Posted by: structureofnews | January 13, 2012

The Worde

In the beginning there was the word.  Or worde.

Back then, it didn’t matter all that much – words (or wordes) were simply written representations of a sound that people knew from oral communication.  How you spelled it – as long as people knew what you meant – was immaterial.  But all that would change soon enough, and that seemingly small evolution would help reshape the way we think.

At least according to The Information, a fascinating and dense book by James Gleick about the evolution of well, information.  It’s not the easiest book to read – I’m about a third through it – but there’s a lot in there.  (There’s a whole chapter on the syntax of African talking drums.)  The development and value of consistent spelling is one of the many nuggets you can find in it, and one I’m stretching (and torturing some metaphors for) to cover some ideas on data journalism.

So bear with me.

Gleick traces the development of language, and more importantly, how the innovations of writing and consistent spelling would transform the very process of thinking.  Perhaps some of this seems obvious now – at least the part about the invention of writing – but the book explains the changes well.  Certainly writing changed the fundamental nature of communication.

Before writing, communication is evanescent and local; sounds carry a few yards and fade to oblivion.

But the new channel does more than extend the previous channel.  It enables reuse and “re-collection” – new modes. It permits whole new architectures of information. Among them are history, law, business, mathematics and logic.

As Gleick notes:

Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing – syllogisms can be spoken as well as written – but it did not.  Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis.  Logic descended from the written word, in Greece as well as India and China, where it developed independently.

Not that everyone welcomed this development.  Plato, that old curmudgeon, was right that this would upend traditional ways of communicating.  Where he was wrong was in the value of the new ways compared to the old ways.  (Sound familiar?)

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.  You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, but not true wisdom.

Still, none of the advantages of writing back then depended on good – or consistent spelling.  Indeed, “correct” ‘spelling wasn’t considered important for a long time, as long as readers understood what was being conveyed.

That began to change in the 1600s, and the publication of a dictionary by Robert Cawdrey (or Cowdrey, or Cawdry) entitled A Table Alphabeticall marked a new phase in the evolution of language – because it was compiled alphabetically.  That may seem like a logical way to do it now, but if you don’t spell consistently, how can you organize a book alphabetically?  (Previous dictionaries were organized by theme and topics, not spelling.)

Gleick notes how odd it is, in many ways, to use spelling to order words – how it strips meaning from words and reduces it to a series of symbols.

…the system is unnatural.  It forces readers to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings; to focus abstractly on the configuration of the word.

Topical lists were thought provoking, imperfect and creative. Alphabetical lists were mechanical, effective and automatic.  Considered alphabetically, words are no more than tokens, each placed in a slot.  In effect they as well be numbers.

But what words lost in creativity they gained in consistency and standardization – and all sorts of advantages, from dictionaries to being able to sort and find words in chunks of text such as phone books.

So are we at a similar junction today?  Can we also begin to standardize some forms of text information – certain types of stories, or at least parts of stories – even at the cost of some creativity, in order to unlock potentially much more creativity when we have much more consistent building blocks of information?

What is standardization worth, and how can we allow for both creativity and consistency?  And what new types of ideas can we unlock if we do that?

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