Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player


5th January 2009

This subject is related to ideas about the cultural drive to accumulate, store and retrieve information efficiently and with that the concept of information overload is not far behind. With Google, Amazon and Microsoft running large-scale projects to digitalise the written word we are looking at digitalisation of our external memory that was previously written down on paper, clay tablets, papyrus among a myriad of various word containers. In the future we are not only looking at digitalising words but also photos and video creating exponentially increase in memory capacity.

But also once we have managed to store all this information how are we going to be able to make sense of all this information? To make the process even more complicated what if the way in which we organise and retrieve information is cultural? I.e. those methodologies for storing data in the form of memory and the ability to retrieve are not fixed but fluid? How can we then develop systems that are backwards compatible as well as forward compatible?

The ability to index information has one important pre-requisite that needs to be examined before we can move on; information storage. It is only possible to index information that has already been stored. Without the ability to store information it cannot be transmitted and thereby it will be lost. The ability to externalise our memory really began in human history with the emergence of writing.
Before writing there was of course ways to transmit information such as painting, moonbones etc but these methods lacks the capability of writing to externalise our individual memory. Writing enables us to gather information in very portable format that can span culture and time. The best way of explaining this is illustrated in Plato’s Phaedrus. In this Socrates tells a story about the Egyptian god Thoth who offers King Thamus a new ‘techne’; Writing.

According to Thoth writing can amplify memory and wisdom for all the people in Thamus’s Kingdom. The King, after careful deliberation, concludes that his people are off without writing. Since writing will destroy the reliance on internal memory by externalising memory in the form of writing rather than orally passing on information between students and teachers which was the norm.
With writing the ability to transmit information was greatly amplified compared to the oral transmission of information. But with the ability to externalise information more effectively it also became necessary to index all this information.

The first organisations to embrace the ability to index large amounts of more abstract information were religious. It shall of course be said that writing and storing of information originated within commerce such as the ability to track taxes, agricultural produces and commercial exchange of goods along side astronomical observations. It can be seen on clay tables and papyrus from Mesopotamia and Egypt.

But religious texts were usually much longer and more abstract than commercial exchanges and astronomical observations. Hence religious organisations more commonly needed the ability to store and index information. Especially with the rise of the Christian Church with its huge amounts of tracts, epistles, martyr acts and synodical communications among others the need to collect this information and index it became essential. New forms of storing information and indexing emerged in order to give authority to the church such as the codex.

“During the rise of the Christian Church, the vast majority of Jewish and Pagan texts continued to be written on papyrus scrolls. But for reasons that are still chewed over, Christians embraced the codex […] Most Scholars believe that Christians welcomed the new storage device for similarly practical reasons. The Codex Book was economical, easy to lug around from town to town, and it allowed for random access – a handy feature when you are citing scriptures to prove a point in the timeworn manner of biblical exegetes.” (TechGnosis by Erick Davies 1999:31)

The codex was not the first method of indexing information but it was one of the first to apply it to portable storage device.

Lets look at historical methods for referencing and indexing material. One of the first large scale collection was the famous Library of Alexandria that at it peak had more than half a million scrolls. This amount of information necessitated the librarians to develop organisational methodology for storing and retrieving the information. The Library was one of the first to index material alphabetically.

In around 30 AD Valerius Maximus wrote a collection of memorable deeds and sayings. His work was divided into 9 different books and each book was again divided into chapters. The division of chapters was based on the subject that was identified in the header for each chapter. The entries within each chapter had references to ancient literature and history that related to the theme of the chapter. The next was a system of cross-referencing known as “canon tablets” that enabled users to find parallel passages in the four gospels. It is also known as the Eusebian System and it had its roots in the work of Ammonius of Alexandria. Eusebius a historian and Bishop of Caesarea developed the system in around 300 AD for Christian writings in the local Library. The Historian James O’Donnell termed the Canon Tables the first set of Hot Links devised.

