of content. Can hundreds of thousands of people write long, thoughtful responses to a single piece of content while engaging in a discussion?

In comparison, I think of this fact from Dirk van Miert's paper “What was the Republic of Letters?”:

From the first four decades of the sixteenth century, some 3200 letters, exchanged with over seven hundred people, have come to down to us from Erasmus’ correspondence.

We operate at such a different scale than Erasmus by candlelight. An engagement rate of 700 people would be laughable to high traffic content channels. But even though the web's infrastructure can support thousands of people engaging with m work, I wonder if there is something to the slow drip. Even if I cannot do as much real engagement with many people on the web every day, I want that little bit to be meaningful.

Every day it seems I’ll have a random thought and I think, hmm I should Tweet that. Before long this gets ingrained into your routine and it’s hard to break it.

This thought from Eric Barnes gets at the heart of how digital habits work. Charles Duhigg outlined a useful model for habits in The Power of Habit, and it goes something like this:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

“Put another way”, Duhigg mentions in the appendix, “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

In Barnes' case, the cue is having a random thought. Then he proceeds to tweet that thought – the routine. What he leaves out is the reward of tweeting his thought. We can assume there are external motivations coupled with internal ones. This is the habit loop for Twitter.

Looking beyond at our other digital habits through this model can help us better understand why we use certain platforms regardless of their deficits. There is something about habits that can transcend moralistic arguments. Sure, lambast Twitter all you want for privacy and lack of freedom. That does not get at underlying power of the habit of tweeting.

And I think that is where Cal Newport's reluctance comes in about the success of alternatives to the social media silos. As he pens in this New Yorker article:

Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale. For one thing, the IndieWeb lacks the carefully engineered addictiveness that helped fuel the rise of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This addictiveness has kept people returning to their devices even when they know there are better uses for their time; remove the addiction, and you might lose the users.

Destroy the habit loop and you might lose the users. Perhaps part of the friction Bix explores here is slowing down to observe our digital habits. Duhigg further expounds on the positive benefit of such activity:

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop – you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.

There is a pattern common to myself and others – putting pieces of writing writing into other pieces of writing – books. Sometimes it is relevant to the reading – an obituary of the author tucked away in the table of contents. Other times it is not even related – a birthday card that suffices as a bookmark.

It makes me think about how we embed writing into other writing on the web. A newspaper article clipping is replaced by a hyperlink to take you to said newspaper article. Sure, the tactility is lost, but deep down I wonder what else is.

Reminds me of Ted Nelson's qualm with “cut-and-paste” as adopted by early computing:

To me that was an outrage because no one has yet got a decent re-arrangement system that allows you to see the all the parts of the arrangement as you’re writing. Those words meant something entirely different until 1984. Balzac, the French novelist, carried a razor blade around his neck for cutting up his manuscript. Tolstoy would cut up his manuscripts and leave all the pieces around the floor. This is true cut-and-paste, where you’re re-arranging on a large scale and able to see the relationships between parts.