The First List: From Throwing to Chronology

French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.

In the previous post, we looked at the earliest examples of organized information.  These are primarily bone or antler artifacts with small slashes often incised over a period of time, indicating a chronologic list.  Why would our first attempts at organized information be chronologic?  Surprisingly the answer may involve our ability to throw.

I first started thinking about this after finding the work of neurophysiologist William H. Calvin, who theorized that our advanced throwing arm improved our hunting skills which in turn increased cognition.  He believes throwing at moving targets enhanced our ability to plan, thus leading to modern mental capabilities.

To bolster his argument, Calvin suggested that the ubiquitous prehistoric hand axes were actually throwing devices.  These hand axes were built and used by early humans and pre-humans for millions of years in Africa.  As hominins migrated to Europe, Asia and the Americas, they brought their flint knapping skills with them, always improving the technology, as hominins like to do.  The palm-sized tools tend to be symmetrical, narrow at the top, wide at the base, with a very sharp edge all around.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”

Several tests found the hand axes to be aerodynamic.  Calvin suggested hominins threw them into a herd of mammals, not to kill but to surprise the one that got hit.  The victim and the herd would then bolt, dispersing the animals.  In all the commotion, one of the prey might trip and that would be the one the hominins ate for dinner.

Unfortunately, Calvin was wrong about that.  The most thorough analysis of hand axes indicates they were used for butchering, not throwing.  John Mitchell, an associate of Mark Roberts at the Boxgrove site in England, had a professional butcher, Peter Dawson of Oxford, use several hand axes on a deer carcass.  Apparently if you know what you’re doing, they work great.  As Roberts stated in his book with Michael Pitts, Fairweather Eden, “Any aerodynamic properties . . . are simply incidental” (2000, p. 289).

Just because Calvin was wrong about hand axes, doesn’t mean he was wrong about brain development or throwing.  Spears from 400,000 BC were discovered by Hartmut Thieme at a site in Schoeningen, Germany.  They are made from spruce tree trunks where the hardest part is at the base of the tree.  That hardness forms the point of the spear.  The weight of the projectile is heaviest about a third of the way up the shaft, just like a modern competition javelin

As usual, these spears are controversial in terms of the date of the artifacts, the effective penetration of the projectile, and the physiological ability of pre-humans to throw.  That lack of throwing ability was challenged by a June, 2013 study in Nature.  Researchers had Harvard baseball players throw while wearing braces that replicated the mechanics of the pre-human arm and shoulder.  Their results suggest that hominins could throw accurately much earlier than previously believed.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.

The Boxgrove site is 100,000 years older than Schoeningen.  Roberts’ team didn’t find any wooden spears.  But they do have a scapula from a butchered horse with a round hole that seems to have been made by a projectile.  Forensic analysis indicates the spear was propelled with a throwing device that allowed a hominin to throw faster, farther, and harder.  This is a preliminary finding and is controversial considering that some researchers don’t believe pre-humans could even throw, let alone build a throwing device.  For now, Pitts and Roberts make this comment about the hole in the scapula, “We are not saying that it was made by a spear thrown by Man. . . . We are saying that at the moment we cannot think of any other explanation” (2000, p. 267).

So Calvin may have it right about our ability to plan a throw possibly leading to improved cognition.  But there’s more from Boxgrove about planning skills.  The researchers there, including Francis Wenban-Smith and Phil Harding, made stone hand axes themselves and discovered it’s not so easy.  Today’s Boxgrove flint knappers say it’s similar to playing chess.  You have to plan ahead five or six steps, “if you follow the path of least resistance, you will remove parts of your axe” (Pitts & Roberts, 2000, p. 298).

The artifacts at Boxgrove are from half a million years ago.  The chronologic bones and antlers of the Upper Paleolithic are only from 10,000 to 30,000 BC, plenty of time to learn how to plan.  It’s no wonder when humans were ready to leave the archaic and move on to the future, they built a chronologic planning tool.


Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts (2000).  Fairweather Eden: Life Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove.  New York:  Fromm International.


French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.   Wikimedia Commons.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”   Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.  James Di Loreto & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

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Jul 2013

The First List: A Prehistoric Chronology

Taï Plaque

I have been hanging out in the Paleolithic trying to find the earliest example of organized information.  So far, that seems to be incised artifacts from around the time of prehistoric cave paintings, a highly creative era for Homo sapiens.  These possible recording devices, from as early as 30,000 BC, tend to be sections of bone or antler with slashes or other types of repetitive marks that look like an early form of a list.  In fact, when they were first discovered in mid-19th Century France by Édouard Lartet, they were called marques de chasse, or hunting lists, like notches on a gunslinger’s weapon.

Engraved ochre from the Blombos Cave in South Africa

These engraved lists are not the earliest use of incised marks.  That honor belongs to an ochre from 78,000 BC found at Blombos Cave in South Africa.  Here the slashes seem like decoration, a design engraved because it looks nice.  It’s worth noting that the design has a repetitive symmetrical quality that may have influenced list makers 48,000 years later.  That first list was a long time coming.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Alexander Marshack, a NASA journalist turned archaeologist, innovated the use of microscopic analysis on prehistoric artifacts.  His most famous example, the Blanchard Bone (actually an antler) from about 28,000 BC, has circular marks reminiscent of the moon.  Using the microscope, Marshack (1991a) compared the Blanchard Bone and other possible lists to a lunar model he developed for the purpose.  He discovered that groups of marks on many artifacts tend to change with the moon’s cycle, particularly around the time of the dark of the moon.  So he designated these artifacts as lunar calendars.  The idea is controversial, although otherwise well researched documents accept without criticism the hunting list explanation, which is little more than a wild guess (see for example Hoffecker, 2011, p. 133).

One critic (Littauer, 1974, p. 327) included her own suggestions on how the incisions should have been arranged, “(W)hy could not these have been easily made clearer by the insertion of a gap or a vertical indicating the beginning of a new set?” Apparently this researcher didn’t realize she is the product of 32,000 years of information organization.  The prehistoric engravers invented the recording of meaningful permanent marks.  They also invented the list.  The idea of a gap between sets hadn’t yet occurred to them.  That didn’t catch on for Latin word spacing until the 7thCentury AD.

Blanchard Bone

As a specialist in information organization, I find Marshack’s (1991b) discussion of the Taï Plaque, a French bone from 10,000 BC, to be the most compelling.  Although relatively recent among prehistoric engravings, this bone was incised 2,000 years before the formation of Lake Michigan.

The notches on the Taï Plaque run in parallel lines with enough daily marks to complete 3.5 years, compared with 2.25 months for the Blanchard Bone.  The engraved Taï Plaque fits into Marshack’s lunar model quite nicely; he even includes the solstice in this one.

It’s such a good fit that I believe the Taï Plaque has something to do with the moon.  However, I’m not sure if it’s a calendar or a device for recording daily events that tend to coincide with the moon.  It may be that the dark of the moon is simply a time to catch up on record keeping.

The marks on these artifacts are incised in groups, which seems to imply chronological entry or the ongoing recording of something that has already happened, perhaps even the non-lunar products of consecutive mammoth expeditions.  It could be that some artifacts are lunar calendars, some are marques de chasse, and some are anything else that needed to be recorded.

Alexander Marshack's drawing of the Taï Plaque

Lunar or not, the Taï Plaque is clearly a list.  Two of the parallel lines are incised to the very edge of the bone and then take a 90° turn so the list continues along the edge.  Did you ever do that?  On a postcard perhaps?  Not quite enough room so you write along the edge.

Marshack believed this marking along the edge was done so the solstice could be included within a line of marks.  In order for the lunar/solar explanation to work, the parallel lines would have been incised with the baustrophedon technique.  That means you read right to left on one line and left to right on the next, continuing back and forth.  It’s a method seen as late as the early alphabet.  Once spelling gets involved, the various languages tend to settle each into their own direction.  But it works quite well if all you’ve got is notches.

