Tuesday, May 29, 2007


At a party a while ago, my friends and I were playing the "in case of fire, what would you take from your apartment?" game. Like Beyonce, I couldn't think of anything in my apartment that was irreplaceable. Sure, my computer would be useful, but I have back-ups of the things that are important, and the machine itself is on its last legs. It would be more inconvenient than devastating to lose that. Losing all my books would be as close to devastation as I could get, but, again, they're replaceable. I don't have photographs or many mementos; there are probably a few things that I would miss, but maybe I wouldn't miss them enough that I could think of what they were. I wasn't very good at the game. The only way I could think about it was in terms of practicality, not sentimentality.

My friend Scriblerus called me a nihilist and demanded I come up with at least one item. The game wasn't hypothetical for Scriblerus, for he had recently had to deal with fire and water damage in his apartment. I insisted that I could only think of mundane practicalities, so it's not like anything I named would establish What I Really Care About, What Matters Most to Me, or whatever the answer was supposed to reveal. After some prodding, I decided I would take my copy of Amy Hempel's At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom because the collected edition of her short stories hadn't been published yet and I was the only person I knew with a copy. Later, when I told Priscilla about my pathetic performance in the game, she reminded of me of Hempel's short story "Pool Night" (from Reasons to Live), about what people save in a fire and a flood. I re-read the story, wept at the last line, and decided I wasn't a nihilist after all.

Now Scriblerus is writing about how eighteenth-century authors dealt with the problem of durability and information overload. I saw the connection between his indignance about my vague sense of durability and his research interests when I read Alec Wilkinson's New Yorker article about Gordon Bell, a man sometimes called "the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers." Since 1998, Bell has been recording his entire life into a personal digital archive: he has scanned all of his books and papers, as well as his personal scrapbooks and photographs, labels of bottles of wine he has consumed, maps of places he's visited, and anything else that he can think of. Part of Bell's idea for a personal digital archive came from Vannevar Bush's essay "As We May Think," in which he proposes the idea of a "memex," or a memory extender. The essay, published in 1945 in The Atlantic, is an amazing piece of writing about how technology changes the way we think about human memory and the structure of knowledge. Bush writes,
One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

Bush's memex idea is interesting for the ways that it tries to contend with two different scales at the same time: personal minutia at one end and vast expansion of all types of knowledge at the other. Bell has focused on the former in hopes that his experiment will be useful for future applications of the latter scale. Bell's son, writes Wilkinson, "regards his father's project as self-involved to the point of being 'egocentric.' Gordon Bell considers himself something more like invisible in terms of the archive's intentions. 'I'm not particularly interesting,' he says. 'I'm just typical of what you should be able to do.'"

In working between those two scales, Wilkinson has a fascinating task in the article. How do you write about a project of voluminous reiteration of minutia without giving into that structure as a narrator? Or, how do you write about excess without being excessive? He starts describing what Bell's personal archive looks like by asking Bell's secretary, Vicki Rozycki, to show him what's on the file while Bell tells him about the information. But Bell talks about his project in conventional terms of autobiography, and it's not clear how the archive adds any complexity other than oddity.
In 1952, Bell went to M.I.T., the first person from Kirksville to go there. “Here’s your letter of acceptance,” Rozycki said, the clicks of her mouse making sounds like knitting needles. “I got a big trunk and put all my junk in it, and my parents took me to Boston,” Bell said. The city at night, seen from the banks of the Charles River, impressed all of them, and in the hotel Bell’s father wept, realizing that his son would never run Bell Electric.

“Here’s your fraternity,” Rozycki said.

“I joined a fraternity,” Bell said.

Rozycki brought up a black-and-white photograph of boys wearing suits and sitting at a table with a white tablecloth and eating. “I fell in with two Missouri boys—Kansas City and St. Louis—who got Ph.D.s in chemical engineering,” Bell said. “They were smart and supportive and nice. They helped me catch up with the prep-school kids who’d had calculus, and I hadn’t.”

On the third screen appeared a table with several nearly empty glasses of red wine. Bell ignored it. “I graduated in ’57, with a master’s,” Bell said. “Computers were just being invented.” He didn’t want to get a Ph.D., and he had an aversion to the rows of desks that were typical of engineering firms—he believed that anything designed by more than four or five people wouldn’t work the way it should. The head of his department knew a man who had started the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and he suggested that Bell teach computing there. Bell and a friend got Fulbrights to do it. At the university, Bell began seeing another Fulbright scholar, a city planner named Gwen Druyor, and when they returned to America they were married.

I don't know what the image of the wineglasses means or where it came from, but it's interesting that the "archive's intentions" aren't really as important to Bell as the autobiographical narrative he's already established. Bell's collaborator Jim Gemmell says he envisions a way of making these types of archives into movies, a form of "auto-storytelling." Gemmell tells Wilkinson, "My dream is I go on vacation and take my pictures and come home and tell the computer, 'Go blog it,' so that my mother can see it. I don't have to do anything; the story is there in the pattern of the images." Because Wilkinson has spent so much of the article telling a conventional pattern of a biography, this claim seems like a difficult one to enact in a meaningful way, given what's happened earlier with Bell's skipping over images that don't fit the pattern of personal narrative. (William Gibson's Pattern Recognition should give anyone plenty of wonderful ideas about the intricacies and possible digressions of this type of plan.)

