What About the Artifact?

One of the common characteristics of the proposed candidates for post-literacy is the lack of a visible, tangible information artifact or container. We are used to our information in containers: books, magazines, disks, libraries, websites.

We tend to fetishize the container over the contents. Book arts (bindings, endpapers, cover art) arose as a whole new arena for design. Bookshelves are often interior decorations. Often the container is confused with the information; witness the debate between e-books and “real” books (i.e. the paper kind).

Post-literacy tends to do away with these sorts of containers. Like oral cultures, where the voice (the body) was the primary vehicle for information, post-literacy re-embodies information. It disappears but it is not gone. McLuhan recognized this result of media years ago.

Most information containers exist for reasons of either preservation or communication. Artifacts are created for transmission. As a result traditions, institutions, and professions have emerged around the management of the artifacts (libraries and librarians obviously, but also in a similar way publishers, printers, recording studios, etc.).

Capturing information or ideas in an artifact makes them solid, permanent, and able to withstand time and abuse. It makes ideas concrete (literally). We then manage the artifact. We worry that if we don’t do this somehow, they will disappear, they will be lost. Do we need artifacts in a post-literate world? What would be their purpose?

Oral cultures didn’t have such artifacts and much was not preserved (for example only a fraction of the plays of Aeschylus survive). But post-literacy is not orality; while it may not have containers in the literate sense, there are means of persistence that are more sustainable and reliable than orality.

The container is us. And it probably helps to think of this as less artifact and more flow and interconnection. The discreetness of our containers makes us think that this is the only way knowledge or ideas can be constructed.

David Weinberger (Too Big To Know, 2011) tries to reframe this with a contemporary metaphor: “knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests.” This sense of flow rather than fixity means that knowledge “is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.” The result is not “a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

LinkLink: Is Post-Literacy the End of Libraries and Librarianship?

Information containers and tools are cognitive prosthetics. Books. The Library of Congress. The Internet. The USB drive you keep losing. The shift in post-literacy is to permanence and sustainability through biology, chemistry, algorithms, interconnections, and other internalized techniques.

Recently George Church, Professor of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School, demonstrated the ability to store vast amount of information in DNA (“Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA“, Science, 2012); storage that is not only extraordinarily dense but highly stable. As Church says: “You can drop it wherever you want, in the desert or your backyard, and it will be there 400,000 years later.” It is estimated that all the digital data created in 2011 (approximately 1.8 zettabytes according to IDC) could be stored in about four grams of DNA. While this data is currently stored on DNA microchips, it could be stored in living cells.

If what is known, if information and ideas are all internalized and shared (exchanged, modified, extended) through a more intimate manner (such as biochemicals for example) then externalizing it is not only unnecessary, it is pointless since so much would be lost in the translation. It would be like those who insist on printing out multimedia e-books in order to read them in a different (perhaps more familiar) way. Printing (transporting) diminishes the content. So too in the post-literate world. Trying to “capture” it in a different format (print or other media) would destroy it.

But you say, isn’t biochemistry just another container for information and ideas? I suppose the difference is that the container is us. We embody information. We are the ideas. The externalities are unnecessary, redundant, and inadequate for the task.

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