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Tag Archives: Technology

Memory and the Printing Press

You probably know that Gutenberg invented the printing press. You probably know it was pretty important. You may have heard some stuff about everyone being able to finally read the Bible without a priest handy. But here's a point you might not be familiar with: The printing press changed why, and consequently what, we remember.

Before the printing press, memory was the main store of human knowledge. Scholars had to go to find books, often traveling around from one scriptoria to another. They couldn’t buy books. Individuals did not have libraries. The ability to remember was integral to the social accumulation of knowledge.

Thus, for centuries humans had built ways to remember out of pure necessity. Because knowledge wasn’t fixed, remembering content was the only way to access it. Things had to be known in a deep, accessible way as Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished. Rhyme and cadence were no longer required to preserve certain formulas and recipes. The nature of the collective memory was transformed.

In the Church, for example, Eisenstein talks of a multimedia approach to remembering the bible. As a manuscript, it was not widely available, not even to many church representatives; the stories of the bible were often pictorially represented in the churches themselves. Use of images, both physically and mentally, was critical to storing knowledge in memory: they were used as a tool to allow one to create extensive “memory palaces” enabling the retention of knowledge.

Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass in windows, but it also affected less tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theatres.

Thus, in an age before the printing press, bits of knowledge were associated with other bits of knowledge not because they complemented each other, or allowed for insights, but merely so they could be retained.

…the heavy reliance on memory training and speech arts, combined with the absence of uniform conventions for dating and placing [meant that] classical images were more likely to be placed in niches in ‘memory theatres’ than to be assigned a permanent location in a fixed past.

In our post on memory palaces, we used the analogy of a cow and a steak. To continue with the analogy used there, imagining that your partner asks you to pick up steak for dinner. To increase your chances of remembering the request, you envision a cow sitting on the front porch. When you mind-walk through your palace, you see this giant cow sitting there, perhaps waving at you (so unlike a cow!), causing you to think, ‘Why is that cow there–oh yeah, pick up steak for dinner’.

Before the printing press, it wasn’t just about picking up dinner. It was all of our knowledge. Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Politics. The works of St. Augustine and Seneca. These works were shared most often orally, passing from memory to memory. Thus memory was not as much about remembering in the ages of scribes, as it was about preserving.

Consequently, knowledge was far less shared, and then only to those who could understand it and recall it.

To be preserved intact, techniques had to be entrusted to a select group of initiates who were instructed not only in special skills but also in the ‘mysteries’ associated with them. Special symbols, rituals, and incantations performed the necessary function of organizing data, laying out schedules, and preserving techniques in easily memorized forms.

Anyone who's played the game “Telephone” knows the problem: As knowledge is passed on, over and over, it gets transformed, sometimes distorted. This needed to be guarded against, and sometimes couldn't be. As there was no accessible reference library for knowledge, older texts were prized because they were closer to the originals.

Not only could more be learned from retrieving an early manuscript than from procuring a recent copy but the finding of lost texts was the chief means of achieving a breakthrough in almost any field.

Almost incomprehensible today, “Energies were expended on the retrieval of ancient texts because they held the promise of finding so much that still seemed new and untried.” Only by finding older texts could scholars hope to discover the original, unaltered sources of knowledge.

With the advent of the printing press, images and words became something else. Because they were now repeatable, they became fixed. No longer individual interpretations designed for memory access, they became part of the collective.

The effects of this were significant.

Difficulties engendered by diverse Greek and Arabic expressions, by medieval Latin abbreviations, by confusion between Roman letters and numbers, by neologisms, copyists’ errors and the like were so successfully overcome that modern scholars are frequently absent-minded about the limitations on progress in the mathematical sciences which scribal procedures imposed. … By the seventeenth century, Nature’s language was being emancipated from the old confusion of tongues. Diverse names for flora and fauna became less confusing when placed beneath identical pictures. Constellations and landmasses could be located without recourse to uncertain etymologies, once placed on uniform maps and globes. … The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers.

A key component of this was that apprentices and new scholars could consult books and didn’t have to exclusively rely on the memories of their superiors.