It was an improvement on the Ammonian apparatus by creating a set of look-up tables for referencing to other gospels. Each Ammonian Number had a canon table number was affixed. The table showed the reader where to look for cross-references. This allowed the reader to have a focal point in any Gospel while still being able to look-up parallels.
• Table I contained passages paralleled in all four gospels
• Table II contained passages found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke
• Table III consisted of passages in Matthew, Luke, and John
• Table IV listed the parallels of Matthew, Mark, and John
• Table V contained parallels between Matthew and Luke
• Table VI included the parallels between Matthew and Mark
• Table VII listed the relations between Matthew and John
• Table VIII contained parallels between Mark and Luke
• Table IX dealt with the parallels between Luke and John
• Table X (in four parts, but they hardly matter; this table did not even need to be copied) included sections which had no parallels in the other gospels.
Reference Link
What I am trying to show is that the methodologies of retrieval of information from large scale repositories is depending on what the initial idea was. In the case of Canon Tablets the function is to cross-reference between different works. In the case of Alphabetically ordering the concept is to put order to a large number of symmetrical data stores. Both functions can be combined of course but the idea is that the method of ordering and retrieving the information is culturally determined.In this way the value of ordering is determined by what culturally the users’ wants out of the information stored. With for instance alphabetically ordering it has changed dramatically since the Alexandria Library and so has many other forms of indexing and storing data. While it might not be conclusive proof it certainly proves that various forms of indexing and storing date is a fluid concept.
 “Index entries were not always alphabetized by considering every letter in a word from beginning to end, as people are wont to do today. Most early indexes were arranged only by the first letter of the first word, the rest being left in no particular order at all. Gradually, alphabetization advanced to an arrangement by the first syllable, that is, the first two or three letters, the rest of an entry still being left unordered. Only very few indexes compiled in the 16th and early 17th centuries had fully alphabetized entries, but by the 18th century full alphabetization became the rule... (p. 136) (For more information on the subject of indexes, please see Professor Wellisch's Indexing from A to Z, which contains an account of an indexer being punished by having his ears lopped off, a history of narrative indexing, an essay on the zen of indexing, and much more)

Indexes go way back beyond the 17th century. The Gerardes Herbal from the 1590s had several fascinating indexes according to Hilary Calvert. Barbara Cohen writes that the alphabetical listing in the earliest ones only went as far as the first letter of the entry;
... no one thought at first to index each entry in either letter-by-letter or word-by-word order. Maja-Lisa writes that Peter Heylyn's 1652 Cosmographie in Four Bookes includes a series of tables at the end. They are alphabetical indexes and he prefaces them with "Short Tables may not seeme proportionalble to so long a Work, expecially in an Age wherein there are so many that pretend to learning, who study more the Index then they do the Book."  (reference link)

So if indexing and storing data are not fixed but fluid concepts then we need to think about what dynamic enables it to be fluid. Thinking about what influences and dynamics has formed the basis for the way in which data has been indexed and stored it can be concluded that, as needs change so do the methodology. This can be attributed to cultural shift in how we perceive importance of what the data stored is.

For instance with the Eusebian System the importance was placed on the ability to cross-reference parallels between the meanings of the gospels and not people or places. With the alphabetical system the importance was on storing and indexing according to the name of the author or name of the actual document. Understanding the cultural flux for these developments will be outside the scope of this piece but it should just be noted that cultural changes do have an impact on the methodology for storing and indexing information.

It might seem that this is slightly off the subject of externalisation of memory and interaction with biology. But think how individuals organise information on ever increasing external storage such as External Hard Drives, MP3 Players, NAS, and SAN. Or even how search engines are essentially a mechanism for retrieving information stored on the Internet. It all comes down to essentially the same functions: Store, index and retrieval.  

It would be great to do a survey of how users store information on their own hard drives. For instance take photos. I would dare to suggest that each individual will store and order their photos/videos/documents differently and it might be possible to determine strands or methods based on user culture.  With the increase it the capacity to externalise memory in various form the amount of information will need ever-increasing complexity in indexing the information stored.This on a longer-term basis feeds into theories about information overload; that there is so much information available to users that they will not longer be able to make sense of it or access it in totality. 


HTML Comment Box is loading comments...