With the Taï Plaque, and others like it, we clearly see that the first instances of recorded  information were lists.  If Alexander Marshack was correct and these lists represent lunar notation, then the first instances of recorded information were organized structures, lists in chronological order.  Based on the concept of grouped incisions, even if Édouard Lartet was correct and the engravings recorded hunting statistics, they’re still lists in chronological order.


Hoffecker, John F. (2011). Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Littauer, Mary Aiken; F. D. McCarthy & Alexander Marshack (1974).  On Upper Paleolithic Engraving, Current Anthropology, 15(3), 327-332.

Marshack, Alexander (1991a).  The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. (Revised and expanded).  Mount Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Ltd.

Marshack, Alexander (1991b). The Taï Plaque and Calendrical Notation in the Upper Palaeolithic, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1(1), 25-61.


Both Taï Plaques:

Blombos ochre:

Blanchard Bone:

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Jul 2013

Wired’s 12th Century Mall of the Future

Each month Wired invites readers to send ideas for the “Found” page, forecasting the future of one aspect of society.  September’s “Future of Shopping Centers” shows Floor 38 of the six floor McMurdo Mall, presumably in the globally warmed Antarctica of 2071, with imaginatively branded shops in a high rise of at least 40 stories and a directory that meets the findability standards of the 12th Century.

15th Century scribe, three hundred years after the introduction of alphabetized biblical indices

In this mall directory, businesses are named at their map locations only, not under their respective categories or even in alphabetical order.  To find a store, customers must already know where it is or they must examine each floor map separately by looking at every storefront.  That’s a 12th Century technique.  In the early days of indexing, biblical indices were organized in the same order as the Bible.  Since medieval Christians believed the Bible to be perfect, this was considered the optimal arrangement, even though, in order to find something, you had to already know where it was or you had to read the entire index from beginning to end.  Then visionary preachers, needing fast information for their daily sermons, rearranged biblical indices into alphabetical order, opening a new world of findable information.

Categorical Illogic

Today’s malls usually provide detailed classification and often an alphabetical listing.  It’s a form of advertising for the stores.  On McMurdo’s Floor 38, Wired only shows four fuzzy categories:  Body, Clothing, Retail, and Food Court.  Instead of listing businesses under their categories, classifications are differentiated on the map by nearly indistinguishable light pastel hatch marks.

McMurdo Station in 2007

McMurdo’s customers will surely notice the logical error of placing retail stores in the Clothing category at the same level as the generic Retail category.  In addition, the Body classification is not accurately filled.  Wackenhut Day Care, named for the founder of a private prison corporation, would be better categorized as educational, along with two other Body businesses.  The Build-A-Child Workshop might offer human genetic engineering or it could be an educational facility with an alternate pedagogical theory to the prison model.  Rosetta Stone Cognitive Enhancements presumably sells smart drugs.  This store could market itself in both the Body and suggested Education categories, perhaps for an additional fee.

Mall Directories Today

The actual future of mall directories started appearing about 1984 when Telesyne developed perhaps the first interactive directory at the Chicago Ridge Mall in Oak Lawn, IL.  Like McMurdo, it had a touch screen, but it also talked.  Visualized trails illuminated routes to stores.  Coupons arrived via printer, along with trivia games.  It even featured a filtered search mechanism.  Customers selected a combination of attributes, such as gender, age and price, then retrieved a list of stores meeting the criteria.  Of course, it had the basics of alphabetized and categorized store lists (1).

Chicago's 900 North Michigan

The vertical McMurdo Mall has multiple floors, like the 900 North Michigan Shops in Chicago, which again includes categorized and alphabetized lists in its directory.  Rather than McMurdo’s single floor diagrams, 900 North Michigan shows all maps on the same screen  Click on a category and the alphabetized list changes to only show stores in that category.  Hover over a store name in a list and it is highlighted on the map.  Click the store name and you get an advertising page.

