Unplanned Meanderings

Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”

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Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)

“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.


  1. It’s a good piece, maybe something worth teaching in 328 or 516, or maybe I’ll give it a shot in 444 this summer. I think he’s exaggerating the problem of copying and pasting of the iPad, though. I mean, the “copy/paste” system that Locke devised was really more or less “copy,” so compared to that, it’s not so bad. And it seems to me that delicious.com is a kind of common book nowadays, at least for me, something that is also very possible with the iPad.

  2. I agree: a good match with 328 and the others.

    Maybe he is overstating the copy/paste problem. On the other hand, the analogy to Locke’s practices also implies a problem with control over the reader’s relationship with the text as reading intersects with and feeds into writing practices. Could be that Delicious functions as a commonplace book, but I think Johnson’s concern extends to problem of prohibitive designs that are unnoticed or unquestioned or both. That is, when apps (built for any popular or growing platform) by default constrain simple functions like copy/paste, users are at the app’s mercy. That something as foundational as copy/paste functionality could be viewed by e-reader app developers as expendable strikes me as curious–or even worrisome if it reflects a creeping proprietary worldview that would prevent all content from circulating. I don’t know whether that’s the case here, but I agree with Johnson that e-reader apps ought not drive an unnecessary wedge between readers and the textual samples they would like to keep from whatever they are reading.

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