An updated technical literature enabled young men in certain fields of study to circumvent master-disciple relationships and to surpass their elders at the same time. Isaac Newton was still in his twenties when he mastered available mathematical treatises, beginning with Euclid and ending with an updated edition of Descartes. In climbing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ he was not re-enacting the experience of twelfth-century scholars for whom the retrieval of Euclid’s theorems had been a major feat.

Before the printing press, a scholar could spend his lifetime looking for a copy of Euclid’s Elements and never find them, thus having to rely on how the text was encoded in the memories of the scholars he encountered.

After the printing press, memory became less critical to knowledge. And knowledge became more widely dispersed as the reliance on memory being required for interpretation and understanding diminished. And with that, the collective power of the human mind was multiplied.

If you liked this post, check out our series on memory, starting with the advantages of our faulty memory, and continuing to the first part on our memory's frequent errors.

A Short List of Books for Doing New Things

Andrew Ng has quite the modern resume.

He founded Coursera, a wonderful website that gives anyone with Internet access the ability to take high level university courses on almost any topic. He founded the Google Brain project at Google, their deep learning research project intended to help bring about better artificial intelligence. Now he's the Chief Scientist at Baidu Research.

Ng is, unsurprisingly, devoted to reading and learning. As he puts it,

In my own life, I found that whenever I wasn't sure what to do next, I would go and learn a lot, read a lot, talk to experts. I don't know how the human brain works but it's almost magical: when you read enough or talk to enough experts, when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing. This seems to happen for a lot of people that I know.

When you become sufficiently expert in the state of the art, you stop picking ideas at random. You are thoughtful in how to select ideas, and how to combine ideas. You are thoughtful about when you should be generating many ideas versus pruning down ideas.


I read a lot and I also spend time talking to people a fair amount. I think two of the most efficient ways to learn, to get information, are reading and talking to experts. So I spend quite a bit of time doing both of them. I think I have just shy of a thousand books on my Kindle. And I've probably read about two-thirds of them.

Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach.

He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations. Given his list of accomplishments, the quality of his mind, and his admitted devotion to reading the printed word, it seems worth our time to check out the list.


Zero to One

The first is “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, a very good book that gives an overview of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Crossing the Chasm / The Lean Startup

We often break down entrepreneurship into B2B (“business to business,” i.e., businesses whose customers are other businesses) and B2C (“business to consumer”).

For B2B, I recommend “Crossing the Chasm.” For B2C, one of my favorite books is “The Lean Startup,” which takes a narrower view but it gives one specific tactic for innovating quickly. It's a little narrow but it's very good in the area that it covers.

Talking to Humans

Then to break B2C down even further, two of my favorites are “Talking to Humans,” which is a very short book that teaches you how to develop empathy for users you want to serve by talking to them.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Also, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy.” If you want to build products that are important, that users care about, this teaches you different tactics for learning about users, either through user studies or by interviews.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things

Then finally there is “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” It's a bit dark but it does cover a lot of useful territory on what building an organization is like.

So Good They Can't Ignore You

For people who are trying to figure out career decisions, there's a very interesting one: “So Good They Can't Ignore You.” That gives a valuable perspective on how to select a path for one's career.

Paul Graham on Free Speech, Suburbia, Getting Rich, and Nerds

“I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win.”


Paul Graham is a programmer, writer, and investor. His 2004 anthology Hackers and Painters explores not only topics like where good ideas come from but also touches on social and cultural issues such as free speech, getting rich, and geek culture. Here are a few interesting tidbits worth pondering.

Free Speech

I wonder how Graham thinks about this in the context of organizations. Ideas are the lifeblood of organizations but it seems to me that in certain workplaces “free speech” is not so free. The best ideas fall to politics, consensus, and pettiness. Suffering from such intellectual corruption dysfunctional behaviour results, which causes an ultimately self-correcting spiral into bankruptcy.

I think a society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people. Authoritarian countries become corrupt; corrupt countries become poor; and poor countries are weak.

Getting Rich

Graham illuminates how the industrial revolution changed the incentives from corruption to wealth creation as the primary vehicle to getting rich.

Once it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, society as a whole started to get richer very rapidly. Nearly everything we have was created by the middle class. Indeed, the other two classes have effectively disappeared in industrial societies, and their names been given to either end of the middle class. (In the original sense of the word, Bill Gates is middle class.)