I understand the folks at Wired are clever branders, not organizers, but here’s one electronic feature they really should have caught.  Downloadable apps!  Now offered by Micello and PointInside, these apps live on your device so you can use the directory while strolling the mall’s innermost areas.

McMurdo Scenario

Wired located their 2071 mall at McMurdo Station, a research facility maintained by the United States in Antarctic territory claimed by New Zealand.  The mall’s logo is a red, white and blue star.  Wired did give one indication of New Zealand culture, although it has a double meaning.  Does GNC MRI offer magnetic resource imaging and or is it a retail nutrition store that only speaks Maori?

USAF and Maori touch noses during a Powhiri welcoming ceremony in Christchurch

Global warming research will be more advanced in 59 years, with McMurdo Station in the forefront.  Its warmer climate allows scientists and support personnel to bring their families, although there may not be a high turnover in mall customers since potential residents will need a job to get on the plane.  McMurdo may be a self-sustaining society, perhaps with a hospital to ease the 17 hour flight to Christchurch for surgery.  Because of the ozone hole, this may still be an interior society.

2071 Mall Directory

So we have an intelligent population with cabin fever.  Mall merchants want them to spend their spare time shopping.  How can the directory support that?  Sponsored electronic games is one idea from Telesyne.  Play the game, win a coupon.  Play stations could be adjacent to directories, maximizing the number of people who can interact with the directory at the same time.

New customers en route to the McMurdo Mall

Businesses will want extensive categories allowing multiple entries, along with an alphabetized drop-down list.  McMurdo has a simple floor plan, so showing routes may not be necessary.  However, downloadable apps could be a source for further promotions, delivered via customers’ information devices as they stroll by participating stores.

Customer recognition might be a good idea, perhaps by voice, perhaps multilingual, offering personalized specials.  In the Wired model, businesses provide brief marketing messages any time someone clicks on a brand.  This could be expanded to a promotional video on a nearby screen, inviting customers to win a coupon at a personalized game.

The directory’s display could feature specials at happy hour, an important event at McMurdo.  The only watering holes on Floor 38 are Starbucks and Soylent Julius.  We’ll probably still have a cannibalism taboo, so the latter may be serving soymilk orange drinks, contributing to improved land productivity by growing crops for humans instead of cows.  However the folks at McMurdo like stronger stuff, so Rosetta Stone Cognitive Enhancements may want pre-shift marketing messages for their smart drugs.  They might also consider automated delivery or in-apartment reminders.

Another findability resource could be full store inventories, searchable from the directory, with routing to the exact location in the store.  But remember, findability is secondary to the primary goal of getting customers in the door.  The easier it is to find stuff, the sooner a customer exits the mall.  Grocery stores in 2012 often switch merchandise around, encouraging customers to look at new products.  At McMurdo, Telesyne’s filtered search could provide customized lists of businesses that meet a set of generic criteria.  Inventory directories could then be placed inside each store.  That way a customer has to actually walk into the establishment to get precise directions.

The Organizing Challenge

In an online retail environment, the information management interface is often the primary entry for customers.  If it’s confusing or illogical, they’ll go somewhere else.  If it’s too rigid, they’ll just buy one thing and then go somewhere else.  With accurate and stimulating search mechanisms, customers linger and return often.

For their 2071 shopping center, the designers at Wired thought more about brand names than about getting customers into the stores.  To be fair, their skill sets don’t seem to include information organization.  That takes a very focused mind.  Yes, everyone can organize.  Everyone can sing too.  Some sing as performers and some sing in the shower, with vast differences in skill.  Even smart people can be bad organizers.  I once encountered a computer PhD who didn’t understand the mechanics of alphabetical order.   Wired’s clever branders selected an organizational device for their futurist vision, but they only got as far as the 12th Century because they forgot to include an organizer on their team.


