What Renaissance humanists and Star Trek fans have in common

This week’s readings for my Digital Libraries class turned out to be some of my favorites of the term so far. Favorite #1: "The Social Life of Documents," by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, an essay that later became part of The Social Life of Information. Here’s the part that caught my interest:

The sociologist Anselm Strauss explored the way new forms of document allowed
new forms of community (or as he calls them, "social worlds")
to come into existence. His work predates the proliferation of computers
and so provides an interesting view of the way other developing technologies
(copiers, faxes, and so forth) supported social relations in new ways. In
particular, new media allowed small communities (enthusiasts of exotic breeds
of birds or antique motorcycles) to form though their members were often
few, and those few spread over large distances.

These groups can look surprisingly like modern equivalents of the scholarly
communities that formed throughout the world in the Renaissance. These too
were held together by common interests and shared communications. The letters
circulating among the Fellows of the Royal Society in England formed the
prototype for scientific journals, which still bind intellectual communities
together. …

Photocopiers, faxes, and other forms of cheap reproduction have allowed
not only scholars, but other groups of people with shared interests to form
a "social world" with relative ease and autonomy. Neither capital
nor authorization was needed. From political undergrounds connected only
by samizdat journals to wind-surfers, DeLorean owners, and beekeepers, people
with shared interests use communications technologies (both hi- and lo-tech)
to help form themselves into self-created and self-organizing groups. To
a significant degree, these are held together by documents circulating among
members, keeping each conscious of being a member and aware of what others
are up to.

One of the most astounding recent examples has been the spread of "zines"
— cheaply produced newsletters. Needing little more than a typewriter or
word processor, a photocopier and stapler, and the Post Office or a fax,
zines are often put together at home by one or two people and are "mid-cast"
among small groups. The practice began with fans of particular television
programs and rock groups. Consequently, these documents were known as "fan-zines"
and now just "zines."

The Social Life of Documents, First Monday, v. 1, no. 1, May 6th, 1996

There’s much more after that, but I like the idea of a common thread connecting Renaissance humanists, the Royal Society, and Star Trek fanzine authors.

Favorite #2: "The Places of Books in the Age of Electronic Reproduction" by Geoffrey Nunberg, which, despite its having first appeared in 1993, still strikes me as one of the smartest things I’ve read about the shift from a print world to a digital one, even 15 years later. It’s long, but well worth reading. The section that contrasts the "intimate public" where conversation precedes documents, as in 18th-century coffeehouse culture, with the larger type of public defined by shared "participation in the print discourse" ("Other Discourses, Other Publics") seems to anticipate the blogosphere in some very interesting ways.

If the readings are any indication, our class ought to be fun tonight.

2 Responses to “What Renaissance humanists and Star Trek fans have in common”

  1. Fantastic, Amanda! Adding these to my history of authorship folder. Hope you’ll tell us about the class. “Intimate public” indeed!

  2. Amanda says:

    It was indeed fun — lots of bursts of discussion about the future of books and what constitutes a document.