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John Branch

One minor note, which I might forget by the time I finish reading: Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk may have been unpublishable in his lifetime, because (as SBJ says) Benjamin never completed it. However, it eventually _was_ edited, translated, and published (in English), by Harvard, in 2002, with at least a handful of photos. At the risk of unseemly self-promotion, I can point out a diptych I made with one of those photos plus one of mine: http://www.flickr.com/photos/photogrammaton/69870741/in/set-1491813/.

John Branch

Stimulating as usual. Thanks to Mr. Berlin.

I still haven't read the Booth School of Business study that David Brooks cited, and I may be misunderstanding even the summary that Brooks and Berlin have provided. That said, it still seems possible to me that the Internet is, on the whole, relatively neutral, i.e., that it neither encourages nor discourages the echo chamber, just as, on the whole, bookstores are neutral, and books and magazines themselves are neutral, and TV is neutral, and a world wired with telephones is neutral. I seem to recall predictions that TV would make it possible for diverse peoples to understand one another better; I believe the same prediction was made (unlikely as it sounds now) for telephones. Cass Sunstein's inversion of that prediction for the Internet, as well as the Internet-optimist predictions by SBJ and others, may all be canards. But I can see that this isn't SBJ's main point.

daniel schut

The analogy with the commonplance book of John Locke fails. John Locke had to copy the pieces he liked by hand, he couldn't 'clip and copy' the text with one click of a mouse. And of course, with a glass-text-future, readers are still free to whip out their writing pads, or even start up their text editor, and type over the words they like. It costs more time than the easy copy-paste, but that is exactly what Locke would have done.

Roberto De Vido

daniel schut makes a point that is to some extent covered in the post (in which Johnson notes that limits on percentage of text copied, etc. are understandable).

The real concern that "content owners" have is the wholesale replication and near-infinite reproduction of entire works. This is an even greater concern for music and movie distributors because there is no (theoretical) degradation of quality across even a million digital copies.

Because "fair use" reproduction has proven impossible (or undesirable) to define, content owners have drawn a line in the sand at zero reproduction, and have repeatedly demonstrated that their main interest is to wring every last egg from the golden goose before it drops dead of exhaustion. Which it is doing.

I think this piece is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of information or the media, and I'd suggest it should also have noted that as hardware makers (e.g. Apple) battle to win the [content delivery] hardware war, we are already seeing them getting into the information censorship business (e.g. Apple's rejection of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore's iPad app, later approved, but only, as Fiore noted, because he'd won the Pulitzer).


You'll be happy to know I copied and pasted a few chunks of your writing in an email to my best friend. Excellent analysis.

Chip Bayers

The question isn't what Locke "would have done," it's what Lock would do today, with today's technology. The technology of John Locke's time was pen, ink, and paper. The technology of our time includes cut-and-paste. I have no doubt that 21st century Locke would quite happily use cut-and-paste to construct his commonplace blog if his iPad allowed it.

Nick Carr

This is, as one would expect, a thoughtful and well-turned speech. But, like Daniel Schut in the comment above, I bridle a bit at the analogy between commonplacing and cutting-and-pasting. While I think there is, at a mechanical level, a clear parallel between the two practices, at an intellectual level they could hardly be more different. Commonplacing was a means of more deeply internalizing an author's words, as its early practitioners often pointed out. It was a sign of attentiveness, of profound engagement with text. The cutting and pasting, or mashing up, that we do online today tends to be much more cursory and superficial - it's done with a couple of mouse clicks rather than with the painstaking retracing of a passage in longhand. And what's cut-and-pasted is rarely kept in the way that the passages in commonplace books were kept. (Rewriting a passage was often the first step in a process of memorization.) With cutting-and-pasting, the words remain external; we borrow them, briefly, rather than making them our own.

Chip Bayers may be right that, if alive today, Locke would cut-and-paste (or merely link to) interesting passages rather than copy them in longhand, but, if so, he would be doing something very different from commonplacing.


Since you cannot copy the text would you consider bookmarking pages a type of commonplace book? I know lots of people who bookmark every interesting page they come across and kinda of sort them via folders etc in the bookmarks of their respective browser.