(1) Hi-Tech Mall Directory Debuts, Marketing News, 11/9/84, p. 18

Wikimedia Photo Credits:  Scriptorium Monk at Work (public domain), Ob Hill and McMurdo Station (Alan Light), Chicago 900 North Michigan (J. Crocker), Powhiri, USAF (Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo), Antarctica C-17 (Tas50)

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Sep 2012

Reinventing Knowledge: The Medieval Controversy of Alphabetical Order

In their Reinventing Knowledge chapter on monasteries and convents, Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton mention findability techniques developed following the invention of the page, including alphabetical order (p. 91).  David Weinberger, in Everything Is Miscellaneous, also discusses the development of alphabetical order in the Middle Ages.  He points out that it took a long time tocatch on because, in his opinion, it was “conceptually confusing.”  To prove his point about confusion, he quotes alphabetizing instructions from 1286, which apart from the funny spelling, are actually quite clear (pp. 26-27).  Weinberger is correct, however, that alphabetical order took centuries to be accepted, but he is wrong about the reason.  It was not too confusing, it was too easy. 

According to Mary and Richard Rouse in their article “Statim invenire: Schools, Preachers, and New Attitudes to the Page,”* the alphabet is an artificial method of ordering as opposed to a rational method.  This distinction can be seen in glosses, reference works that explained details of the Bible without biblical interpretation.  These glosses eventually evolved into glossaries.  Information in early glosses appeared in the same order that it appeared in the Bible or other religious books.  This is called a rational order.  Even indexes were arranged in the same order as the book being indexed.  To find something, you had to already know what page it was on.  Rouse & Rouse indicate these early finding devices were meant to reflect the concept that the “universe is a harmonious whole” (p. 202).  So the primary concern of arrangement was to promote philosophy not to find information.

That changed when authors of religious books needed streamlined access to information.  As preachers, they started alphabetizing material called distinction collections to help them prepare weekly, or in 1200 perhaps daily, sermons.    Alphabetical order is an artificial method because it has no purpose other than to arrange information.  It does not reflect how the book is organized.  It does not reflect a philosophical theory.  It just puts material into a simple, easy to understand structure.  The preachers apologized for using alphabetical order, but they went ahead and developed the method because they needed to find information fast. 

            The controversy over alphabetical order continues today.  An information architecture discussion list recently had a lively exchange about popularity ranking vs. the alphabet.  One person preferred popularity because it was felt that alphabetical order is essentially random.  The respondent here was confusing an artificial arrangement with a complete lack of order.  More interesting, however, is the assumption that a rational order with unknown values, such as popularity, is preferable to an artificial order with known values, such as the alphabet.  We pretty much all know the alphabet, but if you look at a list of items arranged by popularity, you can only guess at individual placement.

Function determines the form of an arrangement.  Popularity and the alphabet serve different functions.  There are many situations where popularity is the most valuable organizing choice.  But if you just want to display information for fast location, those preachers in the Middle Ages developed a very easy method.

* The Rouse and Rouse article is available as a chapter in their book Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991) and in the conference proceedings Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., 1982). 

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Reinventing Knowledge: Early Information Architecture in the Page of a Book

After the page was invented as a findability fix for scrolls, medieval scribes started working on its information architecture.  To learn more about the history of the page, I followed a citation in Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, to the article by Mary and Richard Rouse “Statim invenire: Schools, Preachers, and New Attitudes to the Page.” *

Pages in a book allowed readers to open to a specific passage, rather than having to scan while unrolling a scroll.  Pages also allowed the simple finding device of a table of contents.   Rouse and Rouse indicate that “virtually every twelfth- to fourteenth-century aid to study that has a prologue” (p. 197) includes material about ease of use with such phrases as “statim invenire which means to find instantly.  That’s three centuries of bragging about findability. 

Once they discovered findability, monks and nuns who spent their entire existence praying and copying texts, began looking at the page itself as an opportunity for improvement.  Some of their innovations included clearly delineated paragraphs and early quotation marks know as puncti, two dots (..) above the first word of the quote and a colon (:) above the last word.  They wrote chapter headings in different colors and included running headlines, now known as headers and footers.They placed citations to the side of pertinent text, later moved to the bottom of the page and called footnotes.

