Time and Accident

Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices; the late war has done the work of centuries in this business; the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the each of accident.

— Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard, 18 February 1791

This comes as no surprise from the man who deemed the polygraph, a copying machine, as “the finest invention” of his age. The best defense is a good offense. Jefferson preferred proliferation over protection of an original source.

And now we have this networked polygraph called the web. This post cannot only be shared but dispersed across the web, mirrored as a static HTML site or as a Markdown file. I have many ways by which I can protect my writing from “time and accident.”

But the velocity of words have gotten to a point where “time and accident” reenter in ways unforeseen by Jefferson or his contemporaries. “Time and accident” now amounts to writing so much that what you are searching for is lost in the tonnage you've amassed on the web. All of the polygraphic tendencies in the world cannot help when we fall under the weight of our own words. It only makes it worse – just another straw on the camel's back.

It makes me wonder if the approach to proliferation has to be reconsidered. Do we need to scale back? Focus on a smaller oeuvre that we develop over time? Maybe a post that consistently grows into a longer essay?

Or do we need to throw caution to the wind and write, focusing on developing ideas that branch out and proliferate to others who take it and run wild? Do we need a url on an idea for it to inform our worldview?

I think this view's summation is best expressed in a passage from Julian Dibbell's “Portrait of a Blogger as a Young Man”:

Accept that the Web ultimately overwhelms all attempts to order it, as for now it seems we must, and you accept that the delicate thread of a personal point of view is often as not your most reliable guide through the chaos. The brittle logic of the hierarchical index has its indispensable uses, of course, as has the crude brute strength of the search engine. But when their limits are reached (and they always are), only the discriminating force of sensibility will do – and the more richly expressed the sensibility, the better.