Home » Corporate Social Media » Communications » The pre-Digital World: How did one manage? Google, Gutenberg and Earlier Revolutions in communication

The pre-Digital World: How did one manage? Google, Gutenberg and Earlier Revolutions in communication


Evolutionary and revolutionary aspects of digitization

(147th Nobel Symposium June 23-26, 2009. Published 2011)

‘A three day discussion on the future of memory’. (Baker, 2011)

What is evolutionary or revolutionary when going digital today?

The Pre-digital world. How did we manage?

· Where did this come from?

· Access

· What does it mean?

· How academics use it

· Adding value for research

· Where is it all leading to?

Videos available here

Putting together the best speakers:

· Professor Emma Rothschild, Harvard.

· Dr Lisbet Rausing, Imperial College, London

· Professor Marco Beretta, Bologna/Florence

· Martin Rosenbroek, National Library, The Netherlands

Going Digital. Another memory aid in a 5,000 year history. A must read for anyone on Open University’s MAODE, especially H800 (The e-learning professional) and H807 (Innovations in e-learning)


The pre-Digital World: How did one manage? Google, Gutenberg and Earlier Revolutions in communication

The ideas put forward here grew out of ‘Things Not Reveal’d’ the Panizzi Lectures given at the British Library in 2001 and the Rosenbach lectures given at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002.

Nicholas Barker

We have aided the art of remembering things for millennia, with papyrus, stone and paper, from print to the computer: digitization is simply the latest manifestation of providing our minds with an Aide-mémoire Or in particular to support a neural system about which we still know so little.


Digital. A word first used in print in 1938.


From a long line of ways to assist memory:


‘Over the next 5,000 years, the page, a rectangle enclosing lines of size and length convenient to eye and mind, on stone, clay, metal, papyrus, hide or paper, has been the unit of consultation, record and preservation’. (Baker, 2011:29)


  • Apparatus (alphabet, papyrus rolls, clay tablets)
  • Chronologies
  • Mnemonics and mnemonic devices (verse, repetition as hymns or psalms and as memorial, on gravestones or performance to win an argument)
  • Words (verse, as a mnemonic system, written by hand, in print or engraved in stone as epitaphs or in wood, for rhetoric and religion, even graffiti and ‘advertising posters’ from Pompeii)
  • Images (visualisation: a guide to devotion, engravings on stone, wood, or metal.
  • Film and sound
  • But not smell (yet, at least not digitised)

Going into detail:

  • The Rosetta Stone
  • Greek and Coptic to demotic and hieroglyph
  • Cuneiform, syllabiv, Elamite, Assyrian (Akkadian and Sumerian)
  • Pictograms of Uruk
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Quintilian (sententiae, cola, commata)
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium (points, breathings and accents)
  • The structure of verse dictated speed, pauses, even intonation.
  • Congolese muyum
  • Speeches and rhetoric: Demosthenes, Cicero, Quintilian …
  • Logic and grammar
  • Clauses
  • Abbeys (monasteries and scribal shops) and the copying of bibles onto vellum in the 13th and 14th centuries.
  • The growth of universities and the ‘pecia’ system which ‘made a remarkable change in educational practice, since it reduced the need for memory and accelerated the absorption of knowledge’. (Baker, 2011:22)
  • The pocket book, index card, spike to the card-cabinet.
  • typefaces. ‘Optical devices to assist or distract the human mind and eye, from timetables to pyrotechnic playbills’. (Baker, 2011:28)

‘Inscriptions were something to be seen and then read, often at a distance, unlike manuscripts, held in the hand to supplement recitation.’  (Baker, 2011:16)

A lesson in revision

‘As far as possible the speaker should anchor his argument in the minds of his hearers by creating a picture. Its contents should be defined and set out in hierarchical order, long sets broken into convenient and thus memorable sub-sets. The links connecting each element should be naturally joined together by visual or emotional association, and the whole secured in the mind by repetition, the orator’s natural discipline’. (Baker, 2011:18)