These are standards we use today in print publishing.  As Web pages developed in recent decades, new standards evolved.  For example, most Web pages include navigation methods, frequently a line of buttons at the top or the side of the page.  Copyright statements are often at the bottom of the page in small letters.  While there are books about design standards, there are no laws that say a Webpage must be arranged in this way, but most of them are.  As in the Middle Ages, these standardized protocols became established through practitioners’ development and use.

There is one significant difference.  In the Middle Ages, information architects were confined to small groups working in monasteries and convents.  Later, book production fell to publishers, still a small group.  Today, anyone can design and publish a Webpage, thus the group that collectively agrees on standards is much larger.  Many of its members are volunteers.  There are no rules and anyone can veer from standardization.  We are less surprised to see a Web page without navigation buttons than a published book without a title page.  

            Voluntary standardization is the collectivism promoted by many who see the Web as a unique reinvention of knowledge.  But it seems to be a matter of scale.  The monks and nuns invented information architecture and spent several centuries working out the details of the page.  When the Internetcommunity began building Web pages, they spent several years working out the details of our current standard practices.  ________________________

* The Rouse and Rouse article is available as a chapter in their book Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991), which I used, and in the conference proceedings Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., 1982) 

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Jun 2009

Reinventing Knowledge, Inventing Findability

             Knowledge communication began to change from speech to text in the 3rd Century BCE.  Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton define this as the first reinvention of knowledge in their book, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet. Controversy accompanies any major change and the controversy over speech vs. text continued for centuries, perhaps continuing today.   

The argument in favor of speech grows from the reputation of the speaker.  When someone talks to you, you are likely to know that person and can rate reliability.  Written words, however, may emanate from a geographically distant author with an unknown reputation.  While many place high value on the published word, others may be inclined to give more credence to the opinions of friends, even if those friends are virtual with reliability gauged by reputation management systems on social networking sites.   

In the ancient world, textual material had other advantages beyond reputation, as explained by Cassiodorus, a Roman official in the 5th and 6th Centuries CE, “even if our memory retains the content, it alters the words; but there [on paper] discourse is stored in safety, to be heard for ever with consistency” (Encyclopaedia Romana).  Two millennia later, we find ourselves returning to conversational discourse with an online record that can be heard forever with consistency, or at least as long as the Website remains active.    

Cassiodorus eventually founded a monastery where he participated in the second reinvention of knowledge.  As Rome disintegrated, monks and nuns retreated into their cloisters, took vows of silence, and started copying texts.   Monasteries and convents became the repositories of knowledge with religious scribes silently copying words, thus cementing text over speech as the medium for knowledge exchange.

Books started out as scrolls, which themselves were a technological improvement over bark tablets.  Here’s Cassiodorus writing about the olden days, “For how could you quickly record words which the resistant hardness of bark made it almost impossible to set down?  No wonder that the heat of the mind suffered pointless delays, and genius was forced to cool as its words were retarded” (Encyclopaedia Romana).  That’s exactly the improvement I find with computers over typewriters. 

Like anyone who spends a lot of time with written texts, the monks and nuns started thinking about findability.  Paper scrolls, faster for writing, had a serious problem.  To get to any point in the middle, you had to keep unrolling until you found the right passage.  Books, the 2nd Century’s latest technology, solved that with individual pages (not to mention the cost savings of writing on both sides).  Now instead of unrolling, you could just turn to a specific page.  The word for these early books is codex.  Kind of has a technological ring to it.  McNeely and Wolverton compare the change to “the difference between a videotape and a DVD.”

(For an overview of findability in the 21st Century, see the AIIM report Findability: The Art and Science of Making Content Easy to Find by Carl Frappaolo and Dan Keldsen of Information Architected.)