Amazing article btw!

Steven Johnson

Great comments/observations everyone. Wanted to reply specifically to Daniel Schut and Nick Carr, who point out in different ways an ambiguity that should have been clearer in the piece. I certainly don't mean to imply that a Google search results page is in any way a reproduction of 18th-century commonplacing, or even that blogging is a direct reproduction. What I was trying to say is that commonplacing shows that re-arranging bits of text out of context, from different authors, creates a new kind of value that is different from the original value of the text. And so when we introduce artificial blocks that make it harder to copy or link to digital text, we are limiting all those potentially valuable new uses.

And yes, Nick, it's true that the way blogs and tweets work is far less studious and attentive than John Locke was with his commonplace book, but it's just as important to point out that Locke's book was exclusively a private affair: whatever he captured went into his mind alone, whereas the blogger can now circulate his discoveries through the minds of thousands. Not the same thing, by any means, but valuable in a different way.

Nick Carr

Fair enough. Thanks.

Roger Evans

It seems to me that this talk represents some of the most important thinking going on in intellectual life today. The possibility of using the new communication tools to spread thought around is one of the things that keeps me from despairing in the face of so much that is dispiriting in our public life.

Jim Takchess

A nice post with interesting thoughts.


Brett Boessen

It should also be noted that when texts are remixed deliberately into a new text, *produced* explicitly as something new, the creator(s) become much more familiar with their sources than if they are simply archived.

Ask my digital media production students how familiar they become with their source materials when they produce a video mashup or digital story: it is surely at a level approaching Locke's "more deeply internalizing an author's words" if not, perhaps, exceeding it. This is because there are specific goals in mind when working with the pieces of the originals that drives the depth of their encounter with those originals.

Not only are digital technologies changing the way we archive and filter texts, but they are changing the ways we make new ones as well.

Kenny Mann

I think the question of longhand vs. copy/paste is and should be something to be decided evolutionarily. That is to say, the current technology should moot what was once not possible, rather than conforming to the past as something de facto. I'm hoping the conditions of the iPad I bought will be challenged by similar devices to come: AndroidSlate, UbuntuPad... in all the sense that Steven notes. But then there's what the iPad itself moots, which is up to the benign hack-o-sphere, or just crowdwise. Ease or difficulty shouldn't be the litmus on the quality of the results. Rather, evolution favors the possible?

BTW: I was able to copy/paste out of my iBooks copy of James Joyce Ulysses and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Haven't had a chance to download my fill of Darwin yet. Looking forward to doing the same reading there as on the Newton my iPad is superseding.


I was able to copy-paste from your article just fine on my iPad :
NOW, BEFORE I TAKE the next step in the argument, I want to pause for a brief autobiographical confession



Great post--I wish I could've been at the lecture!

While I certainly agree with your assessment of the flaws (whether deliberate or not) of the iBook/NYT/WSJ apps for the iPad, I think they serve to highlight the major contrast between the intended functions of the commonplace book vs. the iPad: the iPad seems deliberately designed for more passive readers; that its textual functionality is significantly pared down from that of a MacBook or even a cheap netbook is the *point* for most people who will use it. It's a media viewer and player, not a creative tool like the MacBook is. It is *for* passive consumption.

The commonplace book, in the technological idiom of its time, was a tool for the active refinement and incubation of content.

But nothing other than mental inflexibility or functional illiteracy prevents anyone from "remixing" or commonplace book-ing that content even from an iPad app, with, as commentors above have noted, nothing but a pen and paper. Much as I agree that the design of the apps in question is backwards and silly, it's not a big actual hindrance to anyone actually motivated to use it to create derivative content as long as they can still *write.* Nothing prevents anyone from copying a passage down and retyping it into a tweet, facebook post, or blog.

It's for this reason that I believe it's ever more important, not less, to ensure that students are learning the basic, low-tech mechanics of writing, even as our dependence as a society and economy on computers grows, as well as the kind of active reading, writing, and reflection that Jefferson and Locke practiced in their commonplace books. Several months ago, a column on the Newsweek site argued that we should stop teaching old-fashioned cursive writing to elementary school students, since they'll come of age in an economy that places a premium on computer literacy, not long-hand writing. I think the issues to which you call attention with the iPad demonstrate why competence and comfort with old-fashioned skills like handwriting are more important than ever, not less.