But it was not till the Industrial Revolution that wealth creation definitively replaced corruption as the best way to get rich. In England, at least, corruption only became unfashionable (and in fact only started to be called “corruption”) when there started to be other, faster ways to get rich.


Highlighting the difference between the popular kids and nerds, Graham writes:

While the nerds were being trained to get the right answers, the popular kids were being trained to please.


In exploring suburbia, Graham looks at how the environment encourages helicopter parenting.

Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

Still Curious?

All of the essays in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age are worth reading and thinking about.

Garrett Hardin: The Other Side of Expertise

From Garrett Hardin's mind-blowingly awesome Filters Against Folly.

In our highly technological society we cannot do without experts. We accept this fact of life, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” But there is another side to the coin of expertise. A really great idea in science often has its birth as apparently no more than a particular answer to a narrow question; it is only later that it turns out that the ramifications of the answer reach out into the most surprising corners. What begins as knowledge about very little turns out to be wisdom about a great deal.

So it was with the development of the theory of probability. It all began in the seventeenth century, when one of the minor French nobility asked the philosopher-scientist Blaise Pascal to devise a fair way to divide the stakes in an interrupted gambling game. Pascal consulted with lawyer-mathematician friend Pierre de Fermat, and the two of them quickly laid the foundation of probability theory. Out of a trivial question about gambling came profound insights that later bore splendid fruit in physics and biology, in the verification of the causes of disease, the calculation of fair insurance premiums, and the achievement of quality control in manufacturing processes. And much more.

The service of experts is indispensable even if we are poor at ascertaining under which circumstances they add value, when they add noise, and when they are harmful. Hardin cautions that each new expertise introduces “new possibilities of error.”

It is unfortunately true that experts are generally better at seeing their particular kinds of trees than the forest of all life.

Thoughtful laymen — that's us — can, however, “become very good at seeing the forest, particularly if they lose their timidity about challenging the experts. … In the universal role of laymen we all have to learn to filter the essential meaning out of the too verbose, too aggressively technical statements of the experts. Fortunately this is not as difficult a task as some experts would have us believe.”

Filters Against Folly is Hardin's attempt “to show there …. (are) some rather simple methods of checking on the validity of the statements of experts.”

Marshall McLuhan: The Here And Now


“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”


In this passage from Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, reminds us of the difficulty that frictionless connection brings with it and how technological media advances have worked not to preserve but rather to ‘abolish history.'

Perfection of the means of communication has meant instantaneity. Such an instantaneous network of communication is the body-mind unity of each of us. When a city or a society achieves a diversity and equilibrium of awareness analogous to the body-mind network, it has what we tend to regard as a high culture.

But the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible, and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control, it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.

Today the entire globe has a unity in point of mutual interawareness, which exceeds in rapidity the former flow of information in a small city—say Elizabethan London with its eighty or ninety thousand inhabitants. What happens to existing societies when they are brought into such intimate contact by press, picture stories, newsreels, and jet propulsion? What happens when the Neolithic Eskimo is compelled to share the time and space arrangements of technological man? What happens in our minds as we become familiar with the diversity of human cultures which have come into existence under innumerable circumstances, historical and geographical? Is what happens comparable to that social revolution which we call the American melting pot?

When the telegraph made possible a daily cross section of the globe transferred to the page of newsprint, we already had our mental melting pot for cosmic man—the world citizen.The mere format of the page of newsprint was more revolutionary in its intellectual and emotional consequences than anything that could be said about any part of the globe.

When we juxtapose news items from Tokyo, London, New York, Chile, Africa, and New Zealand, we are not just manipulating space. The events so brought together belong to cultures widely separated in time. The modern world abridges all historical times as readily as it reduces space. Everywhere and every age have become here and now. History has been abolished by our new media.

What A Rembrandt Can Teach you about Software and Programmers


A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it.

Suppose you visit an art museum and walk up to a painting. I say “Ah ha! I see you're admiring some powdered pigments, mixed with oil and smeared onto what appears to be a canvas panel.” You say “No, you moron. I'm admiring a Rembrandt.” Good. You're three-quarters of the way towards a deep understanding of software.

