Remember Footnotes?

June 27, 2010

If it seems that there are more hit-and-run posts than usual this summer, and fewer longer expositions, it’s because there are. I’m deep in another medium — a book that needs to be finished by the end of August — and in many ways it’s refreshing to be back in the old mode, where revision and second-thoughts take place before publication. But you know what I really, really miss? Hyperlinks. Writing without the allusive immediacy that links give seems somehow artificial now. So thoroughly have I internalized the newer ways of communicating.

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Not for the first time, I’m led to think how much medieval scholars would have loved the World Wide Web, and how many of its best tendencies are continuations of medieval practices that have fallen into abeyance since. (C.S. Lewis once said that the Middle Ages would have adored the modern alphabetized file box filled with index cards. Remember index cards?) Here’s a snippet from a new post that has attracted considerable comment:

In the longer run I expect “annotated” books will be available for full public review, th[r]ough Kindle-like technologies. You’ll be reading Rousseau’s Social Contract and be able to call up the five most popular sets of annotations, the three most popular condensations, J.K. Rowling’s nomination for “favorite page,” a YouTube of Harold Bloom gushing about it, and so on.

This, like so many other new opportunities, represents a democratization of a medieval practice that has become less practical in an age of mass-published books but grows ever more practical with digital distribution and the growing viability of niche markets. I have seen manuscripts of Aristotle with Aquinas’s commentary on the text in the surrounding margins in smaller script, with a further surround of margins full of subsequent commentary in even smaller writing (and sometimes different color). These once provided extremely important study texts (and often served lecturers for the text of their lectures; that may have been their primary purpose, in fact). Now, of course, they are vital to scholars of the history of ideas. Tomorrow we have the chance to continue this sort of practice on a much larger scale, with far wider accessibility. And we need not limit such layered commentary to written texts. The same kind of commentary on commentary on commentary can be used for, e.g., art criticism or musical analysis.

Seal of Approval?

January 22, 2010

To mark the second anniversary of RogerEvansOnline, the Supreme Court of the United States used the word blog in an opinion for the first time:

Today, 30-second television ads may be the most effective way to convey a political message. Soon, however, it may be that Internet sources, such as blogs and social networking Web sites, will provide citizens with significant information about political candidates and issues. Yet, ยง441b would seem to ban a blog post expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate if that blog were created with corporate funds. The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.

– Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy

UPDATE – January 25: First the Supreme Court and now the Holy See: Benedict XVI used the word blog in a document yesterday:

… the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.

When two of the most tradition-bound institutions must consider blogs when they think of eternal verities, well, we’re not talking about mere trends here.