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Jun 2009

Reinventing Knowledge in Times of Change

Currently reading Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton.  I am interested in claims of knowledge reinvention during times of upheaval.  In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger promotes our time of the World Wide Web as reinventing knowledge.  Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen and photosynthesis, also promoted his time of the American and French Revolutions as reinventing knowledge. 

Eras of massive change, such as Priestley’s and our own, encourage us to believe that our time on earth is the most important in all of history, so important that even knowledge is transformed.  In their book, McNeeley and Wolverton look at actual changes in knowledge, primarily through the institutions that promoted them.

First up is the library at Alexandria.  The change here is from the spoken word to the written word.  That’s a huge change in knowledge.  Writing and books existed before the library’s founding in 300 BCE, but only as an adjunct to the spoken word.  Because authors dictated their words to scribes, writing was a service, not a scholarly activity.  The speaker, not the writer, was honored.  That changed when the Alexandrian library began collecting scrolls and providing scholars with convivial living arrangements. 

During the transition from speech to text, there was much argument about the value of written ideas as opposed to spoken ideas.  Socrates preferred the spoken word which he felt was more truthful.  You could gauge the veracity of ideas by the reputation of the speaker.  In contrast, the written word was separate from the author and there was no way, at least in Ancient Greece, of judging the reputation of the writer. 

According to McNeeley and Wolverton, the oral versus written argument continued through the 18th Century.  It continues today with two forms of research – reading about ideas and talking about ideas with colleagues.  If you want the latest information, do you reach for a database or a telephone?  Do you feel more comfortable with a distant author or someone whose reputation you already know?

Social interaction on the Web may be another continuation of the argument.  Are social sites the digital equivalence of oral rhetoric?  Web connectivity encourages the free exchange of ideas, like a spoken discussion with a much bigger conversational group.  The medium is written, but speed encourages spontaneous interaction.  Many sites have reputation systems to help users gauge the veracity of other users.  One might suggest the quality of discourse on today’s social sites is far below that of the ancient Greeks, but remember they didn’t write everything down.      

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May 2009

An Explorer in Taxonomy

The Delphi Group’s Information Intelligence Summit (ii2006) came to Phoenix in early April.  We started with an Innovation Workshop offered by Destination Imagination (DI), which mostly does creativity events for children.  If your kid ever has a chance to participate in the DI program, jump at it!  This Delphi workshop was presented by DI’s corporate division, DIcor.  Prior to the Summit, the workshop attendees all took an assessment survey for problem solving styles.  On a continuum of degrees that range from Explorer to Developer, I tend toward exploration in my orientation to change.

I am mildly surprised because my work involves developing new information structures; however, my approach is definitely exploratory.  I was one of the founders of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) in Davis, which was also my first professional position.  Today the mission statement defines CIRS goals as working “toward a rural California that is socially just, economically viable, and environmentally balanced.”

When we started CIRS, I was a newly minted librarian.  As I organized our research collection, I discovered that the standard library classifications did not fit CIRS requirements.  This was 1978 and our work was cutting-edge.  “Organic farming” was not yet included in the Dewey classification.  Even if a pre-built system had contained our topics, our material would have been scattered around a structure that fit the classification rather than our research methods.  I wanted our material to be arranged as a reflection of our work.  My loyalty was to CIRS, not to the Library of Congress.

So I built my own system.  It was more accurate and more adventurous to start from scratch.  I knew our research requirements.  I knew how we were thinking about these new ideas.  My approach was validated almost every day as our researchers worked with the structure.  You might even call me an early tagging explorer.  Rather than relying on a standardized system, I defined classifications that had meaning to the CIRS researchers.  The difference, of course, is that I did all the tagging and I did it without the social Web.

By emphasizing CIRS research in a CIRS taxonomy, I demonstrated the value of our goals.  Standardized categories would have implied marginality by diffusing our ideas within a pre-designed system.  When the researchers interacted with the structure, they experienced it on their own terms, which made CIRS more productive.  Did we achieve our goals?  It’s been 28 years.  CIRS is a healthy non-profit and the organic produce sections in grocery stores just keep on growing.

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Apr 2006