The man with the computer screen tan

I am a phd student. I am doing my literature review. At the moment, I spend at least four hours a day typing highlighted quotes into Microsoft word from the stock of books/articles I have read over the past few months. I am still undecided whether it would be quicker to sit on a beach for the next two years until some future hero of mine actually makes a ipad/kindle product that I can highlight in and which automatically transfers it into Microsoft word or some equivalent. And if they could include a function that automatically copies not only the text, but also automatically provides an accurate citation in accordance with whatever referencing method my supervisor feels is best that week, well then there would be me, a deck chair and a daquiri waiting for them on a beach in Fiji.

Dr. Lapin

Writing or typing is a memory aid; copy/pasting is not. The remix/reuse is a conceptual but not memory aid; in any case, that is the same for writing or typing and copy/pasting. We tend, I think, to use our computers as memory aids: we archive and search, rather than keeping data in active (biological) memory. At the same time this expands our access to data even as it degrades our ability to access data that exists (or not) in our minds.

Great article.

Mr. Gunn

I have a solution for the man with the computer screen tan: http://mendeley.com

Store, organize, annotate, and yes, automatically construct properly formatted citations (in Word) from any text you can get in digital form.

When should I expect the plane ticket?

RS Love

Kudos to SBJ for a most fascinating subject.

As someone who keeps a daily electronic version of a commonplace book, I typically "annotate" and/or comment the clipping in the same action so it is definitely not a housekeeping function of "copy and paste" either. The software I'm using (which I designed) has always been mindful of both pre- and post- processing of text, clippings and media. The process is very organic and it's flexible enough to allow deeper, more purposeful reflection of the contents. It is "my" notebook. Not all personal learning need be intellectual either. Humor and satire also populate my notebooks.

On the larger, more philosophical plane, instead of just one wikipedia, anyone can construct their version of a personal encyclopedia galactica of "what" matters; from the sublime to religious consciousness.


Similar "read only" features are becoming, alas, commonplace, in media companies' apps for Android. I've been trying the New York Times and USA Today apps on a Droid phone and noticed the same limitation.

Perhaps copying and pasting are features being saved for future "pay" versions? Hmm. Would people pay for the "freedom to quote?" (To quote without retyping, that is.)

In the meantime, the "mobile.nytimes.com" HTML+CSS version is more flexible than the "value added" app. Plain open-standards CSS and HTML allow me to link news sites, blogs and Delicious bookmarks in a personal hypertext Web reminiscent of Vannevar Bush's Memex -- which I'd consider a hypertextual commonplace book in its own hypothetical 1945 way. http://bit.ly/bkPTP8


I am a student. After researching online for papers and reading articles or blogs, I have come to a conclusion that I will experience some form of interaction. Technology, I think, serves as a way for us to interact with others directly and indirectly.

When we blog, there is direct interaction. We are voicing our opinions. On the other hand, when we "copy and paste", we are indirectly interacting with the writer. This is because we are using their ideas for our own purposes without communicating with the writers themselves.

Overall, I believe many of us long for some form of interaction when we read through a screen, which is why many of us become disappointed when we read through a "glass box". We are technically given "untouchable" text, which is what a book alone consists of. With this, I feel, the essence of online reading should be about the ability to experience interaction and connection with both readers and writers at a global level.

Jordan Flipsyde

Step back and brighter!

Steve Hoge

Locke's technique that you describe above is literally an example of a hashing algorithm: the generation of a key to a storage location for an item based on a computation involving the item's values (in this case the concatenation of the first letter with the first vowel).

If the key for the item turns out not to be unique - for instance, if Locke found another item already on that page in his common-place book - then a simple linear search is performed through the list of items sharing that key to find the desired match.

The lexical analyzers of all modern computer languages employ just this method for storing and subsequently retrieving text items.

Ajf 4

I do not like work ---no man does --but I like what is in the work -----the chance to find your self. (Conrad Joseph, British novelist)

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