How did this happen?

Well clearly we may, if we choose, regard a painting as a coming-together of two separate elements. The paints and canvas—the physical stuff; and the form-giving mind-plan. I'll call these two elements the body and the disembodied painting respectively.

Both are necessary to the finished product. But they are unequally decisive to its character. If Rembrandt had (while trying to shake out a tablecloth) accidentally chucked his favorite paint set into a canal on the very morning he was destined to make our painting; if he'd accordingly been forced to go down to the basement and hunt up another set—the finished product would be the same. But if he'd altered his mind-plan—the disembodied painting—before setting to work, our finished painting would obviously have been different.

In fact, the disembodied painting is a painting in and of itself— albeit a painting of a special kind, namely an unbodied one. Rembrandt is perfectly entitled to tell his wife “I have a painting in mind” before setting to work. But plainly the mere body is no painting, not in and of itself. If the paints on Rembrandt's table went around telling people “Hey look at us, we're a painting,” no-one would believe them.

This distinction is the key to software and its special character. A running program is a machine of a certain kind, an information machine. The program text—the words and symbols that the programmer composes, that “tell the computer what to do” – is a disembodied information machine. Your computer provides a body.

Unlike Rembrandt's mind plan, a disembodied information machine must be written down precisely and in full. It's a bit like the engineering drawings for a new toaster in this regard; the machine designer leaves nothing to chance. Unlike Rembrandt's mind plan or the toaster drawings, on the other hand, a disembodied information machine can be “embodied” automatically. No skill, judgement or human intervention is required. Merely hand your text to a computer (it's probably stored inside the computer already); the computer itself performs the “embodying.”

So: A running program—an information machine or infomachine for short—is the embodiment of a disembodied machine. In saying
this, we have said a lot. A fairly simple point first, then a subtle and deeply important one—

Some people believe that, when they see a program running, the machine they are watching is a “computer.” True, but not true
enough. The computer, that impressive-looking box with the designer logo, is merely the paint, not the painting. When you say I'm watching this computer do its stuff, you are saying in effect I'm admiring not this Rembrandt but some paint smeared on canvas. Some people imagine the computer as a gifted actor (say) who is handed a program and declaims it feelingly. No: bad image. The computer itself is of the utmost triviality to the workings of the infomachine you are watching. It may decide how fast or slowly the thing runs, and may effect its behaviour just a little around the fringes, but essentially, it is of no logical significance whatever. It is a mere body, and bodies are a dime a dozen.

The second point is harder.

People often find it difficult to keep in mind that, when they see a program text, what they're looking at is a machine. The fact that, for the time being, the machine they're looking at has no body confuses them With good reason: This is a subtle, maybe a confusing point. They leap to the conclusion that what programmers do amounts to arranging symbols on paper (or in a computer file) in a certain way. They look at a program and see merely a highly specialized kind of document …

This mistake is fatal to any real understanding of what software is.

Understanding software doesn't mean understanding how program texts are arranged, it means understanding what the working infomachine itself is like—what actually happens when you embody the thing and turn it on-what kind of structure you are creating when you organize those squiggles-the shape of the finished product, the way information hums through it, the way it grows, shrinks and changes as it runs, the look and feel of the actual computational landscape. This is where software creativity is exercised. This is where the field evolves, metamorphoses and explodes. Talented software designers work with some image of the actual running program uppermost in mind. Failing to see through the program text to the machine it represents is like trying to understand musical notation without grasping that those little sticks and ellipsoids represent sounds.

This kind of information is hard to convey. You can't directly see a running program. You can sense its workings indirectly, but you can't open the hood and look right at the mechanism. An ironic reversal of the Rembrandt experience: Here the mind-plan is tangible, but the embodied thing itself is not.

Finally concluding

[I]f you get carried away, and start asserting that “music is the mechanical manipulation of symbols on staff paper,” “programming is mathematics,” you have committed intellectual suicide. You've mistaken the means for the end. You've cut yourself off absolutely from all real inspiration, creativity and growth. And you have failed, profoundly, to understand the character of your field.

A dangerous mistake. Where software is concerned, an all-too-natural one.