I was impressed not only with how Wilkinson moves back and forth between the scales of potentially fascinating minutia (the biographical detail) and tedious repetition of it (wine labels?!), but also for how moves from those two ideas to more general thoughts on what it means to try to remember and record everything for people other than Gordon Bell.

I'm totally fascinated by this idea of how to register excess without reproducing it. I ran into this problem this semester in writing about an eighteenth-century American historian's penchant for pointing out his colleagues' errors in long, digressive footnotes that took up more of the book than the actual text of the history he was writing. In trying to correct others' errors in such mean-spirited detail, the historian, William Douglass, made all sorts of errors of his own, which his contemporaries then delighted in detailing in their own works. Because of this quixotic, polemical obsession with correcting other people's errors, Douglass is now remembered mostly for his own errors--and for his objection to inoculation as a method for managing smallpox, though he later revised that position and corrected his own errors in print.

When I set out to write about how Douglass's method of error correction tended to produce errors rather than eliminate them, I couldn't figure out how to give the reader a sense of how such proliferation could occur. Douglass is the kind of writer who writes footnotes that last for pages, and each paragraph of the notes end with self-conscious comments such as, "this note has already grown too prolix" or "I should put this information in the appendix." Then he adds another paragraph about how an earlier author has made another egregious error that he would be remiss to leave uncorrected. His polymathic character leads him to digress on subjects of currency, botany, medicine, and mathematics because he's sure that his reader will benefit from the information. There's one three-page footnote, for example, about the different types of fir trees in New England and how previous natural historians have neglected the different species. His Summary of the British Settlements in North America (1749-52) was never finished because the author had to tend to his medical duties in treating another smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1752, and he died that year. But the book is in many ways unfinishable. He eventually realizes (in multiple footnotes) in that the appendix he keeps referring to will never be written because it will take up more pages than the two-volume book itself.

One of Douglass's more sympathetic biographers said his history resembled the novel Tristram Shandy more than it resembled any of its contemporary histories. That's half-true: it's a lot like Tristram Shandy in its digressions, but it's also a lot like other eighteenth-century histories such as Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, which is, by the way, a totally weird book that I wasn't looking forward to reading until I read the first page, at which point I was hooked. Mather spends much of that book talking about errors, too, and it's noteworthy that Douglass directs much of his criticism at the similarly error-obsessed minister (the two also feuded about the experimental basis for inoculation). Jenny Davidson has noted how talking about Tristram Shandy can lead anyone to digression.

So I really want to know how to write about digression and excess in such a way that I don't reproduce those qualities. I think Wilkinson's article is a good model. It's easy and tempting to reproduce that excess by doing close-readings of the excessive passages and saying why they're excessive--but it can also get tedious to read, as I found out in revising my work (who wants to read a polymath's digressions on fir trees?). I can see some of the strategies as conventional: make lists and cherry-pick items that convey the broad range of the subjects in the digression; mimic the excess of the tone (practice this one in moderation); identify patterns in how the author digresses or writes in excess and diagnose how the repetition of the pattern functions in the text. I practice these strategies with students in composition class when I ask them to identify the sentence structure that they over-use and then hypothesize why they do it. That exercise has produced writerly examination that's both important and adorable.

The other funny thing about William Douglass is that he's remembered with enmity in part because he insists that he doesn't want to take the time to look through all the documentary history of America because it's "trifling." He was on the wrong side of this debate; his contemporaries were obsessed with collecting American historical ephemera and cataloguing it in newly formed antiquarian and historical societies. I figure these two practices are two sides of the same coin: either you compile documentary history obsessively or you disdain it vociferously and correct errors in these printed records at exactly the moment when you're unsure what to do with all this stuff. Both types of projects are inherently impossible to finish because you never run out of stuff to account for. I see it all over the eighteenth century: in the nastiness between Lewis Theobald and Alexander Pope that ends up in the Dunciad and is reflected earlier in the opening lines of Pope's Essay on Criticism:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

Bell and Gemmell are trying to get at a similar problem of proliferation and durability in their project to archive everything in Bell's life. They aren't sure what they'll do with it or why these particular procedures may be important later on, but they want to experiment with how to archive at both ends of the minute and vast scales. I think Bush gets at the problem in a compelling way:
The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race. It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here. Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube. In order that the picture may not be too commonplace, by reason of sticking to present-day patterns, it may be well to mention one such possibility, not to prophesy but merely to suggest, for prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on the unknown is only a doubly involved guess.
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed May 30, 10:51:00 AM:
You still haven't bought a new computer? Still?
Blogger Scriblerus on Wed May 30, 05:18:00 PM:
Ha! Thanks for the free press. Very useful entry too--dovetails nicely with my latest reading. Response brewing...