‘As new modes of communication emerge, bent on creating as well as anticipating intellectual needs as yet undreamed of, Cevolini’s record of what the human hand and brain could achieve in past time has an undiminished interest. Can our age, in his piquant phrase, safely ‘learn to forget’? (Baker, 2011:28)


‘Before Gutenberg, every form of communication destined to be read, whether engraved on stone or clay or written on papyrus, vellum or paper, was unique’. (Baker, 2011:21)



‘The need to communicate and retain an increased body of information brought about a new mode of transmission, which spread to other universities’. (Baker, 2011:22)


‘Nor was the use of poetry for memorial purposes restricted to the Christian West; in Isfahan, Avicenna wrote philosophy and medicine in verse, so that it might be more easily remembered’. (Baker, 2011:24)


‘School-room use, the need for a group of students to be able to refer to the same line or phrase in an identical place on the page, demanded the closest approach to identicality’. (Baker, 2011:24)


And the ‘new power to gain and retain readers’. (Baker, 2011:25)

‘Armando Petrucci has shown how the ‘modern book,’ a small (in printing terms octavo) narrow oblong page, evolved from the combination of the university text, the humanistic revival of the classics, and the popular ‘vernacular’ book designed to be carried in a satchel. The need for simplicity, uniformity and speed in copying of texts for students, the preference of the early Italian humanists for plain unglossed texts of the classics, and the practical concerns of carriage, all led in the same direction’. (Baker, 2011:26)

And so we turn to the iPad and eBooks.

Just as numbering hadn’t been thought a requirement in the printing of early books, so early eBooks (and many still) suffer from having a poor means of referencing a line or page (if lines and pages can even exist in a shifting digital form).

‘The existence and availability of multiple virtually identical copies brought into being all sorts of mnemonic devices hitherto unimagined or unnecessary. Numbering leaves or pages had been optional; it now became vital for reference. This in turn led to the paginated index at the end of a book, first of words beginning with the same letter, then listed in exact ‘alphabetic order,’ an idea created by this need. A list of contents became a regular feature of the beginning, and footnotes, keyed to the relevant passage, took the place of meandering glosses. All these changed the business of reading from a visual to a mental activity, making the remembering of a text a mechanical rather than an imaginative process’. (Baker 2011:26)

The pocket book from Aldus Manutius, ‘What could be kept in the pocket did not have to be held in the mind’. (Baker, 2011:27)


Cantillation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantillation) Cantillation is the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue services. The chants are written and notated in accordance with the special signs or marks printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) to complement the letters and vowel points.

Diglossia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diglossia) The simultaneous use of two languages.

Nibelungenlied. A Germanic epic from the 5th century

Ostracon (in ancient Greece) a potsherd, especially one used as a ballot on which the name of a person voted to be ostracized was inscribed.

Pericopes A pericope ( /pəˈrɪkəpiː/; Greek περικοπή, “a cutting-out”) in rhetoric is a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought, suitable for public reading from a text, now usually of sacred scripture.

Stichic (pertaining to or consisting of stichs or verses. Composed of lines of the same metrical form throughout).

Susurration A whispering sound; a soft murmur.

Uncial a majuscule script (written entirely in capital letters) commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Uncial letters are written in either Greek, Latin, or Gothic.



Baker, N (2009) Google, Guttenberg and earlier revolutions in communications. In GOING DIGITAL: Evolutionary and revolutionary aspects of digitization (from the 147th Nobel Symposium June 23-26, 2009. Published 2011) Nobel Symbosia. Karl Grandin ed. (Last accessed 22nd May 2012 http://www.center.kva.se/svenska/forskning/NS147Abstracts/KVA_Going_Digital_webb.pdf )

Cevolini, A( 2007) De Arte Excipiendi: Imparare a dimenticare nella modernità. Learning to forget in modernity (Leo S. Olschki, 2006). Hume’s theory of causal inference from the standpoint of second-order cybernetics (“Cybernetics and Human Knowing”, 1, 2012). He also edited the Italian edition of the essay by Niklas Luhmann, as knowledge construction (Armando, 2007).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: